The recent discussion in the Sun Herald about the Markham Hotel warrants a rejoinder. That a Main Street program which receives federal and state funds for preservation would even be considering demolition for an important downtown landmark is unthinkable. Alas, after Katrina, it seems that anything is possible. First, a bit of history on one of the Mississippi Coast’s last surviving grand hotels…
The Markham opened its doors on January 31st, 1927 at the southwest corner of 21st and 14th Streets in a burgeoning downtown Gulfport. The hotel was named for Charles H. Markham, a former president of the Illinois Central Railroad. Markham wasn’t an investor, but had actively encouraged the building of a prominent downtown hotel. Gulfport’s other grand hotel, the Great Southern, was even then beginning to show its age and catered to a resort clientele. The Markham would be all business, though not always. Its opening night festivities included an orchestra borrowed from the Roosevelt’s Blue Room in New Orleans and normally sober townsfolk partied the night away in a blaze of color and light in the shimmering Crystal Ballroom.
From an architectural standpoint, the Markham is a good example of the period- a mildly neo-classical, but essentially typical business hotel of the period. Exterior shutters and a glass enclosed roof terrace added a bit of tropical sprightliness to an otherwise staid building. Inside, the spacious lobby had glistening marble and handsome carved paneling. A grand stairway swept patrons to the mezzanine where they could dine in an elegant, formal dining room. I once read somewhere of a certain manager’s wife who would dress to the nines each evening and make an appearance in the lobby before sweeping up the grand stairway to her dinner. The Markham would see a number of managers come and go in its days as a hotel.
Local resident and historian Anthony Kalberg recalls that the pool was one of the favorite spots for children lucky enough to be in the Markham’s popular swimming club. The pool was covered with a sturdy trellis which had a system of sprinklers installed within. At the whim of a lifeguard, the vines above would spout forth mists of cooling water jets so that the children could at least swim, if not sing, in the rain.
The rooftop garden was completed shortly after the opening and was another smash hit. Kalberg recalls an evening there in the late 1960s where the room was so bedecked with palms and ferns that it seemed a tropical forest, complete with a bubbling fountain at its center. He also spoke of the Markham as the symbol and center of a bustling and vibrant downtown, where the lobby served as both a social gathering place and a symbol of the city. At Christmas, the scene was especially grand with busy shoppers going to and fro bearing brightly wrapped packages, but all would stop to admire the glittering Christmas tree and the elaborate garlands and boughs throughout the ornate lobby. In a way, the lobby of the Markham was a local equivalent of the famous clock at New York’s long vanished Biltmore. The palmy days of the Markham would soon take a more sobering turn.
As business shifted away from the grand old hotels to newer, more modern establishments, so went the Markham. The Security Savings and Loan Co. acquired the hotel in the 1960s. Flagging business led to the locking of the Markham’s doors in 1970, but after the hotel’s contents were auctioned off, the owners decided to keep the hotel and renovate it into an office building. Thus did the Markham become the Security Building. Instead of the wrecking ball, however, the Markham found renewal as an office building. Unfortunately, the swimming pool, Sundial, gardens and all of the outbuildings disappeared during this time for a parking lot. Still, the solid old hotel’s future seemed secure as an office building. It was even renovated again and renamed the Markham Building in 1987. The Crystal Ballroom hummed with special events and the Markham Cafe operated on the ground floor. So it remained until the wrath of Katrina flooded its marble halls with muck and debris.
Following the storm, the building was sold to a lawyer from New Orleans who did little more to preserve the building than to install a cheap blue plastic tarp over the roof, thus allowing the elements to ravage the interior of the hotel.
As it stands today, there’s no denying that the building needs attention. What should be remembered is the example of Jackson’s King Edward which stood empty for forty three years before its day of redemption. Does Gulfport wish to follow the sad and ignorant example of Wichita? Wichita’s city leaders also decided that they were tired of seeing an “eyesore”, in this case the majestic Art-Deco Allis Hotel. Instead of simply mothballing the building and waiting for a developer, they chose the irreversible path of implosion. Nothing marks the site today.
I did speak with a member of the Main Street Association in Gulfport and was assured that they don’t wish to destroy the Markham, but that something would have to be done with it very soon before it is lost. Arguable, perhaps, but the ownership of an absentee lawyer from New Orleans hasn’t helped the Markham (does this ring any bells with those familiar with the sickening plight of Arlington in Natchez?) at all. Perhaps the city or the association could turn to the courts to wrest the building from an uncaring owner. I don’t pretend to have the answer either, but people must be aware of what is at stake. The Markham is nearly the last of a crop of grand hotels on the Coast. All have disappeared with the exception of the Markham and the White House in Biloxi, whose grasp on life may or may not be tenuous at this point. The Tivoli slipped away with barely a whimper of notice in the press. So must it not be with the Markham. Private ownership must not be translated as public desecration. As is noted in the Mississippi Historic Sites Survey, “As a local landmark and symbol of an earlier time, this building should be preserved.”