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The Historic Piedmont Hotel
by Richard Pilcher
In 1873 Mr. Alvah Smith started purchasing property for a hotel he planned to build near the new railroad in Gainesville, GA. He wanted an entire city block for his hotel, but there were difficulties acquiring parts of that block. However, as soon as he had the land needed for the footprint of the buildings he started construction. The Piedmont Hotel was to be a three story structure of two wings with forty five guest rooms. Within the complex there would be separate structures for the kitchen and dining room, stables and the privy.
Construction continued in fits and starts through 1874 and into 1875 as Mr. Smith struggled financially. Finally in 1875 work stopped altogether as Alvah Smith faced several liens against the property, the largest of which was filed by his own sister, and at least one court judgment. At this point he started seeking a partner in the project and the new partner he found was General James Longstreet.
They agreed that Longstreet would buy half interest in the hotel for $6,000 and with that money Smith would settle the liens and judgment and together they would finish and operate the hotel. Longstreet agreed that if Smith could raise the $6,000 plus interest within six years he could buy back the hotel. It never happened. In fact, Longstreet’s $6,000 was not enough to settle the outstanding debts. At this point Smith signed over his interest in the hotel to James Longstreet and Longstreet assumed all remaining debt.
Construction resumed and continued through the rest of 1875 and into 1876. During this time the General assembled most of the property needed, failing only to acquire a 100’ strip at the north end of the block and on June 13, 1876 the Piedmont Hotel finally opened for business with John Garland Longstreet, the General’s son, and Maria Louisa, his wife, managing the business and with James Longstreet actively involved. The General owned the hotel until his death in 1904
The Piedmont was Longstreet's political base throughout his long career as a Georgia Republican during which time he served as Minister (Ambassador) to Turkey, Gainesville Postmaster, US Commissioner of Railroads and US Marshal for the Northern District of Georgia. The hotel was Longstreet’s social base as well. Guests included editor and author Henry Grady, known as the voice of the new South and Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus Tales. Grady and Harris did some ghost writing for the General. General Joseph Johnston ,whom Longstreet considered the most capable of Confederate commanders stayed at the hotel too, as did Union General and New York Congressman Daniel Sickles, who was the first person to successfully use the "temporary insanity" defense after he killed his wife's lover, Francis Scott Key's son, in a fit of rage. Confederate General William Mahone who commanded the Confederates at the point of the explosion at the Crater on the Petersburg line and a railroad executive after the war visited.
Another surprise visitor was Lafayette McLaws, one of Longstreet’s division commanders and a man with whom he had a rocky relationship during the war, who came here as a post-war friend and fellow trustee of North Georgia Agricultural College. Eppa Hunton was a Colonel in Pickett's Division and was severely wounded at Gettysburg. After Gettysburg he was promoted to Brigadier General to command one of Pickett's brigades. President Davis had ordered General Lee to leave two of Pickett's five brigades in the Richmond defenses. It is almost a certainty he and Longstreet talked in the hotel lobby about “what if” those two brigades had been with Pickett’s other three brigades on the third day at Gettysburg. Future US President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Ellen Axson Wilson were frequent guests and their daughter Jesse Woodrow Wilson was born at the Piedmont in 1887. Ellen Wilson died a year into the Wilson presidency and Jesse was married in the White House.
There was much local lore surrounding the General and his hotel. He was noted for his love of children and the story is often told that in his later years he climbed three flights of stairs to take an apple to a young guest. He is said to have walked down to the train station to meet arriving travelers and drum up business for his hotel and dining room. When his home burned one afternoon in 1889, someone arrived at the hotel on horseback to awaken the General, who was ill at the time, and, in spite of his wife’s protests, he climbed to the cupola to look across town and watch the flames. Even after his death the stories continued. Locals claimed that when the night train stopped at the station, a figure resembling General Longstreet would be seen standing in the steam from the locomotive, but when the train pulled out and the steam cleared there was no one there. Abit Massey, Executive Director of the Georgia Poultry Federation, makes the claim that southern fried (batter fried) chicken was first served at the Piedmont which was famous for all its chicken dishes.
After the hotel's heyday it was leased to Rev. J.A. Bell in September 1899 as a boys' boarding school under the name Piedmont High School, changed to the Georgia Military Institute in February 1900. After the school closed it was used as a boarding house. In 1918 the family decided to raze the now rundown building. A last minute decision saved the ground floor and, for a time, the second floor of one wing and this section went on to serve as home to several family members at different times.
In 1994 a property on Maple Street in Gainesville was identified as the site of the old Piedmont Hotel, which General Longstreet owned from 1875 until his death in 1904. Garland Reynolds, who had located the site, asked several of us to meet at the property where we discussed buying the place and bulldozing the dilapidated buildings on the site, the largest of which was collapsing, to building a Longstreet museum or memorial.
Mr. Charles Ector, a WWII Tuskegee Airman and a respected elder member of the community and Jim Syfan, both of whom accompanied Reynolds and fellow LS founder Richard Pilcher to the Piedmont Hotel site, made a startling discovery. Mr. Ector walked over to the largest building, pulled open the door and peered down a long hallway. He turned to the rest of us and said, "This is part of the old hotel. Look down this hallway." Jim Syfan had made the same observation the day before. Of course, the Longstreet descendants in the Society knew it was there all along, but we hadn't thought to ask the right question and they didn't realize that we didn't know. Without this stunning discovery by Jim Syfan and Charles Ector the Piedmont could have been bulldozed and gone forever.
In 1995 the Longstreet Society was a new organization with just $400 in the bank, not enough money to buy an old hotel. But seventeen people with interests in history and in General Longstreet each agreed to sign a $10,000 loan guaranty agreement with the Gainesville Bank and Trust and with this $170,000 the hotel was saved. We bought the property, had everything from the ceiling up replaced and restored the veranda which had once encircled each floor of the original building. Even today we speak with a degree of reverence of the Seventeen Signers who saved the building from destruction. They are: William Burchanal of Big Canoe, GA;
J. Clark Irvin (deceased), Dr. John McHugh, Dr. J. Del Mixon, W.L. Norton, Jr., Richard Pilcher, Evelyn Reynolds, W. Garland Reynolds, Reed Skinner, Bob Stevens (deceased), Jim Syfan, Allen Waters, Charles Thurmond (deceased), all of Gainesville, GA; Mary Pate of Fort Myers, FL; William (deceased) and Jamie Paterson of Bowie, MD; Dr. Robert West of Cleveland, GA and Dr. John Witek of Tucson, AZ. .
Over the next four years the Longstreet Society struggled to pay taxes, insurance, a minimal amount of maintenance, the interest on the loan and a modest reduction of the principal, but we were not making substantial progress. At this point LS board member Judge William L. Norton, Jr. proposed that we form a separate organization with the purpose of restoring the hotel and possibly developing other historic sites and buildings. This offered the Longstreet Society help in getting the hotel restored and would free up the Society to do its other work. Early in 1999, the Piedmont Hotel property was deeded to the Gainesville-Hall Trust for Historic Preservation for its restoration with the agreement that the hotel would serve as Longstreet Society headquarters and the Society would manage the building. To date the Longstreet Society has invested nearly $150,000 in this effort.
Keeping the project alive, LS project chairperson, Margie Johnson and some dedicated volunteers worked countless hours on the building and the Longstreet Society continued to invest in the project. We had security lighting and a temporary electrical pole and panel placed. New wiring and plumbing were installed, sheet rock and painting work continued and the Society paid skilled craftsmen when they were needed. When termites were found in the building the Society paid for a very expensive termite treatment and we still pay for recurring inspections and treatments.
The Council of the Gainesville Federated Garden Clubs took on the project of researching plants and shrubs which would have been used on the premises in 1875 and volunteered to plant and maintain them. A large part of the actual work was done as an Eagle Scout project by Austin Phillips, son of Dr. and Mrs. Randy Phillips, and later his brother, Wade Phillips, researched and built a muscadine grape arbor like those of General Longstreet's time and planted cuttings from one of the vines on General Longstreet's farm as his Eagle Scout project. The vines have thrived and produce a nice crop of muscadines each year.
Garland and Bonnie Reynolds, after their son Matthew died in an automobile accident caused by a drunken driver, made a memorial donation in his name which made possible the purchase of a much needed adjoining property, now the Piedmont's parking lot. In his memory the Longstreet Society has named the library in the Piedmont the Matthew Reynolds Memorial Library.
Finally, Judge Norton and the Gainesville-Hall Trust for Historic Preservation, teamed with the Longstreet Society, provided the funding needed and completed the project in 2007. In 2011, with the financial guidance of Ron and Jamie Hollis, the Longstreet Society reassumed ownership of the Historic Piedmont Hotel and a remaining debt of $50,000. We of the Longstreet Society are proud of the part we have played and we are most grateful to Judge Norton and the Trust and to many other people who have contributed in one way or another to the success of this project. The Longstreet Society has expressed our gratitude to Judge Norton by naming the main meeting room of the Piedmont Hotel the William L. Norton, Jr. Community Room.
Those interested in making a contribution towards restoring this important part of Georgia and Southern history can click the Donation button below or send a donation to The Longstreet Society, P. O. Box 191, Gainesville, GA 30503, notating the Piedmont Hotel project.