In 1902, Mount Vernon, population 2,000, was enjoying unprecedented prosperity marred, it was thought, only by the lack of a decent hostelry. There was a hotel, The Guild, built in 1853, but it was described at the time as a “dilapidated rat’s nest,” where, when a guest “hitches his chair up to the table in the dining room, [he] gradually slides away again down the bowling alley incline of the dining room floor.”
A committee was formed, shares were sold at $100 each, and Altoona Hotel opened for business Nov. 10, 1903. It stood on the highest point of the ridge that bisects Mount Vernon and may derive its name from the Latin alto (“high”) or Altoona, Pa., “The Mountain City.” The hotel, which had cost $30,000, lost money from the day it opened. In 1904, the shareholders panicked, and Cornell President William Fletcher King, a major shareholder himself, bought back their shares for a total of $13,739.01 and immediately advertised the hotel for sale. King complained in 1906 to the editor of The Hotel World that his ads had not brought any buyers. The editor replied: “Experience has taught us that hotel men do not view with favor hotels located in college towns. The student population adds virtually nothing to the income of the hotel and the parents who come to see students in the college usually put up at private homes where their children are boarding.” He might have added that traveling salesmen preferred the night life in Cedar Rapids, which in 1906 had two new hotels and was an easy commute to and from Mount Vernon by train.
King rented out Altoona as often as he could, even leasing it in 1908 to two Cornell students. In 1911, King, now retired, persuaded the college to buy the building from him for $12,000. It was placed under the management of Cornell’s Commercial School, the predecessor of today’s department of economics and business. Had success blessed this venture, Cornell College, and not Cornell University, might now be renowned for its School of Hotel Management! In 1913, the college traded the Altoona for a farm in Center Point, Iowa, and two years later sold the farm for $48,000—vindicating King.
Altoona opened and closed and changed owners and lessees many times until 1918, when the college rented it as barracks for the Student Army Training Corps and then purchased it to house either men or women. It had a dining room although later some of the food was transported from the Bowman kitchen. From 1963 to 1971, Altoona served as the men’s honor residence. The large number of males admitted for 1973–74 created a housing crunch, and the college made Altoona a first-year dorm, the expectation being that, separated from the corrupting influences of upperclassmen, the frosh would flourish. Thrive they did, but not as anticipated. The Altoonans set a school record for uproarious behavior, alcohol use, vandalism, and academic failure. Only three of approximately 30 frosh returned for their sophomore year. Altoona was resurrected in 1974 as a men’s cooperative, self-managing residence hall for 29 scholars under the tutelage of a resident fellow. At the end of 1976–77, the scholars moved to Rorem Hall and Altoona closed forever.
Offered for sale, it failed again to attract buyers. There was talk of converting the building into a history museum, a senior center, or a retirement home. In 1983, the college deeded Altoona to Mount Vernon, which razed it May 24, 1985, and added the land to Memorial Park. The Mount Vernon Visitors Center now occupies the site. Ironically, the building that was Guild Hotel still stands, housing apartments and the office of a Lutheran Church.
Altoona Hall in 1961, two years before it became a men's honor residence.
Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus. He may be reached at email@example.com or 100 Intracoastal Place, Apt. 307, Tequesta, FL 33469.