The Gavel Pounds for the Eola

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 in September, 2008

The Eola in September, 2008

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.

The Overstuffed Lobby of the Eola

The Overstuffed Lobby of the Eola

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. 

Bad Statuary in Peacock Alley

Bad Statuary in Peacock Alley

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.



Categories: For Sale, Historic Preservation, Hotels, Natchez, Renovation Projects

7 replies

  1. I agree this may be a blessing in disguise. The Eola is in desperate need of an update, especially now with the competition from the hotel formerly known as the Country Inn and Suites (I won’t mention its current name for fear of driving you into madness, Tom :-)

    But where’s the love for the 1950s Fry Building? The sign is kind of cool at least . . . .

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  2. Wouldn’t it be great if there happened to be something of value beneath the ugly panels of the Fry Building? Now that I think of it, the Fry Building may have replaced the New Natchez Hotel, aka the Natchez Hotel, a great Victorian confection. The original building had a great gingerbread tower. After a catastrophic fire, the hotel was reopened with somewhat less splendor. The remnants survived until the late 50s or early 1960s before being demolished.

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  3. Your description of the small rooms caused me to recall that most of my favorite hotels have been old properties with rooms that would be considered small by modern standards. The Brown Palace in Denver comes to mind. What the rooms lack in size is more than made up for with beautiful appointments, luxurious amenities and service. Further the common areas are so beautiful and comfortable that just “hanging out” is fun. By contrast the pictures of the rooms on the Eola’s website look like a mid-range chain hotel. Maybe the new owners could create a hotel that is remarkable beyond its lobby; swap the microwaves for great room service and lose the plethora of decorative objects – they kind of frighten me.

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    • Lol, yes they’re a little scary, especially at night :-)

      I’m glad you said that about the small rooms though. I’ve often wondered if I was the only person who didn’t really see why hotel rooms need to be huge. As long as the bed is comfortable, there’s more than a couple of tv channels, and there’s enough room to move around comfortably, I’m happy (oh, and wi-fi is another must for me). And as you say, the lobby should really be a nice place to gather and relax as a group with other people, maybe with coffee/tea provided throughout the day to encourage people to be out of their rooms–at Eola, I would say the lobby has a couple of nice areas, but is not as given to gathering and loitering as it might be. If they have a need for a better mix of larger rooms, then they could re-do a few floors and leave the other rooms as is but with high-quality furnishings and a new marketing plan.

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  4. I was night auditor and then accountant at the Eola under Mr. Germany in the 1980s. His restoration made a cool, elegant hotel (albeit with a few too many ferns). They replaced the original terrazza lobby floor with white “bathroom” tile, an unfortunate choice, but mostly, they enhanced its decor. One thing they should have done: some of the rooms are just a few feet larger than the double bed (10X12, about). Better to have either combined some for fewer total rooms (I remember it had 128 rooms then?), or have rented the tiny ones out long-term to elderly live-ins (this was a regular source of guest complaints). We hosted Elizabeth Taylor (she, at 2 am one night, ordered a bowl of grapes– peeled, in fact!– for her pet bird. I was on duty and went into the kitchen walkin and got the grapes, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out how to peel them.) The top floor lounge was called the Moonflower; the old restaurant facing Main Street was remodeled and featured a maitre d’ from Chicago, complete with tableside service and flaming this ‘n that. Everything was very spick n span, upscale, a bit pretentious but quite impressive. The building next door, torn down for the parking garage, was the old Natchez Drug Company (4 stories; I have a picture). Once a year the Confederate Oil Tournament took over the hotel– 4 days of general debauchery. Tauck Tours were regular customers (very demanding upscale tour company). Then, in later years, someone redecorated it in “early New Orleans whore house” decor, I call it– lots of fake ornate furniture, badly cast cement so-called ‘classical’ statues, etc. They also converted the old hand-operated elevator (gold filigreed interior decorations) to a new elevator.

    It’s now closed; latest scuttlebutt in Natchez is for a conversion to a senior retirement community. It’s status as an “on the bluff” hotel has been superseded by that ugly “Grand Hotel”, which is 1 block closer, and resembles so much inside nothing as a Days Inn. Not (as my grandmother would say) at all high tone.

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    • I was only familiar with the later New Orleans theme, so thanks for the description of the 1980s work. I agree completely about the small rooms–a mistake that the hotel never could get over. I really wish it could be something better than what it seems to be heading for.

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