Southern Hotels: Vale Et Salve

Atlanta has a spectacular new hotel, the Regency-Hyatt House. Another impressive, nineteen-story hotel is rising on the site of the old DeSota Hotel in Savannah, and a Statler-Hilton has been announced for downtown Macon, Georgia. The hotel, it seems, is staging a comeback, and the South is very much a part of it. The hint of a new era is enough to send a Southerner into a lingering look at the old one. At least it does this Southerner, who is admittedly newly in love with the Regency-Hyatt House.

Southern hotels have never received proper notice. They didn’t fit the stereotype Southern landscape; never looked Southern. Most of the hotels built in the South since the Civil War were Victorian or Edwardian or Spanish Renaissance or neo-Romanesque, sprigged with towers and turrets, crystalline with filigree attributed to Stanford White. In that period there were hotels built to look like Moorish castles, Turkish mosques, Venetian doges’ palaces, and Mediterranean villas. But none I know of reproduced the look of Jefferson’s Monticello or Mount Vernon or “Twelve Oaks.” Some of the elegant resort hotels and spas, such as the Monte Sano Hotel on a hill outside Huntsville, Alabama, did have deep porches and rows of rocking chairs, which made good sense in the South; but the prevailing tone in most resorts was strictly knickers and wicker, greensward and flagpoles, not string ties and bourbon and rebel y’alls.

The Old South was never enthusiastic about hotels. Discounting a few like the original St. Charles in New Orleans, which opened in 1837 as “the gathering place of creole social leaders and dashing young officers,” the prevailing attitude among the ruling class was that the idea of a hotel was a trifle unseemly. It smacked too much of commercial hospitality.

“When a gentleman comes to town,” said Confederate statesman Robert Toombs, putting a stop to plans for building a hotel in his hometown of Washington, Georgia, “he will stay with me. If he is not a gentleman, then, most certainly, we do not want him to remain overnight.”

The New South, on the other hand, was practically born in a hotel, in a smoke-filled lobby where legislators met Yankee entrepreneurs (carpetbaggers to the Old South) and connived ways of rebuilding railroads destroyed by General William T. Sherman in his march through Georgia. Rebuild, expand, promote, develop, and get rich quick. In that era of progress and corruption a wheeler-dealer from Chicago named Hannibal I. Kimball moved to Atlanta, became the financial adviser to the governor, president of three Georgia railroad companies, and built a stately hotel in 1870 at “five-points,” the heart of downtown Atlanta, which he named the Kimball House. He “was never able to convince many Georgians,” wrote a historian later, “that he had not used the state’s money doing it.”

It was part of the forgotten spirit of the times that General Sherman was toasted at the old Kimball blouse when he visited Atlanta in 1878. It is also indicative that when the Kimball House burned down in 1883 it was rebuilt in less than two years, the new one gaudier than the first, with brickwork towers bulging out from the corners in a masterpiece of masonry. And once more politicians and promoters found each other in the cigar smoke, and together fashioned schemes both greedy and benevolent.

The town of Fitzgerald, Georgia, for example, was invented as a philanthropic railroad promotion. The town was built and settled by Civil War veterans from both sides of that conflict — an enterprise of reconciliation between former enemies. It worked. Streets were laid off and named for Yankee and Confederate generals. Georgians balked only at the naming of the new hotel the Grant-Lee; they insisted it be changed to Lee-Grant.

A look at the records of the building of these post-Civil War hotels tells a lot about the local hustle and the eagerness of foreign capital; it also reveals some of the problems and occasional languor of spirit. Take the Albert Hotel in Selma, Alabama. It took thirty-eight years to complete. The original architect, James E. Sweet of Albany, New York, was called home in April, 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. A year after the end of the war the halffinished structure stood, in the words of the local paper, “a reproach to the enterprise of our people.” The next year enough of the building was completed to provide “eleven bedrooms, a bridal apartment, two parlors, and a skating rink” on the second floor, where a dining room had originally been conceived. But not until 1892 was it completed (the skating rink eliminated) and named after Albert G. Parrish, “who was active in procuring the money to purchase the property.”

The Albert is the hotel designed after the palace of a Venetian doge, and it is also historic to reporters from all over the world as the hotel in whose lobby Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was slugged as he made a symbolic registration. The last time I stayed there the Albert still had a deep-red carpet covering the lobby, fine old oak woodwork, a grand stairway that divided at the stained-glass-lit landing. The upper hallways had the same high ceilings of the last century and a sign: “These corridors are air cooled.”

The South has always had numberless mineral springs with little inns and latticed pavilions that had been popular with the local leisure class since the 1820s. Their curative claims were as varied as the establishments — “marvelously useful in curing cutaneous disorders, also for removing freckles and tan from the skin, leaving the flesh as soft as a little child’s,” said a report on the waters at Cullman Springs, Alabama. The most fashionable with antebellum Southerners was White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where in 1877 a charity ball was held to raise money for an equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee.

But the South also had mild winters, “salubrious air” that was said to contain ozone — a superoxidized air with bracing and cleansing effects — in certain piny sections. And it had Florida. Well, it didn’t really have Florida since that state has never been considered part of the South. And the newly minted millionaires who wintered in the exotic chain of hotels Henry M, Flagler built along his Florida East Coast Railway, and those of Henry B. Plant on the Gulf side of the state, had little to do with the natives beyond tipping the redcaps who handled their steamer trunks and the caddies who carried their clubs.

But in towns all across the South the local hotels did represent a meeting ground for provincial and outside views. The hotel was a social center for local people, often serving in the absence of a country club as a place where the elite held their debut balls. Inevitably they would mingle in the lobby with the out-of-town guests.

In my hometown of Augusta a substantial winter colony grew from the annual visitors to the Bon Air Hotel. Ladies of my grandmother’s generation served tea and cinnamon toast at the Cranford Club on winter afternoons. Mr. William Lyon Phelps, professor of English literature at Yale and a winter guest at the Bon Air for a quarter of a century, would be invited to come and read poetry.

“Visitors would get to be perfectly mad about getting in with local people,” Mrs. Rodney S. Cohen, a grand dame of Augusta society, recalled. “There was always an interchange of magnificent parties — really magnificent parties — as fine as anywhere in the world. In the class with Newport.”

The resort hotels began to die one Tuesday morning late in October, 1929. Many burned or went bankrupt, or both; some became VA hospitals, senior citizens’ homes, or denominational colleges. One of them, Savannah’s DeSota, departed this life with a rambunctious corkpopping costume ball and dinner party on New Year’s Eve, 1965, exactly seventy-five years after the New Year’s Eve party that celebrated its opening. Some died so slowly the only sound you could hear, as my grandfather said of the Bon Air in the 1930s, was “the clicking of knitting needles and the hardening of arteries.”

What is left from that time in the Southern psyche may be no more than a faint, false memory of linen plus fours and a trim green grace. Certainly no Southerners became Yankeeized by so fleeting an exposure to well-heeled elegance. And the wealth that still bore telltale signs of being freshly acquired certainly never penetrated the Southern sense of longer rooted, superior gentility. Yet I cannot get away from the notion that, in some subliminal way, the encounter with Edwardian style on the golf course and at cocktail parties had its part in shaping the affinity certain citydwelling, milkily affluent Southerners today have for thick tweeds, headmasters, and squash courts.

The purely commercial hotels lived on a while longer, falling into their own fly-buzzing silence with aging bellhops dozing in threadbare lobbies, bibulous old-timers reclining to the neck in deep leather chairs, slapping out the evening paper to the sports page. But the action had shifted to the edge-of-town motels, where Hertz and Avis car doors slammed richly shut at 7:30 in the morning as keen-edged salesmen gol an early start on the day.

Once motels began to move into town, add meeting rooms and even ballrooms, solicit convention business, and shift their generic name to “motor hotel,” there was little left for an old hotel. Except, it suddenly occurred, do exactly what a hotel is best at doing — the same job these downtown motor hotels were doing.

So today the fight is on. In Memphis the Sheraton chain bought out the historic old Peabody (all dying Southern hotels seem to be historic, usually because of the famous men who slept there; the Peabody because it figures in a famous definition of the mysterious Mississippi Delta — “It begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg). In the hope of recapturing the growing convention business, Sheraton spent money adding Italian marble to the lobby, crystal chandeliers to the ballroom, and Louis Quinze and Seize furniture to the rooms. And they have continued the quaint afternoon ritual in which five ducks that swim in the pool in the lobby of the Peabody are escorted, to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” by bellhops, over a special red carpet, to the elevator, where they are conveyed to their sleeping quarters in the penthouse.

Stars and Stripes may not be forever since the Downtown Motor Hotel is building a facility with a large convention hall just across the street from the Peabody.

But something memorable is sure to come from it all.