115 Meeting St.
Today: The Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel
Yesterday: St. John Hotel, 1902-1968
On the menu: Boiled pompano with sauce de hormond (Nov. 24, 1904)
The renovation of The Mills House that preceded its renaming was so thorough and sumptuous that President Theodore Roosevelt booked a room at the hotel in conjunction with his visit to the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. No doubt he was impressed by the velvet carpet, brass bedsteads and electric lights that could be turned on and off with the touch of a button.
But there’s no record of what dishes were originally served in the dining room, since the hotel was apparently more concerned with accommodating large banquets than luring travelers with its superlative food. In the years after Roosevelt stayed, the St. John dining room was regularly rented out to groups such as the South Carolina Kindergarten Association and St. Andrews Society.
To publicize the dimensions of its dining room, which could seat 400 eaters, the St. John Hotel released a postcard showing off the stucco ceiling, oak furniture and broad windows overlooking Queen Street.
What’s missing from the picture is people, but potential banquet hosts could mentally populate the room. At that time, upscale Southern hotels employed only African-American men as servers.
In 1905, though, the St. John decided to try something new. Citing a staffing crisis, it hired seven white Northern women to wait on dining room guests. As The Evening Post explained, they were assisted “by white boys, who remove soiled dishes and perform other light duties.”
According to the Anderson Daily Mail, the St. John was the first Southern establishment to experiment with “white girl waiters,” already common in Northern states.
“A man had rather have his meals served by a trim, neat white girl,” the paper’s editors asserted. “He will be more satisfied with the food.”
On Christmas Day, The News and Courier concurred, arguing their view represented a progressive view of gender.
“If it shall succeed, another opening will be made for respectable young women who are compelled to work for their living,” the editors explained, saluting the hotel for hiring a woman to manage the female crew. “Household service is entirely honorable, but it is one of the idiosyncrasies of womankind in these parts that it is less menial for a girl to wait on all sorts of customers at a soda fountain than it is for a girl to wait on select guests at a first-class hotel.”
Their argument closed with a Christmas wish that came true: “May their tribe increase.”
As for the St. John, it underwent multiple management changes and eventually fell into serious disrepair. It was sold at auction in 1968.
— Hanna Raskin