The History of the American Colony Hotel - From Chicago to JerusalemThis is the first entry in a GoJerusalem.com series on the history of the American Colony Hotel.
This is the first entry in a GoJerusalem.com series on the history of the American Colony Hotel. What is now a renowned, world-class luxury hotel began life as a Christian commune founded by one determined Chicago family - a family whose unswerving faith had borne them through unimaginable personal hardship. From the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 until their arrival in Jerusalem a decade later, follow the saga of the Spafford family and their community of faithful as they lay the groundwork for one of Jerusalem's enduring landmarks.
The building that would become the heart of the American Colony complex, a classic example of 19th-century Ottoman architectural splendor, was built initially to suit the needs of only one occupant in mind: Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi El Husseini, a pasha, a ranking nobleman in the hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire. Husband to no fewer than four wives, El Husseini's need for generous accommodations was perhaps understandable, and in addition to his own palatial quarters, each wife was given spacious summer and winter quarters (each of these rooms, with period interior decor intact, is available today to hotel guests; the pasha's room is fittingly enough Room 1). Unfortunately, El Husseini did not have long to enjoy house and harem; he died in 1895 soon after his fourth wedding, leaving no heir, which allowed his estate to pass into new, altogether unexpected hands.
More than 20 years earlier and a world away, a deeply pious Chicago lawyer named Horatio Spafford underwent the first of many terrible trials in a life nearly defined by them: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 annihilated much of the city as it raged for three days, wiping out most of Spafford's real estate holdings.
While such experiences would have felled lesser men, Spafford's firm Christian faith, aligned with the utopian and millenarian impulses that had gained much traction among American and European Christians in recent decades, had instilled in him an unshakable belief in the value of public service, and he directed the energies of his growing family towards rebuilding the shattered city and providing for its many newly homeless residents at his house in Lake View, on the outskirts of the city, which was spared from the fires.
After two years, feeling that his family deserved a rest, Spafford arranged for a holiday in Europe. When a last-minute business development demanded his attention, he sent his wife, Anna, and their four young daughters, aged two to 11, ahead on the luxury steamship Ville du Havre, planning on meeting them in Europe as soon as his business had been attended to. But tragedy struck again: as the Ville du Havre steamed across the Atlantic, another ship accidentally rammed it in the middle of the night, splitting it open and sinking it within minutes. Out of 273 souls aboard, only 47 survived long enough to be rescued by a passing ship. Anna Spafford was among them. Her four daughters were not.
Upon arriving in Paris, a shattered Anna Spafford sent her husband a two-word telegram: "Saved Alone." Horatio Spafford immediately set sail to join his wife; as he passed through the area where the Ville du Havre went down, he penned the lyrics to the famous hymn "It Is Well With My Soul," a declaration of unswerving faith in the face of unimaginable misery. But the Spaffords' troubles did not end upon their return to Chicago. Anna gave birth to a son, Horatio, their first, and a daughter, Bertha, but in 1880, scarcely more than six years after the Ville du Havre tragedy, the Spaffords' son died of scarlet fever at age four. Unimaginably, the Spaffords' church, which they had helped found, then turned against them and ejected them from the congregation. According to the rigidly puritanical tenets of the millenarian sect to which the Staffords adhered, the tragedies that had befallen the family could only be pine punishment for private misdeeds, and the congregation could not abide the presence of those who were so obviously sinners.
Understandably weary of Chicago, the Spaffords cast their eyes toward the Holy Land, where surely, they believed, the Messiah would soon arrive and sweep away the last vestiges of a far too cruel world. In August 1881, not long after the birth of another daughter, Grace, and accompanied by 12 others who had resigned from the church in protest of the Spaffords' dismissal, the Spaffords arrived in Jerusalem, and foundations of the American Colony were laid. The group included a total of 17 people, including children.
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