Unsheathing the Past…The Checkered History of the Walthall Hotel

Walthall Hotel, Capitol Street, Jackson Adapted from an original image courtesy of the MDAH collection

Jackson’s Walthall Hotel opened its doors in the spring of 1929. Named for Confederate General Edward Cary Walthall, the hotel opened as an eight story building on Jackson’s bustling Capitol Street, just a few steps away from the Governor’s Mansion. Jackson architect N.W. Overstreet was assigned the daunting task of building a modern hotel above what had been a three story bake shop and tea room. With Overstreet’s new additions, the hotel stood proud, flaunting its delicate neo-gothic ornament as a sort of homage to the nearby Lamar Life Building of 1924-25–interestingly, Overstreet was the associate architect on the Lamar Life project.

The Walthall was a relatively modest structure in both size and temperament. It did not really aspire to compete with the grandeur of the Edwards, or even with the up-to-the-minute appointments of the Heidelberg.  The hotel was a solid accoutrement to Jackson’s bustling downtown.  The handsome lobby was richly paneled in mahogany and was unfailingly festooned with garlands and an enormous Christmas tree each December.  The lobby also saw its share of action on occasion, as Governor Paul B. Johnson once famously attacked the editor of the Jackson Daily News in a brawl over some perceived slight.

A post card view of the Walthall from the 1940s

By the 1950s, the hotel’s interior had been renovated in a sleek modernist style more appropriate to the era.  One could almost have pictured Don and Betty Draper in its stylish new dining room. Roughly ten years later, more drastic plastic surgery would be undertaken to brighten the graying lady’s public face.

The remodeled exterior in its Downtowner years

Plastic surgery took the form of colorful metal or porcelain panels reminiscent of a Mondrian painting in the major transmogrification into a Downtowner Motor Inn.  As if this hadn’t been enough, a huge new parking garage was added behind the hotel and three floors of poolside guest rooms overlooking a sparkling pool were added.  The greatest slight to the building’s dignity, however, was the transformation of what had been interior corridors to exterior corridors for supposedly easy access to the rooms.  While popular in their day, exterior corridors have since been proven to be a liability, both aesthetically and from a safety standpoint as well.  While the panels may have been jaunty and bright, they were only attractive in the way one might possibly find an Airstream trailer charming- possibly fine for what they were in a vintage way, but hardly appropriate for a 1920s building.

The hotel was sold again and became known as the Quality Inn Executive Plaza, perhaps the nadir of its existence. In the mid-1980s, the hotel was sold yet again and the Walthall name was restored to the building even if its appearance remained so drastically altered.

Earl Edison Gaylor acquired the Walthall in 1990 and invested millions of dollars in a well-intentioned effort to restore the hotel’s prominence and elegance. Unfortunately, the paneling, chandeliers and gleaming brass weren’t ever quite enough to restore the hotel’s luster.  There is also misinformation out there regarding the provenance of the interior features.  Contrary to popular belief though, Gaylor did not uncover the original paneling, but merely installed new paneling which almost appeared old.  Fragments of the original features managed to survive here and there, but usually in things like the impressive brass mail box in the lobby and perhaps a bit of old paneling or a chandelier or two hanging in one of the meeting rooms.  To undo the violence inflicted on this poor building, Gaylor had a full plate in front of him.  While valiant, Gaylor’s efforts never quite restored the prominence once enjoyed by the hotel.

The Walthall Hotel in 2008

In August 2008 the hotel was acquired by the Roberts Group of St. Louis, the country’s largest African American owned hotel group.  The Roberts brothers have undertaken an ambitious program of renovation which has freshened the rooms and public spaces.  The mechanical systems have been updated as well, something we don’t always think about when we think of historic buildings.  Modern guests don’t appreciate historic plumbing or air conditioning systems, so it is wise to invest in the upgrading of things which guests can’t always see.  The facade was probably destroyed with the application of the exterior panels, so restoring it may not be a viable option.  It is good to see that the Roberts brothers have invested in the future of the building and indeed in the future of downtown Jackson.  Long may it prosper.



Categories: Historic Preservation, Hotels, Jackson, Modernism, Renovation Projects

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9 replies

  1. Was the hotel constructed and/or owned for some time by descendants in the Walthall family? When working on a master’s thesis 20+ years ago relating to artist Kate Freeman Clark, the great-niece of Edward Cary Walthall, I seem to remember that is was a cousin (whose name unfortunately escapes me at this moment) who was running the cafe in the hotel, advertised as the first “air-cooled” in town.

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  2. As far as I know, the hotel was built by a group of local business people. That is an interesting possible connection.

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    • It was always known to us, The Spencer grandchildren, that it was our grandfather’s hotel- E.O Spencer,Sr. We all grew up in and out of this hotel.

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  3. Do you know when the new facade was added to the hotel? early 60’s? or who might have done it?

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  4. The panels were added in the mid-1960s- perhaps in 1966.

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  5. My grandfather, E. O. Spencer, built the original Walthall in 1928 with Mr. Overstreet and Leslie Carpenter. He ran it until around 1974ish. He tore down much of the beautiful, old building around 1963 telling me that “motels” were a thing of the future, and named it the Downtowner Motor Inn. I don’t know much about the business end of it, but I grew up there and felt it was” home.” My father, Bubba Spencer, also lived there from 1969-1974ish. We had the best Sunday Buffet ever!

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  1. Newspaper Clippings: Walthall Hotel When It Was New « Preservation in Mississippi

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