By Susan H. Hamlin
The grand opening of the Witherill House took place in February 1868 at 25 Margaret Street. Built by Chazy’s Hiram D. Witherill, the hotel was on the site of an earlier Inn that had burned. Subsequently, Plattsburgh’s town fathers decreed that commercial buildings must be built of brick or stone.
For eighty-four years, from 1884-1968, the Witherill Hotel was owned and operated by three generations of the Howell Family, Major William Theophilus Howell (1843-1894), William Hull Howell, Sr. (18-74-1958) and William Hull Howell, Jr. (1911-1992). Property south of Division St. (now the Community Bank parking lot) was also owned by the Howell family, along with several other commercial buildings in the city on Margaret and Clinton Streets.
During the hundred year span of the Witherill Hotel’s existence, the hotel grew and was enlarged many times. Its Fife & Drum restaurant and bar opened July 4, 1940 and was the North Country’s most popular venue. The Witherill closed on September 30, 1968 with a grand auction held in October of 1968 – a 100-years from the day it opened
Originally The Witherill was a small hotel with 18 guest rooms and 1 tin bathtub when it was acquired in 1884 by Maj. William T. Howell (1843-1894). Howell, a Civil War veteran, had had a career in government, first as keeper of the US Capitol’s Senate Restaurant in 1872, then later as a US Treasury agent with responsibilities that brought him to Plattsburgh. Unfortunately, Howell died in 1894 at age 51. Upon his death, his son, my grandfather, William Hull Howell, Sr. then took over the hotel’s operation at the age of 19. The hotel expanded with major renovations through the years to become a 75-room hotel (each with a bathroom). Owner Howell became very involved in Plattsburgh’s civic life.
The Howells were very involved in Plattsburgh’s civic life. Witherill Hotel owner William H. Howell, Sr.’s (1874-1958) accomplishments in Plattsburgh included:
- Helped organize and raise funds for the first hospital in Plattsburgh – the Champlain Valley Hospital that opened in 1910. He was president of the Board and then served on the Board of Directors for 14 years
- Howell and his wife, Rose, were principal sponsors in the founding of the Champlain Valley Hospital School of Nursing, also in 1910
- Founding member of the Plattsburgh Chamber of Commerce in 1912 and one of its early presidents
- Principal founder of the Adirondack Resorts Association in 1918, and the first president of that organization
- Founding member of the Clinton County Historical Association in 1945, serving as vice-president in 1949 and 1950
- Charter member of B.P.O. Elks #621 in 1901 and a lifelong member
- Organized and became senior partner of the investment banking firm of Howell, McArthur and Wiggin in 1918 with main offices in Albany and branch offices in New York City, Troy and Schenectady
- Co-founder of Good Roads, Inc. in 1918 (one objective- way ahead of its time, was to have a road connecting Montreal to Florida)
- Co-founder and also president of International Winter Highways Association in 1918, an organization that sought to keep roads open and passable during the often dangerously snowy and icy northern New York winters
- Helped reorganize the Merchants National Bank in 1931 after the 1929 crash, served as its first president and continued to serve on its Board for 14 years
- During all this time Howell was a long-time member of the New York State Hotel & Motel Association, served on its Board of Directors a number of times, and on his 80th birthday received the honorary gold life membership for his lifelong efforts promoting tourism in the north country
- Along with local businessman Howard Hadley – was driving civilian force behind the Plattsburgh Idea in 1915 – that saw college students and young businessmen in a program that was the forerunner of today’s universities’ R.O.T.C.
- Plattsburgh Air Force Base – starting during WWII, was very strong civilian support of a military base returning to Plattsburgh through continual lobbying pressure in Washington, DC, and ultimately the air base coming to Plattsburgh in 1952
William H. Howell, Jr. (1911-1992), after graduation from Penn’s Wharton School in 1934, worked in New York City at the Lexington and Biltmore hotels, under well-known hotel men for a year and a half in order to gain some hotel experience before moving back to Plattsburgh to manage the Witherill. He too jumped into Plattsburgh’s civic life. After his return from 4 years of service during WWII, Bill became involved in promoting Plattsburgh and tourism in the north country. Among his contributions:
- Served as president of the New York State Hotel & Motel Association
- Won the Golden Key award from the New York State Hotel & Motel Association in appreciation for his valued contributions
- Served as President of the Adirondack Resorts Association
- Served as President of the Plattsburgh Chamber of Commerce
- Director of the Clinton County Tourist & Convention Bureau
- Vice-President & board member, Champlain Valley Hospital
- Vice-president & board member, Champlain Valley Hospital School of Nursing
- Chairman of the committee, and perhaps the driving force to merge the Champlain Valley and Physicians hospitals in 1972
- Board member, CVPH Medical Center
- Board member of Kent-DeLord House Museum
- Member of the Plattsburgh Elks Club
- 30+ year member of the Plattsburgh Rotary Club
A few of the prominent guests who have stayed at the Witherill:
- President William McKinley
- William Farnam (actor)
- President Theodore Roosevelt
- John Barrymore (actor)
- President William H. Taft
- Marion Davies (actress)
- Senator Warren G. Harding (later President)
- Thomas Meighan (actor)
- President Calvin Coolidge
- Jack Dempsey (boxer)
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Sugar Ray Robinson (boxer)
- Governor Charles Seymore Whitman
- Perry Como (singer)
- Governor Al Smith
- General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
- Governor Thomas E. Dewey
- Kermit Roosevelt
- Governor Herbert H. Lehman
- Quentin Roosevelt
- Governor Averell Harriman
- Bud Fisher (cartoonist)
- Governor Leverett Saltonstall (Massachusetts)
- General Leonard Wood
- General John J. Pershing
- William Randolph Hearst
- Dag Hammarskjöld (UN Secretary-General)
- Governor Charles Evans Hughes (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court)
Ironically, it was Assemblyman James A. Fitzpatrick (Howell, Sr.’s son-in-law’s brother) who introduced the bill in 1952, proposing the Northway (Rte. 87) from Albany to the Canadian border. This became part of the Eisenhower interstate system and thousands of miles of highway throughout the country were built during this period. Travel patterns were changing. With superhighways being built, Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons and others with restaurants were sprouting at each city’s exits. The traveling public no longer wanted to drive through small towns for bed and board when they could whiz through on a superhighway and arrive at their destination much more quickly.
Having been built in 1868, The Witherill was aging. There was no air-conditioning. Plumbing and electrical needed extensive upgrades. William Howell, Jr, reasoning that since he was nearing retirement age and that neither of his daughters wasinterested in going into the hotel business, realized he would never get back in his lifetime what he would have to invest to update the hotel. It was time to let the grand old Witherill go. After an auction in October 1968, the Witherill was sold to the State Bank of Albany who razed the hotel, building the bank that presently stands on that property. The building was later sold to Glens Falls National Bank, which has operated until late 2019.
Susan Howell Hamlin is the daughter of William Hull Howell, Jr. Sue and her sister, Bonnie, were raised at the Witherill Hotel. Her book, Welcome to the Witherill, is available through the Clinton County Historical Association.