More than four decades after its closing, the once stately Hotel Pines clings to life even as it seems to continue a slow descent into the bowels of Pine Bluff’s widely decaying, boarded-up and partially demolished Main Street business district.
But what isn’t evident is that as the historic six-story, U-shaped structure at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Main Street nears the 100th anniversary of its festive Nov. 6, 1913, opening, it potentially holds a similar influence to its primary, original purpose — generating commerce and spurring growth as a hub for the sector.
Hotel Pines was the brainchild of a collection of Jefferson County’s wealthier residents, who invested in the project while figuring it would provide the impetus for Main Street development southward. Additionally, the hotel was seen as becoming a community center as well as an attraction to visitors, especially those utilizing the nearby Cotton Belt Railroad depot as passenger train customers.
The grand hotel — now owned by Californian E.W. Moon — quickly became the choice location for social gatherings, civic and business meetings and assorted banquets. It acquired a wide reputation for its beauty, grandeur and numerous features.
Hotel Pines’ construction cost was a then-staggering $300,000, which equates into nearly $7.1 million in current value. The renowned George R. Mann, who had previously designed the Arkansas State Capitol and Hotel Marion in Little Rock, was hired as the local structure’s architect. Secured as Hotel Pines’ interior decorator was the noted Paul M. Heerwagen of Fayetteville, who had previously performed such work for several leading hotels elsewhere.
The process of arranging financing and then planning and completing construction and furnishing required more than three years. Once done, the hotel was unmatched in Southeast Arkansas. The bold impact of the front exterior along Main Street was magnified by striking features including an adornment of intricate, classical detailing both inside and out.
The hotel housed a large, second-story ballro0m in which some of the biggest names of the times in musical entertainment performed. The Pines’ guest list would also include Hollywood motion picture stars, state and national political figures, business and industry giants, railroad and aviation and other transportation leaders, acclaimed writers and additional notables.
Becoming the city’s center of activity, Hotel Pines featured a coffee room and sizable restuarant, a deluxe barber shop, a pool parlor and other amenities. Tales of bootlegging adventures from the era of prohibition still persist and even gained mention in a 1997 book on the history of Arkansas Power and Light Company, now known as Entergy.
Hotel Pines was the site of various meetings and conventions and assorted social events, incuding reunions, weddings and receptions, engagement parties and baby showers. During the Great Flood of 1927, the facility served as part-time emergency headquarters for an array of responders.
But for much of its existence, the hotel’s only black inhabitants were African-American employees who tended only to menial duties. The facility’s management and clientele was “white only.”
The hotel’s demise began in earnest in 1968 with the curtailing of passenger rail service to the city. By 1970 — 57 years after opening its doors — Hotel Pines closed. A handful of businesses operated occasionally within its street-front spaces over the next decade. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
By 1990, some city leaders fought for the structure’s demolition, but a local, non-profit preservation group — Citizens United to Save The Pines, or CUSP — formed and targeted the hotel’s revival with a fundraising effort that collected favorable publicity and renewed public interest, but not nearly enough money.
CUSP eventually ran out of energy and sold the hotel to Davidson Properties of Jacksonville, which proposed appropriating $3 million to restore the facility within less than two years. Plans called for a revised structure to feature office and business spaces and 75 hotel rooms.
Davidson’s proposal never materialized, and the hotel wound up being acquired by Moon, who is now seeking to sell it through local preservationists, historic properties developers and brokers Charlie and Dee Herring Gatlin. Moon’s asking price is $52,000, which Gatlin believes would represent a huge bargain for the right buyer, even with the hotel’s dismal condition and an estimated restoration cost of at least $15 million.
Gatlin is among around 20 people who have established new businesses within the downtown sector within the past 18 months, according to Harold Terry, who also numbers within the group along with Alfred Austin, Kenneth Cole, state Sen. Stephanie Flowers, Jefferson County Justice of the Peace Lloyd Franklin II, Debra Goldman, Frederick Jackson, Marion Lee, Rosie Pettigrew, Jack and Kathy Stradley and others.
Terry is a leader in the Downtown Special Events Organization, which is promoting the area with such events as the recent, free Music on Main outdoor concerts. The shows have drawn good-sized crowds and been well-received by the public and praised by Mayor Debe Hollingsworth and several city council members.
The roots of the latest effort to stimulate downtown’s recovery are connected to voters’ 2011 approval of a “Penny for Progress” five-eighths cent sales tax hike and resulting bond issue, with a downtown streetscape project included among works to be enacted by revenues. Meanwhile, new public safety techniques imposed by the police department under Chief Jeff Hubanks — appointed by Hollingsworth this year — have delivered a significant drop in crime, which the mayor said is a must if citizens are to become comfortable enough to return to downtown and the sector is to experience an increase in cultural tourism.
Several downtown property owners recently attended a meeting in which they heard and saw examples of conceptual visions of the development plan, which has an initial scope of a 12-block area stretching from Eighth Avenue and Main Street to the courthouse and Lake Saracen, along with some side streets.
There’s no firm time frame or rigid financial budget for the envisioned improvements, but state and federal grants and private gifts and investments may provide the fuel needed to carry the project to its fullest potential within a manageable schedule.
The project focuses on downtown’s historic character and architecture, which makes a restored Hotel Pines a vital component. Consulting officials in the streetscape undertaking noted that the structure has extra significance as it is presently the most likely source of delivering downtown occupancy, probably not as a hotel but instead with apartments for the eldery and on-site stores and businesses. Some government funds might be obtained for the remodeling.
Gatlin is a believer.
“I can foresee the Pines coming back,” she said. “It’s already attracted the interest of several out-of-state investors. Downtown Little Rock looked like downtown Pine Bluff in the 1980s, but Little Rock has bounced back with some great restoration, and I expect Pine Bluff to do the same.”
Gatlin said Pine Bluff’s recent downtown spurt may seem relatively insignificant, but small beginnings often progress into big achievements.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” she said. “It’s like a ripple effect. Somebody’s got to toss that pebble into the water if you want to make a wave.”
And Hotel Pines, perhaps, will create another big splash.