Kentwood Hall: From Grand Hotel to Deluxe Dormitory

Apr 27, 2011

While most dorms are built for the sole purpose of housing students, one Missouri State University dormitory had a long history as a Springfield staple before the university even bought it. For our ongoing local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores the history of this historic building turned university dorm.

In some ways, Kentwood Hall, which is where I’m standing right now, is like most college dormitories. Bulletin boards shout about on-campus events with brightly colored fliers, and backpacked students traipse from the downstairs dining hall to catch the shuttle that pulls in front of the building. But these upperclassmen are walking on the same floors Ronald Reagan walked and they might be living in a room that once played host to Groucho Marx. That was when this building was one of Springfield’s most famous and luxurious hotels, which overlooked the legendary Route 66 highway that ran from Chicago all the way to the sandy beaches of the West Coast.

“When I was growing up there were two hotels in Springfield: there was the Kentwood Arms and there was the Colonial.”

That’s Virginia Cox Bussey, a life-long Springfield resident. Shortly after the United States entered World War II, she was a blushing bride at her wedding reception in the Kentwood Hotel’s Crystal Room. We met in her “nest in the sky,” a ninth-floor condo that looks out over Walnut Street and down toward Missouri State University. She says that, while the Colonial Hotel was made more for businessmen, the Kentwood Arms Hotel had the best amenities for any kind of big party.

“The Crystal Room was the favorite place to have a big event. I mean, it hosted Henry Ford for dinner. It hosted Rogers and Hammerstein when Drury gave them special awards. Why, the big dinners were all held in the Crystal Room.”

[Sound: exterior door opening, footsteps, talking: ‘Sherry, is the Crystal Room open?’ ‘No, but I can sure open it for you,’ keys jingling, sound fades back down]

Gary Stewart is the director of Residence Life at Missouri State. He showed me through the lobby and up a small flight of stairs to the Crystal room.

[Sound: Door opening, chatter, walking into the Crystal Room]

“And you can see it just has a lot of potential in terms of the way it can look when it is decorated for an event. It’s intimate, lots of attention to detail. But it had really fallen into disrepair when we purchased it.”

“When I was married in 1942, why, that was the choice place to have the wedding reception. It was a really hot night in June and so they opened the doors from the Crystal Room into the garden so the guests could go out there,” said Bussey.

The extensive gardens that used to surround the Kentwood have been replaced by parking lots and most of the old grounds were bought by John Q. Hammons to build the University Plaza Hotel. But, Missouri State has refurbished the Kentwood Hall building in an attempt to make it look as it did when it was built in 1926. Again, Gary Stewart:

“We got this building, Emma, [when] Mrs. Moulder was still alive. The Moulders had managed the hotel for a long time before the C. Arch Bay company owned it. She had the actual photographs of the chandeliers. She still had a couple of samples of the custom made carpet that was in the Crystal Room. And we had that carpet re-made at a mill in Georgia. Somebody in Tulsa re-made, from the pictures, all the chandeliers so all that all that could be brought back to the way it looked in the 20s when it was originally built.”

Before the university purchased and restored the building, it was owned by several big names in Springfield real estate. Built by John Woodruff, it was bought by Earl Moulder. The Moulders owned it for 30 years of its life as a hotel before selling it to C. Arch Bay, who sold it to John Q. Hammons. Finally, it was bought by Southwest Missouri State University, now MSU, in 1984. Many famous and historical figures stayed at the Kentwood Arms during its time as a hotel, including Harry Truman, Groucho Marx, and Ronald Reagan when he was still an actor. Then Vice-President Richard Nixon held a press conference at the Kentwood during his first run for presidency and that event actually spurred the 1960 desegregation of the hotel in anticipation of his visit.

In addition to the students that live there, Kentwood Hall now plays host to a variety of meetings and events for various Springfield organizations, such as the Rotary Club and the Springfield Metro Bar Association, maintaining its status as a staple of the community.

Bussey says that she admires what Missouri State has done with the old hotel, but she remembers fondly a time when they would host grand banquets for the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein and a time she played with her brother’s orchestra in the upstairs ballroom.

“I played the piano with the orchestra and we played one dance up there in the ballroom, which I remember. We weren’t a very good orchestra, but we were cheap! [laughter] All the boys would take turns getting up and dancing (in the orchestra), but since I was the piano, I had to keep it going, and I wouldn’t get to dance during those times.”

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.