18 January 2008

The Classic Lobby Desk in the Grand Union Hotel

By Ken Robison

[Published in the 2 November 2007 Fort Benton River Press Grand Union Edition]

In October 11, 1882 the Fort Benton River Press reported, “W. G. Jones and his men went to work for the lessees of the new hotel [The Grand Union] yesterday morning, making tables, etc., to which proceedings Mr. Tweedy object, and was inclined to get on the warpath. As a result, the latter [Tweedy] resigned his position as superintendent [of construction] and Mr. Jones will complete the carpenter work about the hotel.” Jones and his crew built much of the interior woodwork in Fort Benton’s grandest hotel including the classic lobby desk or counter that remains in use today.

The opening of the Grand Union, November 2nd 1882, was described in The Benton Record of November 9th as “The grandest affair of its kind ever witnessed in Benton, and most probably in the Territory.” The Record reported, “The office is under the superintendance of Mr. W. H. Todd, who officiates behind one of the finest hotel counters in Montana, which was made by Messrs. Jones & Merrill, of Benton. It is 16 feet long on its longest side and then curves back six feet, and upon it is stained glass set in a frame, and an aperture through which the clerk can see all that is going on and receive payments. The entrance behind the counter is through a glass door secured by a Yale lock. The entire counter arrangement is finished by those first-class Benton painters, Messrs. Keenan & Payne, and is in imitation of both American and French walnut, mahogany, and oak veneering, beautifully done, and the counter both in its fabrication and painting reflects great credit upon Messrs. Jones & Merrill, and Keenan & Payne in their respective crafts.”

In his Master’s thesis on the Grand Union in 1971, architectural student John Ellingsen describes the lobby desk as “more elaborate than any other in Montana, including even that of the Broadwater Hotel [in Helena] or the Montana Hotel of Anaconda (both of which were build after the Grand Union). Made entirely with hand tools, it contains almost as many mouldings as the rest of the hotel put together. On a project of this type, where the joiner did not have to make several hundred feet of the same contour, he could go ‘hog-wild’ producing elaborate designs to suit his fancy.

“The top of the desk consists of two huge boards held together by a row of perfectly fitting dovetails. Above it stands the cashier’s cage, the most fantastic bit of cabinet architecture in the building. It has an arched window, wide cornices, pilaster strips, and a generous amount of polychrome wood. The cage is made of black walnut and what appears to be maple in contrasting bands. The door to the desk, another custom job, is complete with a knob that would fit nowhere better than beside this ultra-fancy desk. The solid brass knob pictures a bird cast in deer relief.”

Later, in the early summer of 1883, the July 7th River Press announced that, “W. G. Jones is building a fine porch in front of the Grand Union hotel. The improvement will add much to the appearance of the finest hotel in Montana.” By July 15th the portico was complete, and 125 years later all who enter the Grand Union pass through it.

[From: “Never a dull moment: The life of W. G. ‘Vinegar’ Jones in Fort Benton in the early 1880s Part II” by Ken Robison in The River Press February 26, 2003]


(1) Elaborate lobby desk at the Grand Union built by Jones & Merrill [Overholser Historical Research Center OHRC]

(2) Lobby desk as it looks today, 125 years later [Tim Burmeister]

(3) Illustration showing the Grand Union when it opened to the public November 2nd, 1882, with no portico present. [Benton Record OHRC]

(4) W. G. Jones built the portico for the Grand Union in July 1883 [OHRC]

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