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By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
The site on which The Grand Hotel sits today has seen two earlier hotels so named and the area surrounding the hotel and grounds has had a long and exciting history. It begins in 1847, when a Mr. Chamberlain built a rambling, 100-foot long, two-story hotel with lumber brought down from Mobile by sailboats. There were forty guest rooms and a shaded front gallery with outside stairs at each end. The dining room was located in an adjacent structure, and a third two-story building, called The Texas, housed the bar. Destroyed in an 1893 hurricane, the bar was rebuilt and, according to one contemporary report, “It was the gathering place for the merchants of the South, and poker games with high stakes, and billiards enlivened with the best of liquors were their pastimes.” A fourth building, a two-story frame mansion called Gunnison House, was originally a private summer residence. It became a popular meeting place before the Civil War.
As one of the remaining Confederate strongholds during the Civil War, the port in Mobile was a popular spot for blockade runners. During the 1864 battle between the Confederates and Union, led by Admiral Farragut- in which he famously proclaimed “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”- the confederates bombarded the Union soldiers with torpedoes, eventually sinking the Tecumseh. A large hole was found in the wall of the Gunnison House, located on the site of the Convention Center today. The city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands until 1865 while the hotel was turned into a base hospital for Confederate soldiers.
300 Confederate soldiers died while at the hospital and are buried in the on-site cemetery, Confederate Rest. The soldiers were buried shoulder-to-shoulder, in mass graves. In 1869, a fire destroyed the documents that identified the deceased and a monument to the unknown soldiers was later constructed at the cemetery, which still stands today.
The hotel reopened after the war, but was almost destroyed by a fire in1869. Miraculously, none of the 150 guests was injured, and all their personal effects, as well as the hotel linens and most of the furniture, were saved.
Repairs were made and the hotel was soon again enjoying a prosperous existence. But then, in August 1871, tragedy struck. The twenty-seven-ton steamer Ocean Wave exploded at the Point Clear pier and scores of hotel guests died. For years afterward, sections of the wrecked steamer could be spotted during low tide.
After the explosion, Captain H. C. Baldwin of Mobile acquired the property, and built a new hotel that resembled the earlier 100-foot-long structure, but was three times longer. Baldwin’s son-in-law, George Johnson, Louisiana State Treasurer, took an active role in the business and became the owner upon Baldwin’s death. This two-story facility of sixty suites was opened in 1875. Steamers stopped at Point Clear three times a week bringing hotel guests. By 1889, boats arrived daily. The winter rates were two dollars a day, ten dollars weekly, and forty dollars by the month. The resort flourished.
In the 1890s, Point Clear was the center of the most brilliant social life in the Deep South. Boats crowded with pleasure-seekers from Mobile and New Orleans docked at the pier; carriages and tandem bikes dashed in and out of the drive; blaring bands and picnickers flocked to the broad lawns. The Grand Hotel was known as “The Queen of Southern Resorts.”
By 1939, however, the place was so badly rundown that its new owners, the Waterman Steamship Company, had it razed and, in 1940, built the third Grand Hotel. This was a modern air-conditioned building with ninety rooms; it spread long and low, with giant picture windows and glassed-in porches. A few years later, cottages were constructed, utilizing lumber, especially the fine heart-pine flooring and framing, from the old building. During World War II, when the shipping company turned over the facilities to the United States government for $1 million, it was with the stipulation that the soldiers were not to wear shoes indoors lest they damage the pine floors.
In 1955, the hotel was acquired by McLean Industries, and ten years later J. K. McLean himself bought it and formed the present Grand Hotel Company. A new fifty-room addition was built and extensive improvements were made.
In 1967, a second 9-hole golf course and the first conference center were added. In 1979, the hotel closed as a result of Hurricane Frederick and after repairs reopened on April 10, 1980. In 1981, the Marriott Corporation bought The Grand Hotel and added the North Bay House and the Marina Building, bringing total guest rooms to 306. In 1986, the old Gunnison House was torn down to make way for The Grand Ballroom. Marriott added an additional 9-hole golf course for a total of 36 holes. Major renovations to the hotel were completed in 2003, including a new spa, pool and additional guest rooms. Renovation of the Dogwood course was completed in 2004. The renovation of the Azalea course was completed in 2005.
An expansion of the Grand’s grounds and new real estate opportunities were announced in 2006. The Colony Club at the Grand Hotel opened in spring 2008 and featured condominiums overlooking picturesque Point Clear and Mobile Bay. A new aquatics facility and a tennis center opened at the resort in July 2009.
Daily patriotic military salute and cannon firing started in 2008. The hotel continues to honor the military influence. Each day a processional begins at the lobby, weaves around the grounds, and concludes with the firing of a cannon at 4:00 PM. The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
*excerpted from my book “Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi”
“Nostalgia for City’s caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel’s “Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf” (AuthorHouse). The fact-filled book by Mr. Turkel, an industry consultant, explains, among other things, the history of the hyphen (recently excised) in the name of the Waldorf Astoria, which inspired a mid-block street and even a song.”
To purchase a copy, visit my website (www.stanleyturkel.com) and click on the book title: softcover for $19.95, dust jacket hardcover for $28.95 or an E-Book for $3.99 directly from the publisher.