It may not be a surprise to anyone in a town so battered by hurricanes that only one grand hotel would remain after a litany of horrific storms and the vicissitudes of rampant development. In spite of Camille and even Katrina, the White House has stubbornly refused to give way for anything new and shiny to take its place. We should be grateful for its tenacity and the stubbornness of the Love family whose intentions are to restore the grand old lady. Time will tell, but chances are that we may soon see her awakening, as if from a long sleep. The White House was built in 1893 by Judge Walter A. White as a private residence. His wife Cora began to take in boarders as early as 1910. Soon, additional space was needed so the adjacent Burke House was purchased in 1911. Soon, there would be seven houses which would be connected by a grand colonnade of Corinthian columns. This still wasn’t enough space for the burgeoning hotel trade, so Mrs. White brought in Mobile architect George B. Rogers (perhaps best noted for the mansion at Bellingrath Gardens) who built substantial annexes in 1923 and 1927, essentially completing the look of the hotel we know today. Rogers’ central block was distinguished by a Spanish baroque doorway which still exists. The eastern addition features a pyramidal roof-belvedere and relatively restrained Ionic columns which are flush with the facade, in striking contrast to the Corinthian order employed on the main loggia. The 40 foot fountain with colored lights was installed on the front lawn in 1926 and is currently owned by the city, which is restoring the fountain.
After Cora White’s death in 1934, the hotel was purchased by Jimmie Love Jr., perhaps best known as the owner of the WLOX radio and (later) television stations. Mr. Love also owned the Buena Vista nearby and took an aggressive stance at drumming up the meetings business for both hotels. He was remarkably successful and the White House enjoyed years of prosperity before its gradual decline. The hotel rooms were modernized in keeping with current trends in hotel-keeping and the Mirror Room and its attendant bar were renovated in high style in the 1950s. The White House and the Buena Vista were marketed in tandem to better accommodate large groups, though the White House never had a large ballroom or any significant meeting space of its own.
After Hurricane Camille hit the Coast in 1969, Love sold both hotels in 1971. Years of slipshod management and negligent maintenance took their toll. I recall visiting the hotel in the late 1970s and in the early 80s. It was a depressing experience. A loud and vulgar bar called Amelia’s occupied one end of the lobby and the place was tattered and torn. When it finally went into bankruptcy in 1988, its closing was almost a blessing. James S. Love III purchased the White House in 1989 with every intention of restoring the hotel to the grandeur it had known during his father’s ownership. He began the arduous task of restoring his beloved hotel, but was thwarted with the advent of the events of September the 11th, after which most sources of funding evaporated.
Love’s ambitious plans included a careful restoration of the existing building with the addition of a new rear west wing (designed by Dale and Associates of Jackson) which would have brought the total number of guest rooms to 115. Suites would have been located in most of the Rogers additions and there would have been a new rooftop deck on the west wing. Love had even engaged the estimable Sonesta Hotels group to manage the new White House. With Mr. Love’s untimely death earlier this year, it is hoped that Mr. Love’s descendants can find a suitable buyer who will care for the hotel and its beautiful wooded site. The building survived Katrina with surprising aplomb and I am told that most of the interior woodwork was removed prior to the storm and survives in safekeeping. The task of restoring one of the last remaining grand hotels on the Mississippi Gulf Coast should not prove to be an insurmountable one, but it will demand a developer with both patience and deep pockets.