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One Address, Many Stories

Shelton Hall’s stately, swinging past

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The last .400 hitter in major league baseball, a star of the silver screen, and America’s leading playwright all lived in the stately hotel. Big bands played on the roof for decked-out dancers and a national radio audience. A blue-blooded senator and a Catholic cardinal addressed meetings here, and the chief of Clan MacLeod once arrived with a flourish of bagpipes and a ceremonial haggis direct from Scotland.

It all happened in the building known to the Boston University community—until this week—as Shelton Hall. The dorm at 91 Bay State Road is about to get a new name, but not for the first time. (And no, there was no BU founder or president—or anyone, for that matter—named Archibald Cornelius Shelton.) In fact, Kilachand Hall will be the building’s fourth official name in the almost 90 years it has stood here, overlooking the Charles River.

A residential hotel?

The Sheraton Hotel promotional announcement 1923, Shelton Hall, Kilachand Hall, Bay State Road, Boston University Charles River Campus

Promotional announcement on the opening of The Sheraton, 1923. Photo courtesy of Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities

In 1923, the newly formed Bay State Road Company erected a “thoroughly modern eight-story, fireproof apartment building,” the Boston Globe reported, “in the center of one of Boston’s most exclusive and highly restricted districts,” where the Back Bay meets Kenmore Square. They called their enterprise the Sheraton Apartment Hotel, or less formally, the Sheraton Apartments.

There was not yet a Sheraton hotel chain, and the developers likely chose the name to evoke the furniture style popularized by famed English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The building itself recalled that era—the Federal period—with understated neoclassical touches. It was designed by the same firm that created Boston’s original Ritz-Carlton (now the Taj Boston) overlooking the Public Garden.

The patio-fronted H-shaped edifice housed “132 apartments, arranged in suites of one and two rooms with bath,” said the Globe, noting the rooms were “exceptionally large, and more than half of them [command] a view of the Charles River Basin.”

So was it an apartment building or a hotel? In those days, the lines between the two could blur.

“The residential hotel was a phenomenon from 1850 to 1950,” says Bradford Hudson, a School of Hospitality Administration professor of marketing and business history. As cities grew in size and density, “America was experimenting with new forms of real estate,” Hudson says. “It was 100 years of trying to figure out how to live.”

The Sheraton and the many places like it housed long-term residents in small apartments, without signing them to long-term leases. They boasted a lobby with a concierge who screened visitors, linens and maid service, and a dining room. Often, they hosted social functions, such as the weekend dances at the Sheraton’s open-air rooftop nightclub.

The high-end residential hotels like the Sheraton appealed to what Hudson calls “high society on the move”—that is, wealthy executives and their families who wanted to stay in a city for an extended period without the hassle of overseeing servants, cultivating a garden, or hosting elaborate dinners.

What’s in a name?

Throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, the Sheraton was a social institution. The Globe’s gossip and nightlife pages were full of stories of prominent newlyweds moving in, gourmet Thanksgiving dinners served by waiters in white coats, and nights of entertainment featuring jazz bands and bandleaders such as Ranny Weeks, Meyer Davis, Cy Delman and his Kentuckians, and Johnny Cole’s Sheraton Roof Orchestra. As formally attired guests dined, imbibed, danced under the stars, and took in panoramic views of Cambridge, Boston, and the Charles from the rooftop ballroom, CBS and NBC aired the swinging tunes over the radio waves. And throughout the week, local radio station WBMS broadcast from a studio inside the building. Hosts included Sabby Lewis, one of Boston’s first African American radio personalities, and Mayor James Michael Curley, who offered commentary and recited his own poetry.

Celebrities who lived in the building at one time or another included singer and actress Jeanette MacDonald, who starred in nearly 30 MGM films in the ’30s, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, perhaps the greatest hitter who ever lived and the last man in the majors to bat over .400 for a season, and playwright Eugene O’Neill (more on him later).

The building’s first change of ownership came in 1939, when Ernest Henderson and partners bought the Sheraton from the Bay State Road Company. At the time, Henderson owned a few other hotels and hoped to establish a large chain under a single name. SHA’s Hudson points to a passage in Henderson’s autobiography that explains the rest:

“We had acquired the Lee House in Washington and a hotel known as the Sheraton on Boston’s Bay State Road. The latter, having an expensive electric roof sign, left us little choice in selecting the name for our future domain, for it would have cost a small fortune to change the letters on the sign. Our hotels in Springfield and Washington became Sheraton hotels.”

Indeed, Henderson renamed his entire company Sheraton, and the now-famous hotel chain was born. Today, there are more than 400 Sheratons worldwide (now part of the Starwood corporation).

The Hotel Shelton in 1954, Shelton Hall, Kilachand Hall, Bay State Road, Boston University Charles River Campus

The Hotel Shelton in August 1954. Photo by BU Photography

In 1950, the Sheraton on Bay State Road changed hands again. The new owners, the Sonnebend family, did have money to alter the neon sign on the roof, but (as evidenced by contemporary photographs) only enough to change the RA to an L to create the Hotel Shelton. The Sonnebends also kept in use all the old linens, embossed with an ambiguous S. What they could not change were the words “The Sheraton” engraved in limestone over the front entrance. That evidence of the building’s origin remains to this day.

The Shelton continued to host social events and other gatherings in the early 1950s. Richard Cardinal Cushing, archbishop of Boston, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., gave speeches warning of the global Communist threat. Ham radio operators fêted Walter Butterworth on his retirement as a top Federal Communications Commission official. And Dame Flora MacLeod, chief of Clan MacLeod, addressed the Scots Charitable Society after ceremoniously escorting in a dish of haggis imported from the Isle of Skye.

The spirit of a genius

Playwright Eugene O'Neill, Hotel Shelton, Shelton Hall, Boston University Charles River Campus

Nobel laureate in literature Eugene O’Neill called the Hotel Shelton home from 1951 until his death in November 1953. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

It was to the Hotel Shelton that playwright O’Neill moved in 1951.

Son of an alcoholic actor, O’Neill was expelled from Princeton and dropped out of Harvard to work as a gold prospector, a mule tender, a steamship seaman, and a newspaper reporter before he found professional success writing plays that brought a new maturity and realism to American theater.

O’Neill’s first play to be produced on Broadway was Beyond the Horizon in 1920. His other works include Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, which was banned in Boston in the ’30s, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. To date, O’Neill is the only playwright to win both the Nobel Prize and four Pulitzers. “Before him, there was nothing American of note on the stage,” wrote a later critic. “People saw Shakespeare and sentimental fare” until O’Neill “gave them a searing look into the bitter truths of life.”

Suffering from a rare neurological disease called cerebellar cortical atrophy and bronchial pneumonia, O’Neill spent his last days in Room 401 of the Shelton, tended by his third wife, Carlotta Monterey. “I knew it,” he is said to have uttered toward the end. “Born in a hotel room and, goddamnit, died in a hotel room.” Sure enough, he died in the Shelton in November 1953 at age 65. The Globe eulogized him as “the brooding genius of the American theatre.” (His masterpiece, the autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, would not be produced and published until after his death.)

Shelton Hall 1958, Kilachand Hall, Bay State Road, Boston University Charles River Campus

Shelton Hall, 1958. Photo by BU Photography

In 1954, BU bought the building at 91 Bay State Road, modifying the name to Shelton Hall. It became a women’s dormitory for about 475 students.

“Men were not allowed past the first floor,” says Jennifer Battaglino, Shelton’s residence director. “Male visitors had to hang out with their female friends on the first floor,” in the lobby or dining room, under the watchful eye of no-nonsense faculty or staff advisors.

The rule was broken for various social occasions, however. Harking back to its hopping hotel past (and continuing into the present), Shelton Hall hosted Halloween parties, charity fundraisers, and semiformal student dances in the dining room and on the roof—which was eventually enclosed, but in glass, preserving the excellent views. Indeed, Shelton, a residence largely for upperclassmen even after going coed in the ’70s, was the most sought-after dorm on campus before the Student Village was built.

Acquaintance Dance at Shelton Hall in 1956, Kilachand Hall, Bay State Road, Boston University Charles River Campus

Students attend an “Acquaintance Dance” at Shelton Hall, 1956. Photo by BU Photography

But the spirit of O’Neill, whether literal or figurative, hasn’t entirely left the building. In addition to academic specialty floors devoted to engineering and management, Shelton features the Writers’ Corridor—students who are aspiring writers live on the fourth floor, where O’Neill lived (and died).

“Students say they hear knocks on their door and when they go to check, no one will be there,” says Battaglino, who has experienced some mysterious elevator malfunctions (the door opening on the fourth floor for no reason). Residents also cite the dim lighting in the hallway, relative to the rest of the dorm, although Battaglino has a mundane explanation: the ceilings are lower, covering the space on the other floors where there are extra rows of lights.

David Zamojski, for one, is not a believer. As Shelton’s hall director in the 1980s, “I lived on that floor for six years,” says Zamojski, now assistant dean of students and director of residence life, “and I never saw or heard anything strange.”

But whether the odd bumps in the night are the work of the playwright or of pranksters, the student scribes appreciate the floor’s history as home to a great American writer. “They say they get inspiration from O’Neill’s writing,” says Battaglino. Students regularly gather for writers’ workshops, where they read and critique one another’s work, and every year they release a compilation of their stories, essays, and poems, called “Eugene’s Legacy.”

Joining the writers, engineers, and managers next year, thanks to a $10 million gift from BU trustee Rajen Kilachand (GSM’74), will be students enrolled in the cross-disciplinary Kilachand Honors College. These new residents will further enrich the life of a residence hall that maintains elements of its stately, swinging past.

“It still is a beautiful place,” says Zamojski. “There’s so much original architectural detail in the lobby, it’s in a great location—students love living there.”

Patrick L. Kennedy can be reached at plk@bu.edu.

24 Comments

24 Comments on One Address, Many Stories

  • Walt Meissner on 09.27.2012 at 6:59 am

    Very nice piece, Patrick! Fascinating building indeed.

  • Writegirl18 on 09.27.2012 at 7:57 am

    Why on earth would you lose the name of a proud old residence with such an illustrious history, not to mention erasing the nostalgic memories of thousands of alumni? And to change it to an unpronounceable name? I appreciate that this Kilachand alum has donated money, but, for heaven’s sake, erect a plaque! Make it a large one! Giant, even. But leave Shelton Hall, and our memories of our precious college years, alone!

    • Morgan on 09.27.2012 at 10:23 am

      Kilachand
      Pronounced: Kill-a-ch-and

      Name changes are really common among universities for more donations. It will probably still be called Shelton by students forever.

      • PK on 09.27.2012 at 11:07 am

        Yeah, Kilachand takes exactly as long to say as my last name, Kennedy. Granted, some Americans balked at names like Kennedy a few generations ago, but imagine what a boring country this would be if we never accepted those with “unpronouncable” names.
        (That said, I’m pretty terrible at adapting when a place or business is renamed. I still call Great Woods (whatever it’s really called) Great Woods. I think I stopped calling Jam’n 94.5 “WZOU” maybe last year.)

    • Obvious on 09.27.2012 at 11:08 am

      That’s slightly racist. Yes, Shelton Hall is a proud old residence with an illustrious history but this name change is only adding to that history.

      • Writegirl18 on 09.28.2012 at 8:47 am

        Racist? Oh please. I have no idea what “race” this person is; it is a difficult name. Period. Why must some people start playing the Racism Card when they hear something they don’t like? To paraphrase, “Let Shelton Be Shelton.”

        • Anon on 09.28.2012 at 9:59 am

          It’s not slightly racist, it is racist. But maybe you’d prefer discriminatory. It’s that, too. Why do you consider Kilachand harder to say than Shelton? Or Sheraton?

          • Obvious on 09.28.2012 at 6:35 pm

            I agree, or maybe I should have said bigoted or intolerant. I don’t think Writegirl18 realizes it though.

    • Kate on 09.28.2012 at 9:38 am

      can I agree with you like… THOUSAND TIMES. they are ready to cover up history for money. I mean don’t get me wrong, donations are great (maybe BU will FINALLY upgrade CAS building) but like represented in this article there is such a history behind. you just ready to take that sign down because some wealthy man donated money. he gave MONEY not HISTORY.let’s put a monument with his name near library, put his picture near the president’s but please PEOPLE! come on really……..

  • F.B.King on 09.27.2012 at 8:10 am

    Pat, I finally understand the whole concept of the BU Honors College community, thanks to you. A great story …

    • Morgan on 09.27.2012 at 10:25 am

      It’s a good thing. It was such a joke when I arrived on campus nearly three years ago that I didn’t even bother. Now the program is actually begging to look compelling.

  • Anon on 09.27.2012 at 8:22 am

    What is the reason for the defensive introduction about how many times the name changed? It points to the question you don’t want asked, why? Isn’t renaming an landmark a little like renaming your child? Confusing and again, why? It has to be about money. Yet another sign of the less than desirable changes in this instituition.

    • PK on 09.27.2012 at 10:56 am

      Your mystery question is actually answered in this article as well as in further detail in the link provided. (Here it is again — it’s also featured on BU Today’s front page: http://www.bu.edu/today/2012/kilachand-honors-college-students-get-their-own-home/) It’s pretty common for universities to name buildings after alumni donors, and their gifts make possible scholarships, research, teaching, and infrastructural improvements.

  • Ben DeGennaro on 09.27.2012 at 8:31 am

    Great article. It was nice to read about the history of a building we walk by everyday.

  • Ron L'Herault on 09.27.2012 at 8:49 am

    So what’s happening with the enclosed roof? Can you still get a band up there? Swing dancing is still popular (thank God) and there are lots of great bands that play 20s-30s jazz such as the New Black Eagles and John Clark’s Wolverines. And bands such as The White Heat band bridge the gap between the 30s and the 50s!

  • AP on 09.27.2012 at 9:42 am

    While I agree with everyone who’s said that the new name is ridiculous (and not likely to stick; how many years did it take people to stop calling 575 the Hojo?) I think the bigger point of irritation is the “haunting.”

    Seriously, I don’t understand why BU feels the need to have their dormitories haunted by notable figures. Shelton is no more haunted by Eugene O’Neil than Myles is by Babe Ruth. Both buildings are cool with a ton of history, and I don’t know why they need to be haunted to be notable. Ghosts aren’t real, and it’s fairly silly for such a prestigious institution that’s trying to refocus on STEM fields to perpetuate this childish nonsense.

    • SN on 09.28.2012 at 5:18 pm

      People still call it Hojo. No one calls it 575!

  • PK on 09.27.2012 at 10:45 am

    Ron, great call on the swing dancing. I know MIT hosts regular dances in a first-floor auditorium, and they’d be pretty jealous if BU brought the swing back to this rooftop ballroom, with its excellent views. Someone needs to make this happen!

  • Bahston Billy on 09.27.2012 at 11:22 am

    Nice historical walk-through. In the early 60′s it was often called “The Mohair Hilton” and I attended several mixers on the rooftop.

  • Alison on 09.27.2012 at 12:16 pm

    Fabulous piece! Very interesting that it was the birthplace of the Sheraton hotel chain name.

  • Gregory on 09.27.2012 at 3:44 pm

    AP. I hate to burst your bubble but ghosts are real. I, too, spent a good anount of time in Shelton as my friend lived there in ’86. I think it was 401 because I had just lived in that number at another college.

    In 2008 I played The Exorcist and Emily Rose after having premonitions to take them back. The house in Maine freaked out. It is a very expensive one, not “The Old House.” It changes how you view everything. It was backed up by an internationally speaking “ghost whisperer” if you will. The knocking on the walls lasted for about two years. It is my parent’s home and in a prominent area as well. I have witnesses to that knocking. Hard to miss, it gets quite loud. You will see this in a major motion picture that I wish I could go into detail about. I moved to Hollywood (West and Hollywood) last year to see this through after helping writers and developers get other projects out on television. I am not kidding about this. Please don’t make sweeping assumptions about something you have not experienced. I cover this in great detail as it seems the flat earth sociey is alive and well. I have written this before in relation to Shelton Hall on the web. Skeptics are often people who have not yet experienced the subject. It almost has the feeling of being hip or one up on others. It is also wrong.

  • CAITLIN CUSHMAN on 09.28.2012 at 4:54 pm

    Nice piece, PK. I love that we not only learned about Shelton’s past, but the Sheraton’s past! Kilachand made an exceedingly generous gift in honor of his parents. I think it’s fitting that we honor him accordingly and continue the tradition of renaming this building. It’s a new chapter! Congats, BU!

  • tina feiger on 03.09.2013 at 9:35 pm

    I lived in this hall from 1970-1972 and loved it. One of our huge rooms in our suite overlooked the Charles river. Our cafeteria served wonderful blueberry muffins in the morning, and once a year,lobster. All these young women walking with their trays to their table, with red lobster legs hanging over the trays, was quite a memory. Being from the west coast, this was all very new for me.

  • Ben on 04.01.2014 at 12:25 pm

    This is a great article. But I don’t understand the line “And no, there was no BU founder or president—or anyone, for that matter—named Archibald Cornelius Shelton.” What is this a reference to?

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