With all of the hype and hoopla over the summertime smash hit the Help, the many references to the old Robert E. Lee Hotel might set people to wondering about the place. Visitors to downtown Jackson might be forgiven for the assumption that the Robert E. Lee State Office Building had been built as such. It has, after all, been an office building since 1969, a time well beyond the memory of many Jacksonians. A quick study of the building should reveal it to even the most casual observer as a former hotel. The Robert E. Lee has even managed to receive a recent restoration, perhaps securing its place as an office building. I would prefer to see this grand old place returned to use as a hotel. It’s got the right bone structure! Its place in history is undeniable, though perhaps darker than many would like to believe.
The hotel was designed by Jackson architect Claude H. Lindsley in 1928 and the doors opened in 1930, possibly not the most propitious time to open a hotel anywhere in America. The throes of the Great Depression may have forced the mighty Edwards Hotel into bankruptcy, but the Robert E. Lee came through somehow. It was always a good hotel, though quite possibly never thought of as exactly the best hotel in town. Its location near the “New” State Capitol building would ensure it a steady patronage through the years.
The lobby is richly adorned with marble and handsome columns and the brass elevator doors are an exclamation of depression-era extravagance.
Sunday, July 6, 1964 was a pivotal day for the hotel. Its owners, the Gammill family of Hattiesburg, chose to close the doors of the hotel rather than admit African-American patrons in accordance with the new laws of the land. They shut the doors of the hotel, only to sneakily reopen the hotel again a few months later as a segregated “private club.” Even this mean-spirited ruse did not save the hotel (nor should it have) and the Gammill family sold the building to the state. Since 1969, it has been in use as the Robert E. Lee State Office Building. One wonders, though, why the name has not been changed. As much as I usually recommend retention of historic names on landmarks, renaming the building in this case would really hurt no one and would possibly go a long way in the direction of changing the image of Mississippi for a new generation.
The state has made noises about the possibility of selling the property to a developer willing to renovate the building, though their stance has changed with the winds of finance and politics. At present, the building remains in use and is not for sale. With all of the talk about a new convention hotel in downtown Jackson, wouldn’t it make sense to capitalize upon the already existing resources at hand? I myself have made the argument that a convention hotel is needed. Whether or not one is built, the conversion of the Robert E. Lee into a possible hotel/condominium or apartment combination might make sense. Legislators could buy an apartment right across the street from the State Capitol and visiting lobbyists could stay in the same building! What’s not to like here- at least if you’re a lobbyist! The central issue here is that the building, though occupied and cared for, is not really meeting its full potential as a living and breathing part of downtown Jackson. Its handsome public spaces are in relatively good condition and could be enjoyed by the public once again with the right configuration of public and private uses for the building. This argument brings us full circle to the point that the state seems reluctant to sell the building at this time. The possibility that a new hotel will be built at the convention center and another Westin hotel recently proposed for a site on Tombigbee Street near the Thalia Mara Hall make the reversion of the Robert E. Lee to hotel use even more remote. Nonetheless, it’s something to ponder anew. Instead of building new buildings, why not make better use of the ones we already have?
Categories: Civil Rights, Cool Old Places, Historic Preservation, Hotels, Jackson, Mississippi Landmarks, National Register, Renovation Projects
changing the names of things to suit current tastes is a bit of revisionist history that simply denies the truth of the past and i am so against it. i did not support changing goodchildren blvd in new orleans (one of the most unique and charming names in the city) to mlk blvd even though i am greatly in favor of honoring dr king for his heroism. with hundreds of new streets and suburbs appearing all the time, why not name new streets and new buildings for new heroes.
I absolutely agree that the beautiful detail should be seen by more people, and considering that the downtown Jackson condo/apt market is booming, the Robert E. Lee would be a natural for conversion. However, since the building is currently being used, I can’t completely agree to converting it instead of filling empty parking lots with new buildings.
Both of you have good points, but I do think that Mississippi needs to go the extra mile to change its image. Without wanting to shift the subject to an entirely different one, a state which retains the Confederate battle flag in its image must realize, at some point, that this history may well be respected without exactly being celebrated. There is a difference between the two. Under most circumstances, I am not in favor of changing the historic names of places to suit current fashion. In this case, the name would be flatly impossible and unworkable as a hotel name which raises the question of its appropriateness as the name for a state office building.
As for the use of the building as it stands, yes I’m extremely grateful that the state has retained it in use and has kept it in good order. I merely don’t think it’s meeting its full potential as a piece of architecture. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to enjoy this great building in some other way than merely as an office hive? Even a mixed-use idea might work as well. I agree, though, that there are many parking lots to be filled and your point is quite a good one.
I like the name and dislike names being changed just for the sake of “updating our image” or to suit whatever politician is in office at the time. Robert E. Lee is certainly a much more worthy figure in Southern history than many of the Mississippi governors that other state buildings are named after.
As for the use of the building, clearly it will be a state office building for a long time. I do wish that they would open up that top ballroom/rooftop garden and really make it shine again as a public space like it was meant to be.
i completely agree with your comparison of robert e lee to less worthy officials. if we are going to start changing names for image purposes then “jackson” should be the first to go along with the gleaming white marble bust of him (as large as a remnant of diocletian) in the center of town. and even that would not change the truth of mississippi’s participation in the trail of tears episode.
but i think changing the name of this building would also be very problematic given the images of and references to lee present on fixtures throughout the building. they would seem truly non-sensical unless effaced in the sort of revisionist vandalism popularized by pharoahs and the taliban.
The tribal taliban are amateurs when it comes to organized “revisionist vandalism” like that which occurred during the Nakba. it is ongoing as we speak. Meron Benvenisti’s book, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, documents how this was all accomplished, beginning in the late nineteenth century when Baron Rothschild decided to make Palestine a Jewish State. Ben Cohen and Chaim Weisman showed up at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to claim war booty(deed and title to Palestine) for their efforts in drawing Wilson into that fratricidal war. Ironically, Senator James K Vardaman was one of only six U.S. Senators that voted against that war declaration. His son, a navy veteran of that war, was appointed by Truman to join with Ben Cohen at Potsdam to decide Germany’s territorial fate. Vardaman, Jr. chose Clark Clifford as his aide. Vardaman was muzzled!
Great picture of the elevator doors, btw. Was this taken before or after the recent renovation?
I took the picture of the elevator doors several years ago, so I would guess the picture was before the recent renovation. I don’t want to stir up a hornets’ nest with the name change issue and I agree that there are figures far worse who continue to have their names emblazoned on public buildings and property. I just thought it might be good to consider other options.
As one who has spent some time in Mississippi state office buildings, I can tell you that that the R.E. Lee Building was always a different kind of office building. Before the first renovation, each office was nothing more than a hotel room, most with bathrooms. That changed when they knocked the walls down, and put up movable cubicals for office space during the first renovation. The twelfth floor where the old ballroom was located was a beautiful room suitable for public meetings. I hope the recent renovation didn’t change that room.
As a student at Central High and as a teacher later there, I always passed the R. E. Lee Hotel but never entered its doors. Call it lack of curiosity, I guess, but there was something foreboding about entering a hotel to look around instead of being curious to see the interior, as I might have done if it were located in NYC. I can’t say that for the other local hotels. Thanks to the photographs of Mr. Barnes I can see now what I missed.
When I first began my career as a state employee in 1973, my office was one of those hotel rooms with my own bathroom, as no renovations had been initiated in the building. Even before renovations began, the top floor was a place where many public meetings would be held, and you could easily imagine the stateliness of the room back when it was one of Jackson’s major hotels. During my tenure there from 1973 to 1979, the doors to each room still had brass doorknobs specially molded for the hotel in the shape of Robert E. Lee’s head. After my department moved out of the building, I heard that when renovations were announced, those doorknobs began to disappear from the doors.
Rather too bad that the original hotel rooms had to go, but I suppose a typical hotel floor plan doesn’t really lend itself to office use. Interesting about the doorknobs! I think the ballroom on the roof escaped relatively unscathed, but it has been some time since I was last inside the building. I went in briefly in 2010, but only saw the lobby.
Love the mail drop chutes too!
Like Bill Barnett, I began my state employee career in the Robert E. Lee Builiding with the same agency. My office was on the 6th floor, complete with private bathroom. The 11th and 12th floors were renovated to create more open space into which portable-wall cubicles could be placed to allow for more employees. I was fortunate to get a full-wall private office on the 11th floor when we moved into the finished space. The ballroom on the 12th floor was kept as one large, high-ceiling room but much of the ornatesness was lost due to damage from roof leaks and breakage. When the renovation was completed, the room had lost much of its character. As to the doorknobs, I think Bill is correct that they began to disappear, presumablly taken for keepsakes or to sell as interesting artifacts. The remaining knobs were removed to prevent their theft. I don’t know if anyone knows where they ended up.
Maybe the brass doorknobs can be found in Room 113 at the Capitol Building, along with Fritz Behn’s bronze Bilbo statue.
Tulane University’s Southeastern Architectural Archive blog has posted an image of Robert E. Lee hotel stationary that has a neat rendering of the building.
Wow, I’m just now reading this post. I can shed some light on the renovation/restoration of the Robert E. Lee.
The condition of the building was actually good prior to the renovation work. The major new work consisted of adding enclosed fire stairs at the end of each wing. As was the vogue in those postmodern days there are subtle “quotes” from the original design but the intent was to play these additions way down. The entire masonry exterior was cleaned (needs it again).
The first floor public spaces were in very good shape. The original ceiling-mounted light fixtures, drop box, and elevator doors (with Lee’s image) were still in place.
Unfortunately every plaster wall surface, including ceiling, had been painted white. As this job was undertaken in the mid 1980s, paint analysis was not something generally undertaken by designers in Jackson. The architects for this job were vaguely aware of the sometimes muddy, atmospheric colors used when the Lee was built. Knowing this, an amateur job of scraping/sanding different surfaces was undertaken and the colors now in the lobby were the best guess of what these investigations found. Of course, you tend to find what you’re looking for.
The elevator doors had to be polished. The polychrome treatment of Lee’s image had almost disappeared but enough was present to repaint them in the original colors.
You are right in remembering the post-hotel offices being located in the original rooms, complete with the original bathrooms. The renovation removed all of this in favor of an open plan. When the fantastic recessed medicine cabinets were removed, literally hundreds of them, decades of disgusting razor blades were discovered, drooped through the little slit in the back of the cabinets.
One guest room and its bathroom was retained in it’s original configuration and with the original fixtures intact. I don’t think the owner ever noticed this aberration; they just left it alone as per the plans.
You are correct about the doorknobs with Lee’s image in bas-relief: They all disappeared within a week. The architects retained one and sent it to a foundry in an attempt to recreate the design. The sample came back with Lee’s face resembling a melting zombie. That effort was nixed. (Today such an undertaking would be a snap).
The top floor originally consisted of a ballroom located in the west wing and an open patio in the south wing. The ballroom was rather plain to begin with, so renovations were relatively easy. The terrace, however, (from which dances with orchestras were once broadcast on Saturday nights), had suffered far more abuse than any other space in the hotel.The open-air center portion had been roofed over, closing the night view of the stars. Windows had been jammed into the openings overlooking the city, destroying Moorish pilasters that framed the views. Most hurtful was the fate of the original polychrome encaustic tile flooring. A good deal had been chopped away to accommodate later office partitions, and a lack of money and interest precluded recreating the beautiful patters. (And again, the technology just wasn’t there yet).
Finally, the original clay tile roof/parapets, which had been replaced by some weird white goopy stuff, were recreated. A postcard view had verified the existence of the tile.
Whew! that was very wordy…I am continuously in need of an editor.
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I worked for the Bureau of Capitol Physilities at the time they were transitioning the hotel into a state office building. I was over there about everyday. One thing I noticed was all the doorknobs were brass and had the bust of Robert E. Lee stamped on both sides. I was just wondering if the doorknobs are still there or if the contractors stole them.
I know of one knob that found a new function as a paperweight (not mine!).