Thursday, August 11, 2022

Walking with Ghosts: A Visit to the Birthplace of the NWA

by Dick Bourne
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

Waterloo, Iowa, stands as a beacon of history for both amateur and professional wrestling. It is the birthplace of the most famous and decorated American amateur and Olympic wrestler Dan Gable, and is the home of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum. The Dan Gable Museum is also home to the George Tragos - Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame which recognizes wrestlers with an amateur background that went on to make a substantial contribution in professional wrestling. 

The Hotel President building in downtown Waterloo, Iowa.
Photograph by Dick Bourne

Waterloo is also the birthplace of the National Wrestling Alliance, once professional wrestling's largest coalition of cooperating promoters across the United States and around the world. In 1948, Iowa promoter Paul "Pinkie" George and four other Midwest promoters met in the Gold Room of the beautiful Hotel President in downtown Waterloo and formed the articles that chartered the National Wrestling Alliance. That building, near the banks of the Cedar River, still stands today.

Park Avenue entrance into the Main Lobby of the Hotel President
Photograph by Dick Bourne

There is an ironic link tying the Hotel President to the Dan Gable Museum, and therefore linking both the amateur and professional sides of Waterloo's wrestling history. The manager of the hotel at the time of the promoter's gathering in 1948 was a man named Lark Gable, who was Dan Gable's grandfather. That unlikely connection just blows me away.

Vintage ashtray and promotional tourism flyer from the Hotel President, both circa 1940s.
Notice the hotel manager's name, Lark Gable, grandfather of legendary wrestler Dan Gable.

Photograph by Dick Bourne


The Hotel President, on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1928 and first opened on January 10, 1929. It is no longer a hotel. It has been redeveloped as a federally subsidized apartment complex for senior citizens. Los Angeles based Huntley Witmer, the company that most recently redeveloped the building in 2015, had the wisdom to change the name back to the name of the original building, with restoration of the original lobby, helping to preserve its spot in pro wrestling history, even if that history is largely lost through the sands of time.

The lobby of the Hotel President in the 1940s.
Photo from a vintage promotional tourism flyer.

The lobby looks much as it did in the 1940s, with the lobby atrium largely untouched and the wood railing around the second floor mezzanine thought to be original, standing just as it was on July 18, 1948 when the small group of Midwest promoters met there.

Lobby of the Hotel president after 2015 renovations and restoration.
Photo courtesy


That group in 1948 was led by Iowa sports promoter Paul "Pinkie" George, based out of Des Moines, who organized this meeting and hosted it as well. As a result, he is considered by historians as "the father of the NWA." George was a successful promoter in many different areas, including professional basketball, baseball, boxing, and wrestling. 

Joining Pinkie George that day in Waterloo were:

Max Clayton (Omaha, Nebraska)
Orville Brown (Kansas City, KS)
Sam Muchnick (St. Louis., MO)
Wally Karbo (representing Tony Stetcher, Minneapolis, MN)

Fred Kohler, the promoter in Chicago, IL, was part of the group but did not attend the July 18 meeting, but consented to the agreements made at the meeting by telegram. 

The group voted approval to several statutes, including recognizing one world champion, Orville Brown (who was also the promoter in Kansas City.) Brown is therefore recognized as the very first heavyweight champion of the NWA. (It's worth pointing out that the NWA traces its title lineage from Brown all the way back to George Hackenschmidt in 1905, generally regarded as the first ever professional wrestling champion.)

Sadly, there is no designation or commemoration on the site of this historically significant event that changed the course of pro-wrestling history. I would imagine that not a single person living or working in that building today has any clue of that history. Hopefully, I'm wrong.

While attending the 2022 Tragos-Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, I took the opportunity to travel just across the Cedar River to see and photograph the Hotel President. I wanted to get inside if possible, but my first attempt made late one evening proved futile, as all the doors were locked. The next day, I, along with my buddy Matty Montcalm made a second attempt and this time we were able to enter the lobby and make our way up a side staircase that led to the second floor mezzanine and the entrance to what remains of the original Gold Room, where the promoters met in 1948.

Looking out through the doors of the only room left that has a connection to the spot
where the NWA promoters gathered in 1948, across the mezzanine into the atrium
of the Hotel President lobby.

Photograph by Dick Bourne


As we entered that room, walking through the large wooden doors, I will admit I got cold chills, thinking about those five men gathering in that very place and making agreements that would literally change the course of professional wrestling history. it was a cool moment.

In my next story in this series (Waterloo: The First Ever NWA World Heavyweight Title Defense), I'll take look at the professional wrestling card that took place later that same evening at historic Electric Park in Waterloo. It was attended by the group of promoters who earlier that day formed the National Wrestling Alliance, which made the local news.


Special thanks to Tim Hornbaker and his book "National Wrestling Alliance"