The new play Hotel Berry highlights the lives and accomplishments of Edward and Martha “Mattie” Berry, whose eponymous hotel was a Court Street landmark for more than a century.
The Berry Hotel began as an ice cream shop and later restaurant the Berrys operated on a lot Edward bought in 1880 for $1,300. In 1893, they expanded the restaurant into a hotel, where Mattie Berry is credited with starting the now-standard hotel conventions of placing a Bible, toiletries and closet hangers in each room, as well as bygone traditions like mending patrons’ clothing. The hotel became a major attraction on Court Street, offering fine dining and hosting several presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt, during the Berrys’ ownership.
The Berrys were leaders of the Black community in Athens and Southeast Ohio, which had a sizable number of Black residents due in large part to its placement along the Underground Railroad and proximity to what was then Virginia, a slave state. They gave generously to the development of Mount Zion Baptist Church, which still stands on Carpenter Street, and the now-demolished AME Church on the city’s west side, which was home to much of the city’s Black population. Although he did not attend Ohio University, Edward also donated $100,000 — nearly $3 million today — to build OU’s alumni gateway; his gift was in honor of John Newton Templeton, the university’s first Black graduate.
Still, they were not fully accepted in mainstream society. Edward had political aspirations but was never supported by officials in the local Republican party, which was the party of most free Black people at the time. He never held any public office, except as trustee of what was then called Wilberforce College, one of the nation’s first historically Black universities.
The Berrys sold the hotel in 1921; it continued to be run as a hotel until 1961, when OU bought it to use as student housing and, later, offices. When student enrollment severely contracted in the 1970s, the university and city government began discussing razing the building — which had been condemned by the state fire inspector after a fire during the 1960s, according to Post reports from the time — for a planned parking lot, which was never completed.
After the building was demolished in 1974 and the space it occupied sat empty for over two decades, a silver building housing a diner, now operating as Hangover Easy, was eventually dropped via crane onto the lot. All that remains are two historical markers — a physical plaque in front of the diner and a virtual marker developed by the podcast Invisible Ground across the street — as well as a mural behind the restaurant.
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