FRED FLETCHER-FIERRO (HOST) It’s Morning Edition on KRPS. I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro. This morning the second part of our two part interview with author and historian Chad Stebbins about the history of the Connor hotel. On Wednesday we left off during the Connor’s heyday, when the hotel was considered a must-stop destination for those wanting to be seen. At one point in the Connor’s history, in 1928 a financier purchased the lease to the Connor and added roughly 200 more rooms. That’s where we pick-up our conversation. .
CHAD (GUEST) : Right. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that in 1928, 1929. A man named Barney Alice, a hotel executive from St. Louis had purchased the lease to the Connor and he built a 200 room annex to the Connor, almost doubling the size. It stretched one entire block from main to Joplin and as such, it had a total of 400 rooms.
And so Barney Alice marketed the Connor as a convention hotel and the city joined in. And so Joplin landed many regional and even national conventions, going up against some major cities and another attraction, even though Joplin had this large convention hotel, convention goers wanted to come here to see the lead and zinc money.
FRED : It was a different time in Joplin as the city had become and could now accommodate major conventions and draw tourists from all over the midwest. Perhaps how tourists visit the caves near Springfield, Missouri today tourists decades ago visited Joplin to see the zinc and lead mines up close.
CHAD : Right, usually as part of every convention, the delegates would spend an entire day touring the Joplin tri-state mining district. They would go to Baxter Springs, Galena, even Picher Oklahoma, or supposedly you could drive down into a mine. They’d come back, they’d stop at the Joplin mining and mineral museum, and then come back and usually have a big banquet at the Connor.
FRED : Imagine driving north on Main St into downtown Joplin. A bustling train depot on your left, with trolley cars running, a few more blocks also on your left where Spiva Park is now located, was the House of Lords. And across the street, the Connor hotel, downtown Joplin was the place to be.
CHAD : There was also something called the grand corridor room for about 15 or 16 different shops along that stretch of Fourth street, leading from main to Joplin and there was a bus terminal there. The Connor, once the annex was completed, had five restaurants. Can you imagine, that five restaurants in one single location?
You know, they had the Kit-Kat lounge and various coffee shops and bars, and the bar called the Rendezvous and one place called the Pup Lunch. And the Connor also was quite popular during World War II. Soldiers from Camp Crowder made their way to Joplin in search of entertainment.
FRED : Though it seemed like the good times at the Connor could have last forever, the eleven year stretch between the end of World War II in 1945 and the start of construction of the Interstate Highway system in 1956 might have been the peak of the hotel’s popularity. By the time the US was in the midst of the Vietnam War in the 1970’s the Connor was on the decline.
CHAD : In the 1970s, the Connor was largely deserted except for some for shops down on the first floor. And the city of Joplin had, or had a real dilemma. They had this hulking sort of elephant, white elephant they’re just lurking. And it had fallen into disrepair. There were literally pieces of the roof falling off.
Occasionally the city had to wreck barricades at Fourth and Main to protect passers-by not being hit by these pieces of copper and tin falling. And the Connor also had a pigeon problem. The hotel was deserted and pigeons roosted up on the upper floors and you know what pigeons do. And it was really becoming a public nuisance.
And so the, (Joplin) Globe wrote, numerous editorial saying that something had to be done with, with the Conor and ultimately, the Globe, the city council, the chamber of commerce, all kind of came to the same agreement that the Connor must be demolished to make way for a new public library.
FRED : Even with all of the greatness attributed to Tom Connor for building the hotel, did you know that Connor never got to see it completed, he passed away in Texas in 1907 a year before the Connor was complete. During the late ‘70s, Chad was in high school, and although he never went into the hotel, he remembers the day that it collapsed like it was yesterday.
CHAD : Oh, certainly, yeah, I absolutely knew what the Connor was and I was fascinated because the national media came to Joplin for several days. There was a manhunt for these three possible survivors, somewhere in the wreckage. And, you know, the three major networks came and newspapers from everywhere, the Associated Press. And we, we kind of waited, you know, praying that these three men would be found alive and, and in the end only one was found.
FRED : While the Connor had fallen into disrepair and people had not lived in the building for nearly a decade, Burl Garvin waged a war to try and save the one time ironic hotel. But times had changed, a new era of hotels and motels that were closer to the newly built interstates freeways. Regardless,it was a tough pill to swallow for Burl.
CHAD : You know, so many people today when I mentioned my book everyone regrets that the city tore it down. And, you know, I’ve looked back at this you know, much to my personal regret I never went inside the Connor. I was a freshman in high school when, when it collapsed in 1978 I wish I had gone into the hotel as a teenager, but I certainly knew what the Connor was, but had no interest in going inside.
You know, in hindsight, I wish I had, but could the Connor have been saved? That’s an interesting question. And certainly in today’s climate yet. But again, we have to circle back to the late seventies. The city had this perfect solution for the hotel. That’s where we’ll put our new public library and Burl Garvin, and others tried in vain to save the Connor.
But in the end it was a question of money. Burl Garvin just couldn’t raise money. Couldn’t get the grants, couldn’t get the funding. Even tried selling stock in the hotel. There just wasn’t enough financial support to renovate the Connor. I mean, it needed a complete wholesale renovation back then, you know, probably five to $10 million.
And so I’m not sure the Connor could have been saved. We’d like to think so, but, it’s, it’s an interesting question to ponder.
FRED : While the Connor was torn down some 43 years ago you could make a case that it continues to affect how the Joplin city council approaches such reclamation projects and how to handle them.
CHAD : I think an interesting parallel can be made with the Joplin Union Depot, which has largely been deserted since it closed in 1969. The city, though, won’t tear it down. They keep holding onto it in the hopes that somebody will turn it into a mecca for shops and restaurants and tourists. But it just continues to deteriorate more each day. But still no one wants to make the decision to tear down this historic structure, which was built in 1909.
FRED : In an odd twist of fate, the site of the Connor hotel is now the location of the former home of the Joplin Public Library . Since 2017 the large building has sat mostly empty after a new public library was constructed and opened crosstown. So the prime real estate in downtown Joplin at the intersection of 4th and Main St is in a similar situation that it was in, in 1969 when the Connor quickly shuttered. Chad says, Joplin city officials and residents learned an important lesson after the hotel was demolished.
CHAD : But I think the lesson to be learned from the Connor is that we will no longer tear down our historic buildings. You know, in the past year the city has rallied to say the old Olivia apartments. You know, the city paid for a new roof for that structure. And so the city now will make every possible effort to save these old historic streets.
You know, the lesson from the Connor is once you tear it down, it’s gone and then people will regret it forever. So do whatever you can to, to save it while it’s still there.
FRED : For 89 9 KRPS, I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro