The king of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley, stayed there, as did the "Duke," John Wayne. Hometown beauty Grace Kelly, who married a prince, was a visitor, as was every U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt.
In its prime, the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, an 82-year-old Philadelphia landmark, was one of the nation's largest and most opulent hotels, offering rooftop lodgings for pets, in-house stockbrokers and a hospital on the 16th floor.
Its nadir came in 1976, when 29 American Legion conventioneers died from what came to be called Legionnaires' disease, a bacterial infection that spread through the hotel cooling system.
After surviving that crisis, two name changes and a three-year shutdown, the elegant hotel at the busy intersection of Broad and Walnut streets will close permanently after brunch next Sunday.
In its next reincaration, the 18-story French Renaissance building is to become a multipurpose facility that includes a small hotel, offices, restaurants and luxury shops. The owners -- Rubin Associates, a local real estate firm, and Seattle-based Westin Hotels -- told Bellevue Stratford employes Wednesday about its imminent demise.
Harriet Phillips, 65, was sipping perhaps her last afternoon tea there last Friday after finishing her shopping and banking. When Phillips made her social debut in 1938, she recalled, the hotel was the site of parties "night after night after night."
Also disappointed is Sam C. Bookbinder, co-owner of another Philadelphia institution, Bookbinders Seafood House, located behind the hotel. For 23 years, he has rented Suite 213 on New Year's Eve for a bird's-eye view of the annual Mummers Parade the next day. He paid about $700 to welcome 1986 at the Bellevue Stratford, renting audio equipment so he and guests could hear the Mummers' music without opening the windows.
"It gives the city a black eye," Bookbinder said of the closing. "And it's bad for my business."
The hotel was felled by newer and more luxurious competition, a permanent scar left by the deadly disease and lack of a city convention center. The Bellevue Stratford has not made a profit since Rubin Associates reopened it in 1979.
The elegant facade, which won the hotel a line in the National Register for Historic Places, is window dressing for outdated plumbing, heating and electrical systems, said Raymond F. Sylvester, the hotel's general manager. "An inordinate amount of revenue was put back into capital expenditures," he said.
With 528 rooms, the Bellevue Stratford is one of the largest hotels in the Center City area, but failure of city and state officials to agree on financing a $455 million convention center left many rooms vacant.
"We need a major convention center," said Jim Fitzgibbon, vice president of the Philadelphia Hotel Association and general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel. Much of Philadelphia's hotel business is suffering, he said, and the survival of some "just depends on how patient your bankers are."
Philadelphia's 15 Center City hotels lost $36 million in 1984, according to the association. The Penn Center Inn is to be replaced by an office complex, and the Philadelphia Centre hotel has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The Center City hotels' average occupancy rate was 57.5 percent for the first 11 months of last year, down from 59.2 percent for the same period in 1984, according to Pannell Kerr Forster, an accounting firm that prepares feasiblity studies for new hotels. In Washington, the occupancy rate was 72 percent for the first nine months of 1985, a 1 percent increase over that period in 1984.
"It shows a particular weakness when one of the oldest and best known hotels in the city is closing its doors," said Sam Rogers, vice president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is scrambling to relocate the 200 conventions scheduled for the Bellevue Stratford through 1988.
Within a day of the announcement, the hotel's management was compiling lists of job openings at hotels and hospitals for its 459 employes. City Hall, three blocks up Broad Street, sent employment counselors to talk to the workers.
Joseph Vidovich, 30, night doorman for five years, said he is not worried about losing his job but bemoaned the passing of the hotel. "This is . . . Philadelphia's grand old landmark hotel," he said.
Flanked now by glassy modern buildings and the stately City Hall and Academy of Music, the Bellevue Stratford was opened in 1904 by Prussian immigrant George Boldt, who started his career as a waiter and later managed New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The new Bellevue Stratford boasted a magnificent ballroom, lighting fixtures designed by Thomas Edison and an internal power plant that made the building self-sufficient. There were 700 employes, 50 cooks and guest rooms had coal-burning fireplaces.
By mid-century, the ornate decor had fallen out of favor and attempts were made to add such modern amenities as air conditioning. The hotel, however, continued to decline in popularity and prestige, even before the fateful blow during the height of the bicentennial celebration in July 1976.
About 200 persons attending an American Legion convention became sick while attending a meeting at the hotel, and 29 died. The occupancy rate dipped as low as 4 percent that summer, and the hotel was boarded up that November.
In June 1978, Rubin Associates bought it for $8.25 million, the amount it had cost to build the hotel 74 years earlier. They added $25 million worth of renovations, importing 44,000 square yards of carpet from Ireland, 25 tons of marble from Portugal and crystal chandeliers from Uruguay.
Because of concern that the original name would invoke memories of Legionnaires' Disease, the hotel reopened in September 1979 as the Fairmont. When Westin Hotels became a co-owner the next year, the hotel was renamed the Westin Bellevue Stratford.
Joe Rogers, 52, who has picked up passengers in front of the hotel for the 18 years he has been driving a cab, said, "It really hurts; it hurts inside." Over the years, Rogers has collected more than 2,000 autographs from luminaries passing under the hotel canopy. His catches include Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Dean Martin, Muhammad Ali and Pete Rose.
On the night before closing, the Bellevue Stratford is to host the Academy Ball, one of Philadelphia's major social events, and every room is booked.
"People are calling like crazy to get reservations" for the ball and the final night, said Stephen Gorse, sales director for the Bellevue Stratford. "We wish they'd have come out sooner."