The Eola Hotel in downtown Natchez is heading for the auction block in November (“Eola Hotel on Auction Block,” Natchez Democrat, Sept. 25, 2009). While this may appear to be cause for alarm, it may well be cause for celebration instead. The Eola Hotel, one of the cornerstones of downtown Natchez, will probably have a new owner soon.
The Eola opened its doors on July 1st, 1927. Isadore Levy of New Orleans, president of the Board of Directors of the Natchez Investment Group, named the hotel for his daughter Eola. The building, constructed at a cost of $750,000, was designed by the New Orleans firm Weiss, Dreyfous, & Seiferth, perhaps best known as the architects of the “new” state capitol building in Baton Rouge. The Eola shares certain similarities with the old Jung Hotel on Canal Street designed by the same firm. The Eola would continue operating until its closure in 1974. Clarence Eyrich Sr. managed the hotel, followed in turn by his son.
After the hotel’s closure, a definite void was evident in downtown Natchez. Soon, proposals for redevelopment in one form or another began to apear. One modest proposal was for the hotel to be converted into a retirement home. A more ambitious project for revival would have seen the hotel converted into a Granada Royale Hometel (not a misspelling, the chain was a precursor to the Embassy Suites chain), complete with a faux-Iberian makeover. Instead, oilman Forrest Germany of Dallas bought the hotel and restored it with a post-modern twist. California architect Charles Moore, then at the vangaurd of the post-modern movement, was called to add his signature to the project. The result, a surprisingly practical mix of pragmatism and whimsy, has served reasonably well since the hotel reopened its doors in 1982. Noted hotel designer Deborah Lloyd Forrest, Mr. Germany’s daughter, was responsible for the interior makeover. If there was one great tragedy associated with the restoration of the Eola, it is that the adjacent Buttross Building, positively bristling with projecting bay windows and a central turret, was allowed to “accidentally” collapse during construction. Its replacement was a chunky ballroom addition which does little aesthetically for the hotel.
Bob Dean, who also owns the Hotel Bentley in Alexandria, bought the Eola in 1998. His overblown choices in furnishing notwithstanding, it can be said that he has maintained the hotel reasonably well. It is simply time for a major overhaul. I am not sure that Mr. Dean is willing or able to do what is needed. He tried to auction the Eola in June, 2003, but there were no offers which met his reserve. As the hotel was built in the 1920s, most of the rooms are small by the standards of today’s travelers. Perhaps bigger thinking is in order. The adjacent Frye Building could be removed (I doubt there’s much of value beneath its 1950′s facade, though I’d be happy to be wrong here) and a new section could be added with more rooms. It’s also possible that there are simply too many hotel rooms in the area at the moment and that a careful restoration of the existing property would be more in order. Whatever is done shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The Eola may be out of keeping with the stereotypical tourist notions of Ionic columns and magnolias, but the hotel is a major piece of the downtown historic district. It needs to be viable as a working hotel, so creative thinking need not be forgotten when entertaining proposals for the building. As a real landmark hotel, the Eola deserves protection and care. I would not wish to revisit the horror of the Natchez Grand Hotel, a misnomer if ever there was one. Natchez can’t afford to sleep through this sale without being alert.