Eells Mansion and The Sahara Motor Hotel

From Millionaires' Row to Resort Motel

The structures at 3201 Euclid Avenue were an evolving site of entertainment and hospitality for nearly a century.

Extending four miles along Euclid Avenue between Public Square and East 105th Street, Millionaires’ Row stood as an unbroken row of stone, brick, and shingle-sided extravagance of more than 300 mansions. One of these grand homes belonged to the banker, financier, and philanthropist Daniel Parmelee Eells. Born in 1825, Eells became the president of the Commercial National Bank and was worth $3 million by 1885. Over the course of his life, Eells served as a director of thirty-two companies. Eells’ commercial interests included railways, iron mining, manufactures, oil, steel, cement, coke, and gas.

The Eells mansion was built in 1876 at 3201 Euclid Avenue. The Eells mansion’s High Victorian style was influenced by the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Victorian villa was designed by architect Joseph Ireland, a New York émigré who opened his Cleveland office in 1865. Eells mansion featured a central tower, tile roof, and carved window ornaments. There were pointed towers, decorative eaves, spacious porches, and arched windows and doors that set the mansion apart from other Millionaires’ Row residences. The interior was fireproof and included notable rooms such as a library paneled in black ebony with white ivory insets, and a center hall lit by gas jets and a colorful skylight.

Eells was an influential man and used his home to entertain powerful politicians. Daniel and his wife Mary threw a supper party for the 100 craftsmen who worked on the mansion during its construction. Attendees at Eells’ daughter’s wedding reception included both President-elect James A. Garfield and Ohio governor Charles Foster. President Benjamin Harrison also visited Eells Mansion. Eells and Mark Hanna, a Republican politician, convinced William McKinley to run for president in the mansion’s library. Around a decade after completing the mansion, the Eells built their Beach Cliff country estate in Rocky River. They spent most of the year living ten miles away from their downtown residence. Eells died in 1903 and is buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

The 1920s marked the decline of Millionaires’ Row as homes gave way to commercial structures. The rise of the automobile allowed the wealthy to relocate and still access Public Square from their new residences. Many of the mansions were sold and subdivided during the 1920s. Eells mansion remained a private residence until 1922. The Eells family sold the mansion to Warren Corning, who then sold it to Price McKinney. Schultz Bros. & Co. purchased a 90-year lease on the “Corning Homestead” at 3201 Euclid Avenue, transforming it into the Spencerian Business College. The Cleveland Bible College occupied the Eells mansion site between 1942 and 1957. The mansion was repurposed into the administration building. The Cleveland Bible College, renamed Malone College, moved to a Canton in 1957. The mansion stood empty for two years until it was torn down in 1959 to begin construction of the Sahara Motor Hotel.

With the rise of automobiles, the motel had evolved by the end of the twentieth century, going beyond just a simple place to sleep between stops. In some cases, it became the destination. The $4 million Sahara Motor Hotel was built by Mintz Construction Co. Mintz Construction Co. Vice President and hotel developer Marvin M. Mintz joked that Euclid Avenue seemed “miles away” from the Sahara Motor Hotel. The Sahara Motor Hotel, which opened on July 28, 1960, was styled after resorts in Las Vegas and the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago.

Mintz hired Borge Neilson as the general manager of the Sahara. Prior to coming to Cleveland, Neilson managed the Nordland Hotel in Copenhagen, where he served many of Europe’s royalty, and the Park Hotel in Niagara Falls. Heading a staff of 120 people, Neilson aimed to combine the efficient qualities of American hotels with the esteemed cuisine and service of European traditions. Carl Thiss, manager and host of the dining room, and Chef Joseph Bartoff, serving international cuisine, also worked at the Sahara Motor Hotel. Before working at the Sahara Motor Hotel, both Thiss and Bartoff had gained their fame working at Gruber’s Restaurant in Shaker Heights.

The four-story hotel had 150 rooms, all of which featured a television, air conditioning, piped-in hi-fi music, and automatic dial phones, the first of their kind in northern Ohio. Room rates ranged from $10 to $32 a night for the executive suites. There were three presidential suites and three bridal suites available in the hotel as well. The rectangular building of the Sahara Motor Hotel had an inner court three-quarters of an acre in size. The second-floor court contained a patio and play area complete with a heated swimming pool, a round terrazzo dance floor, and outdoor furniture.

The Sahara Motor Hotel was designed to symbolize an oasis in the "desert" of a big city. It offered a continental dining room, nightclub, gift shop, coffee shop, six banquet or meeting rooms, and an arcade with a barber shop and drugstore. Palm trees from Florida were planted in the Sahara Motor Hotel’s lobby, along with red geraniums, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons. Fifty-eight panels of mosaic glass were fitted in Egyptian murals. This exotic theme was carried further by four cocktail lounges along the arcade that Mintz nicknamed “the Four Oases.” The individual lounges were called the Flame Room, the Garden Room, the Date Bar, and the Music Room. The waitresses wore Egyptian costumes and the waiters wore fezzes as they served patrons. Additionally, the Cleopatra Lounge was decorated with back-lit Egyptian murals and the dining room boasted a starlight ceiling. The hotel included luxuries such as real mother-of-pearl tabletops, a waterfall in one of the bars, velvet armchairs in the dining room, and stained glass lighting fixtures. The lobby was adorned with three eight-foot paintings of Cleopatra, King Tut, and Queen Nefertiti on white marble. The Sahara Motor Hotel was an exotic sight to see on the edge of downtown Cleveland.

As the first new hotel built in thirty years, it catered to business meetings, luncheons, conventions, weddings and parties. As a vacation resort, the hotel hoped to attract local families, but the hotel attracted more than that. Forty actors and production technicians of CBS’s American television drama “Route 66” stayed in the Sahara Motor Hotel for three weeks in 1962. The TV show was set in Cleveland and was named after the iconic Route 66 that extends from Illinois to California. The executive in charge of production, Sam Manners, and his wife Joyce were both former Clevelanders. Besides Manners’ family ties, Cleveland was chosen because the area offered scenic background possibilities for “Route 66.” The Sahara Motor Hotel can be seen in three “Route 66” episodes: “Only By Cunning Glimpses,” “Every Father’s Daughter,” and “Incident On A Bridge.”

In 1966 the Sahara Motor Hotel obtained a substantial cut in tax valuation. The occupancy rate of the hotel dropped from 80 percent to 60 percent when the Versailles and Holiday Inn motels opened nearby. The Sahara Motor Hotel also suffered a yearly income loss in addition to a loss in food and beverage sales. The economic hardships led its owners to sell the motel to the Sheraton Corporation of America for $3 million. Sheraton planned to make $1 million in improvements to the Sahara Motor Hotel, but after less than a decade, the Sheraton Sahara Motor Hotel closed its doors. Sheraton sold the building to the Cleveland YWCA for $2 million in 1969. The YWCA abandoned plans to construct a new building downtown, closed its old building on East 18th, and moved into the former hotel.

What began as the home of millionaire Eells was repurposed as a place of learning for those that went to both the Spencerian Business College and the Cleveland Bible College. Then, with the rise of tourism in Cleveland, that building was torn down to offer a commercial form of private entertainment: the motor hotel. The Sahara Motor Hotel advertised to both travelers and locals, offering entertainment and relaxation to its visitors. Apart from its interlude as a college campus, 3201 Euclid Avenue served as an evolving site of entertainment and hospitality for nearly a century.