Dec 4, 2009

The Riddle House Hotel

Although it is off-topic for this blog, I wanted to share with you what is going on in John’s life today. You may recall in a previous blog, I mentioned my husband is a “steeplejack”. His specialty is, simply put; repairing/restoring steeples & roofs on churches. It was a profession his dad learned from an old German craftsman. He then taught John and all five of his brothers the trade. Today, John and one other brother continue the tradition. It’s not all he does. He is really a “jack of all trades” or as he says, a "fix 'em up dude". He can do about anything in the construction business. And his most recent job has been quite interesting.

In downtown Wahoo, Nebraska, the former Riddle House Hotel stands on the corner of what is the main street. Over a century old, it is the known birthplace of famed movie producer, Darryl Zanuck, co-founder of Twentieth Century Fox, who's movies include Les Misérables, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green was My Valley, and All About Eve, to name a few. Its possible Zanuck’s father built and ran the hotel as some of the information I have read said Darryl was the son of a “hotelier”.** In the picture above, you can see the hotel on the left hand side behind the lamppost. It was quite elegant in its day.

The hotel closed years ago. It was divided up into other businesses; a bar and some apartments. It changed hands many time but has been vacant and neglected for years and years. When the owner of the bar passed away, it was found that roof problems on the hotel had compromised the structure of both the hotel and the bar. Both were condemned and bids were sent out requesting the hotel be demolished without taking the bar with it. From what I heard, no company was real keen on bidding it. John and his brother was awarded the project.

John found this old picture in the basement of the hotel. It is a circus parade turning down what is known as the main street in Wahoo. The hotel is behind the carriage. I took a picture of the picture, so it isn’t real clear, but there are lions in the cages being pulled by horses. And look at the people sitting above the cages. It is also interesting to see the spectators dressed in suits and the horses tied along the street. The picture above is taken from the same angle as the picture right below. Haven't times changed! Where cars now line the streets, there used to be horses tied to the hitching posts.

John and his brother and their respective crews began work on the building in August. It was dangerous – the first day a wall caved in and threw many of his crew from a scaffold. They trudged on. As they shored up the bar, John said there was a way to save the hotel. He wanted to save it so bad. But there are only funds available to demolish the place, not restore it. And today, the first wall went down.

I was shooting video from across the street. Watch the top left hand corner of the building start to bend out and then goes back in. John and one of his crew were pushing the wall out from the inside. My stomach was turning to mush.

The end of an era.

**Since I wrote this blog earlier today, I've done some more googling about the hotel itself. I found that Zanuck's father was a farm boy from Iowa who worked at the hotel. The hotel was owned by Darryl's maternal grandfather, Henry Torpin.


  1. wow, very interesting post! I love the circus wagon photo! I didn't realize that John was in such a dangerous line of work. It must be so scary for you, knowing what he does for a living. That was a lovely old hotel. What a shame it had to come down. Yes, the end of an era.

  2. I hate losing old buildings. I'm crazy about them. It's one of the reasons I love living in Virginia--there are still many old buildings standing. Unlike Jersey where they plowed everything over. It just breaks my heart. I understand sometimes you can't save them. But why do we even let them fall into disrepair in the first place?

    What happened to these old towns anyway? It looked so "happening" in that fantastic picture he found. Aren't we richer than we used to be? That's what we're told. And yet, it's not unusual to see pictures like that, people all dressed up in the old days (THAT costs money), having fabulous parties, etc. And now many of these towns are desolate. Some, like where I lived in Oklahoma, real ghost towns, everyting all boarded up. And yet you can tell from the architecture that at one time these were prosperous places.

  3. Janette8:28 AM

    That was the coolest. And to know your man was pushing the wall. I would of been so scared.

  4. Dwight owned the hotel at one time. He hated to see it go to ruin, but did not have the money to fix it up at that time and the city was not cooperative on options. It will leave a big gap on the main street of Wahoo.

  5. You're so lucky to have such a multi-talented husband. You never have to worry about him finding work because he can always reinvent himself and build or repair anything. That's a great trait to have. How did you two meet?

    So very sad seeing the building fall down. Funny how the men think it's so exciting to demolish such a unique building. Boys will be boys. lol.
    It's a shame it couldn't have become a Historical Heritage building and been restored for tours and such. It might have been able to bring in tourists, too.

    Those photos are a very special piece of history and should be placed in the town's musuem...if they even have one. lol!
    Maybe the local library would suffice.
    Seems to me a town with the name of Wahoo! should be a pretty happening place.
    What's the history behind the name?

    You lead an interesting life, my friend.


  6. Ooooh! I just clicked to biggefy that photo and saw a woman in a white dress on the second floor standing outside the window! Oh! To find out more about her....that would be amazing to hear the tales.


  7. It's too bad that it had to come down.It was such a nice place in it's heyday. Love the picture of the circus wagons and horses. My husband's grandfather was an old German steeplejack too.

  8. John must have a lot of street cred with your boys right now. That's a pretty manly occupation. :)

    Thanks for the history lesson!

  9. Lisa, I didn't notice the picture of the woman in the white dress before you mentioned it. Kind of sent goosebumps up my spine.

    Deb - yes, we hate seeing the old ones go, too. He even thought briefly of contacting the Zanuck family to see if they were interested in the restore. But just not enough time or interest from the city to put it together. Walking thru the old building, its hard to imagine what it was like, but in the outside pictures, it sure looked nice. I like to think it was grander than it probably was.

    When you biggefy the picture and see the ladies along the streets in the long dresses and umbrellas, it it incredible to think about that era in history. The umbrellas lead you to believe it was hot. Can you imagine wearing those big dresses and suits in the heat? They were tough folks!

    Val - at least I could visit him on this job. When he is climbing church steeples, I can't watch it!

    Gray - where was your husband's grandfather from?


I am so glad you stopped by and look forward to hearing from you! Do come again.