When Joe Salas was a young boy growing up with little money in the Philippines, he lived on the water and dreamed he would one day own a boat like the ones he watched pass his small home. It was that desire that drew him to buy Hotel Baker in St. Charles about 15 years ago.
At the age of 9, he immigrated and lived a tough life in Chicago and Glendale Heights before graduating from DePaul University. Then his dreams started coming true.
10 fascinating facts about Hotel BakerBy Kim Mikus
Hotel Baker began as a dream of Edward J. Baker, a native of St. Charles, who earned the honorary title of "Colonel," thanks to his luck in horse racing. In 1918, at the age of 50, Baker inherited nearly $20 million from his sister, Dellora Baker Gates, heiress to the Texaco Oil Company.
Using only the interest income from his inheritance, Baker commissioned local architects and craftsmen to construct his vision of an elegant, 55-room resort in St. Charles.
He spared no expense to build and furnish the most luxurious small hotel in the country. Final construction costs totaled more than $1 million, and the hotel boasted the most modern conveniences of the day when it opened June 2, 1928.
Using various historic resources, we pulled together some fascinating facts about the hotel and its history.
1. Hotel Baker is located on the site of what was once the Old Haines Mill built in 1837 to grind corn meal.
The mill was destroyed by a fire in 1919, but some of the white foundation stones from the old mill are still visible beneath the hotel near the river.
There was talk of building a factory on the site, but instead, in the focal point of St. Charles, they began to plan a hotel funded by the Edward Baker's inheritance.
2. On June 2, 1928 the hotel celebrated its opening with a grand dinner for 301 people in the ballroom. It is believed to be one of the few hotels in the world at the time to generate its own electricity.
When the hotel opened for business, accommodations started at $2.50 a night. By 1947, a room cost $6.
Because owner Edward Baker was a staunch Republican, the hotel was considered the local headquarters for the Republican Party for many years and was host to a number of Illinois governors.
3. The first guest at the hotel was Amos Stagg, the football coach at the University of Chicago and a friend of Edward Baker.
Other famous visitors at the hotel have included John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Gerald Ford, Charles Percy, Billy Graham, Lawrence Welk and Richard J. Daley.
4. Some of the earliest employees at the hotel worked twelve hour shifts, seven days a week and were paid a dollar a day.
Accommodations were provided for the cooks, busboys, bellhops and porters on the sixth floor.
5. The Rainbow Room was named for the prominent dance floor which had 2,620 red, green, blue and yellow lights beneath 300 glass blocks.
Entertainers in the Rainbow Room included Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Lawrence Welk and Eddy Duchin.
6. When the hotel restaurant opened in the late 1920s, it boasted its "electric potato peelers" and "automatic toasters which guarantee the golden-brown hue of good toast."
The food came from Edward Baker's Silver Glen Farm.
7. The hotel lounge was known as the Trophy Room because Edward Baker kept many of his horse racing trophies here along with a large painting of his favorite trotter, Greyhound.
A large Spanish Renaissance style pipe organ was installed between the Trophy Room and the Rainbow Room. It could play rolls for both organ and piano.
8. The original furnishing in the hotel were supplied by Bert Norris, a local furniture dealer and was valued at more than $100,000.
Special furnishings included fountains, imported marble floors and rugs from the Middle East and China, which were used in the lobby and hallways. In the lobby, there was a grandfather clock that had been imported from Germany.
9. After Edward Baker died at the age of 90 in 1959, Dellora Angel Norris, another Gates heiress, and Edward's niece, inherited the hotel.
In the 1968, the hotel was donated to Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. It was closed until 1972 and then renovated and served as an upscale retirement center.
10. Joe and Rowena Salas, residents of Wayne, bought Hotel Baker about 15 years ago in an auction after it had been closed for more than 20 months. They had no hospitality experience, but have returned the hotel to what it was designed to be.
The couple has spent millions to constantly upgrade the rooms and the hotel to keep it fresh, while keeping its historic charm.
"My husband is a boater and he loved the scene from the hotel," said his wife, Rowena, also originally from the Philippines.
The couple stayed at the hotel in 2001 and then saw it was going into foreclosure a year later. Rowena, who has a background in nursing, said they had no hospitality experience, but decided to purchase the hotel as an investment. "It was supposed to be a quick investment. Little did we know we would still be here all these years later," said Rowena, who is now general manager and runs the day-to-day operations of the 53-guest room hotel and restaurant.
Looking back, she said the idea of running the hotel terrified her and that she was not keen on the big decision. But she is now hooked and she enjoys her unexpected career. "It has been a wonderful journey. We never thought this would happen," said Rowena, 56. She said the 100 employees at the property feel like family. "It has been great."
The couple from Wayne bought Hotel Baker when it was in foreclosure and had been closed for 22 months. Over the years, they have spent millions in renovating the historic property, starting with the penthouse.
While Hotel Baker is elegant, Rowena said it has a warm, inviting feeling. "I'm not a formal person," she said. Her twin sons were in third grade when they bought the hotel. She said they would come in from baseball practice and feel comfortable at the hotel. "We're very down to earth," she said. The boys, now 22, have worked at the business over the years and assist from time to time but are in the business world now.
They learned that from their father, who started Innovative Systems Group about 25 years ago. The IT consulting company, serving Fortune 500 companies, has 200 consultants with offices in Glen Ellyn, Chicago, Orlando, Columbus and Dallas as well as in the Philippines.
And when the couple is not growing their businesses, they are often in southwest Florida enjoying their boat. Rowena said they spend time in Naples and on Useppa Island, a 100-acre private island club that can only be reached by boat.
The water is what attracted Joe to Hotel Baker a decade and a half ago. It's the water and the setting that also attracts brides and grooms to the property.
"We are known for weddings," Rowena said, adding that they do about 70 a year.
The couple admit that when they bought Hotel Baker, located on the site of what was once the Haines Mill built in 1837, they did not realize the attention the historic hotel would garner. "It attracts a lot of attention and it's an important piece of property in St. Charles," Rowena said.