Railroads were the most important mode of transportation in the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries in Madison. Hotel Ruby Marie, at 524 E. Wilson Street, stands today as a significant example of a building in the commercial area that grew up around two depots constructed to serve the railroads and their customers. In fact, the hotel is one of only four 19th century hotel buildings remaining in Madison and is located in the East Wilson Street Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
The Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad ran the first train into Madison in 1854, and the city remained dependent on this one line for the next decade. Difficult economic times crushed hopes of more railroads coming to the city until 1864 when the Chicago & North Western Railway rolled into town. Several years later, from 1869 through 1871, three new rail connections with Madison were established.
Two depots were constructed on Madison’s east side—one for the Chicago & North Western and another across Blair Street called the Milwaukee Road Depot. The commercial area around the depots flourished. The building activity at that time was attributed to “railroad prosperity” as reported in the Wisconsin State Journal .
Interestingly, almost every builder in this area and nearly all of the merchants and innkeepers on East Wilson Street were of German heritage. One of them, August Ramthun, built his hotel in 1873, naming it the Ramthun Saloon and Rooms, soon to be called the East Madison House.
The depot areas in Madison were among the busiest places during the 1890s. Many residents on the east side complained about the trains that often blocked Wilson and Blair Streets. A subsequent owner of the East Madison House hotel, Charles Elver, member of a prominent Madison family, benefited from the train traffic. He undertook a major expansion of the hotel in 1891, giving the building an updated Queen Anne facade. The wooden exterior was rebuilt entirely in 1897 and encased in brick. More rooms were added, creating a courtyard in the center. Elver advertised steam heat, baths, and electric lights in his hotel, the Elver House. The name lasted until 1939.
The hotel is architecturally significant. According to the National Register nomination, “It is an interesting amalgam of earlier Italianate design motifs and the Queen Anne style.” Italianate was a favored style during the last half of the 19th century and was characterized by low pitched roofs, imposing cornices at the top of the building, and tall first floor windows. The Queen Anne, or Victorian, elements that were added include a round corner tower, decorative wrought iron fire escapes, molded brickwork, and a basement of stones that were cut cleanly on the edges but retained rough faces. These elements were “combined in a way pleasing to modern eyes” and serve as “interesting reminders of local architectural design from the 1890s,” as stated in the nomination.
In the 1920s through 1940s, the two train depots competed fiercely, and the hotels serving the depots thrived. Between 1940 and 1946, the hotel was called the Lake View Hotel. When World War II ended, the number of passengers traveling on the railroads decreased. Competition from expanded bus lines, automobiles, improved roads, and commercial airlines did in the railroad business.
The Lake View Hotel became the Wilson Hotel and held the name for more than 50 years. It, along with another hotel in the area, began to serve mostly weekly and monthly lodgers. The hotel was even featured in several scenes in the 1980 made-for-television movie The Boy Who Drank Too Much , starring Scott Baio.
It was fitting that an entrepreneur of German descent, Bob Worm, spied the Wilson Hotel and other buildings on the same block when he was stopped in traffic on the corner of Wilson and Blair Streets in 1982. In 1988, he bought the Wilson Hotel. A decade later he closed it for renovation. “I wanted a place my friends could stay rather than having them in my house when they visited,” Bob says.
Bob did not change the exterior of the hotel and kept the hallways and stairwells original. The doors to the rooms that made up the historic hotel remained, but about half are not used today. Thirty-six rooms were gutted and became 15 spacious rooms done with a Victorian flair. In the past, hotel guests shared bathrooms. Today, two rooms have Jacuzzis, four have fireplaces, and all have a wet bar. “All the rooms are different,” says Bob.
In 2000, the overhauled hotel was opened under its new name, Hotel Ruby Marie, after Bob’s mother. “My father’s name, Lee Worm, was on the barn on the farm, and I wanted to honor my mother by putting her name on my revamped hotel.” Some in the local media thought the hotel was named after a prostitute who supposedly frequented the East Wilson Street area. Bob’s mother was amused by that story. Even though she had no idea that a hotel was being named after her, in the end “she was quite pleased,” Bob says.
“People ask if there are ghosts in the hotel,” Bob jokes. “Yes, some people may have passed away while residing in the hotel, but we’ve not had any reports of ghosts. There was one resident who went to prison for bank robbery. Whenever he went outside and went about his business, he wouldn’t expose his back. Now when I see someone walking close to a building, I wonder what he might be paranoid about.”
As for the future, Bob says he will need to redevelop some of his properties on the Hotel Ruby Marie block while preserving its historic character. “The City wants me to keep the hotel,” he says. “Picking a developer is the dilemma. I want someone with imagination who is willing to take a risk. And, above all, who is energetic and wants to have fun.” In the meantime, the City’s Engineering Division has proposed a design for the hazardous intersection where John Nolen Drive and South Blair, East Wilson, and Williamson Streets meet, adjacent to the Hotel Ruby Marie.
An amenity offered by the Hotel Ruby Marie includes a complimentary breakfast at the Lakeview Bakery & Deli, located in the hotel. A regular customer at the Bakery & Deli said she stops there daily for breakfast on her way to work. “It’s quiet, a nice way to begin the day, and one of Madison’s best-kept secrets.” But maybe not for long once the community discovers this gem in the Hotel Ruby Marie.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.