By: Ami Middleton
Tina Turner, B.B. King and Louis Armstrong. What do all of these influential Americans have in common? Easy. Besides being famous, and fabulous musicians, they all spent a night or two in our neck of the woods - at The Hotel Metropolitan. This hotel is one of the few African American historical sites still standing in the Purchase Area. Since it is Black History month, it is only fitting that we explore the unique wonders of this historical gold mine.
This hotel was the first of its kind in western Kentucky – place where “colored people” could stay the night. It was owned and operated for, and by, African Americans in Paducah. In 1904, a man named Henry Steed purchased a home on the booming 7th street of downtown Paducah. His wife Maggie Steed wanted to build and run a hotel for African Americans passing through. Henry could not see the same vision as his wife and refused to see it through.
In a twist of fate, not long after the purchase of his home, Henry passed away. The house was left to his wife, Maggie. In 1908, Maggie decided she was going to pursue her vision, but there was a problem. Women did not have rights to do such a thing until the 1920’s. So, in the pursuit of fulfilling her dream, and creating something that was a need for this area, she used her husband’s name in order receive rights, and be approved, to build her hotel.
Maggie used the title to her land to make sure she had the materials for the new hotel. Maggie was used to living with strangers, she and her husband, like many others during this time, allowed people to stay in their home while they traveled. This was their way of making a living. When the hotel was completed in 1909, Maggie had used the deed and roughly $1,250 to make her dream a reality.
Business was not hard to come by and Maggie’s hotel became a staple of the community. The General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky, along with several other groups, stayed in this hotel when their conventions took place in and near Paducah. Practically when they held their Golden Jubilee at Washington Street Baptist Church. After the word got out, along came many other groups.
One by one several African Americans came into town and left their mark on the historical Hotel Metropolitan. Many were performers and musicians. Familiar names that contributed to making the hotel’s reputation included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb's Orchestra, B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Ike and Tina Turner.
Several of these celebrities had specific wishes when staying at the Hotel Metropolitan. Ray Charles, for example, did not like to go up and down the stairs so he stayed in a room in the back of the hotel downstairs. Ike and Tina always requested a particular rooms when they visited.
Many star athletes spent a night or two at the Hotel Metropolitan including members of the Harlem Globe Trotters and the National Negro Baseball League.
The hotel was more than just a bed for the night. In the 1930’s another building was added to the hotel called “The Purple Room.” This room was built because performers who occupied the rooms of the hotel would often get a little rowdy after hours. The room was built behind the hotel in order for guests to have a drink, practice their music and just let loose without disturbing others who were staying. This building still stands today and can be toured along with the hotel.
Once segregation ended the hotel lost much of its business and a lot of its luster. It became a boarding house and was very run down. The Hotel was condemned in 1999 and the community became aware of its condition. Cheryl Cooper and I had a shop across from the Hotel, “explained Betty Dobson, director of the Hotel Metropolitan Museum. “Neighbors started telling about the history of the place. We formed the Upper Town Heritage Foundation (UTHF) to try and save the building.”
Afraid they might “fall through the floor”, neither Dobson, nor Cooper, went inside the building until the state preservation office came to visit. “The brown paneling installed in the 70s was buckling and the floors were damaged,” Dobson told me. “But there was this beautiful staircase that shone through the dust and decay. A feeling came over me and I could just see Elle Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday coming down those stairs – I was inspired! Cheryl and I grabbed each other and we just knew we had to save it.”
“That was seventeen years ago. Fortunately, the people who owned the hotel had saved many of the original furnishing in the upstairs bedrooms. We put it back into the rooms after we had cleaned and renovated the building. Maybe that bed in the Purple Room really did have Ike & Tina Turner sleeping in it!”
The Hotel Metropolitan is still undergoing renovation but is now a museum and open for the public to visit. Using two $100,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grants and $100,000 appropriated by the Kentucky General Assembly in 2000, the UTHF has completed serious structural repairs on the building.
You can see the Hotel by appointment and stay overnight in order to get the full experience. When visiting, you can take a tour of the entire facility and who better to show you around than the infamous “Maggie Steed” herself – played by Dobson.
Dobson is busy raising awareness and funds to complete the renovations. “Who would’ve guessed such a significant piece of history is placed right in our backyard!” Said Dobson. “Everyone is welcome,” she told me. “It is not only African American history, it is our history, it is your history.”