Saying Goodbye to the Mentone Springs Hotel

 

Photo courtesy John Dersham

Photo courtesy John Dersham

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The 130-year-old Mentone Springs Hotel burned to the ground on March 1, 2014. In honor of the anniversary, we are posting the article below, which ran in the Summer 2014 issue of Lookout Alabama.

The Mentone Springs Hotel, the iconic structure that gave the town of  Mentone, Ala., its name, was the last wooden Victorian hotel in the state. It, along with White Elephant Antique Galleries, an annex to the hotel that once served as a health spa, were lost to a fire on March 1, 2014. As the community of Mentone and all those who enjoyed the unique atmosphere of these historic buildings mourn their loss, some of the people who knew them best share their remembrances.

On Saturday evening March 1, 2014, I sat outside Kamama gallery and watched the 1884 Victorian Mentone Springs Hotel burn to the ground. It was one of the saddest sights I ever witnessed. Our restaurant diners had all been served, so I went outside to see why there were fire trucks going toward the western brow of the mountain. Flames were coming out of the back of the building, and I watched as they devoured the eastern turret in a matter of minutes. Every window was lit with fire, and the bell-cast roof made a perfect silhouette against the dark sky. I knew she was gone. By the time my husband, Ray, arrived, the center section was ablaze, and we watched in horror as the grand old building, which had withstood 130 years of winters and welcomed that many springs, fell.

When Ray returned from walking closer to the situation (I continued sitting outside the gallery in disbelief), the loss of a decade of hard work and much money spent weighed on my mind, and I felt remorse for having talked him into buying the building. All that effort up in smoke, and I was witness to it. The first thing I said was: “I am sorry that I begged you to buy that building. Now it is gone.” (I am a pessimist).

Ray’s reply was: “Sandra, I would not change one day of those years; nor one decision. All the people we met through those doors are the people closest to us and most meaningful in our lives to this day.” (He is an optimist). He is right. Indeed, we would not have returned to Mentone, after selling the hotel and being absent 18 years, had we not experienced the magic of Mentone and fought so hard to save that place. We craved the feeling of wellness, the air, the beauty of nature and the warmth of this town’s people while we were gone.

The loss of the hotel has affected the entire town and the many tourists and summer campers who visit Lookout Mountain. She has greeted each person who comes up the mountain with her grand turrets and seven gables. The wide porch has bid them to stop and sit awhile. As they descended the mountain, she bade them goodbye. For decades she was the centerpiece of the crossroads.

I first saw the hotel from a different direction than most: County Road 89 coming from DeSoto Falls. We decided to take a different route on our way back to Atlanta. It was my brother-in law’s suggestion after a picnic at the falls. He mentioned that Mentone had the oldest standing wooden hotel in Alabama, but I didn’t expect it to be barely standing. As we rounded the curve, it loomed on the horizon and captured my heart. What an impressive example of Victorian architecture! We drove behind the hotel, and it was sad to see the back wing had been taken off, with only rotten boards covering the space where the large dining hall had been. Boarded windows and locked doors didn’t allow a look inside, so we just walked around the kudzu-covered grounds and looked up at the badly damaged roof, wondering what her story was. No one in town had any idea the status until I happened into Ruby’s service station and store. She lived directly behind the building and gave me the name
of the brother of the deceased man, Norville Hall, who had controlled the building for three decades.

In three months we had purchased the hotel. It was not a financially smart decision, and we realized that. With Ray’s love of old buildings, eternal optimism and determination, we proceeded against odds and extended her life three decades.

Our son, Duncan, was 14 that year, and our daughter, Julia, was 9. It was 1980, and Ray and I were about to turn 40. Julia always credited “mid-life crisis” with our decision to buy “the rotten old castle.” She still refers to that 11 years of our life as “the Mentone daze,” and she always emphasizes the “Z.” It was difficult for our children to leave their cozy Atlanta bedrooms to come to the dank, dark old rooms with boarded windows. In a few months, the boards began to come down and windows were installed. We found the frames on the third floor, and Ray ordered glass to fit. The sunlight erased some of the doubts our children had.

Another obstacle was the fact all the town children were afraid of the hotel due to decades of rumors: ghosts, hauntings, organs playing at night, old-lady screams and various blood-curdling stories were being told. One of the first visitors declared: “This looks just like the building in “The Shining.” For the next few nights, I had to convince Julia that Jack Nicholson was not lurking behind the door with a knife.

Despite the ghost stories and the trembling children walking past, the hotel took on a new life. Kids began to visit. Our Atlanta friends came each weekend. Neighbors began to greet us. And the tourists set up their cameras to take pictures. One Sunday morning, Ray saw five different people taking pictures from across the road. Two had tripods set up and lingered for awhile. The braver tourist knocked on the door and begged for an inside peek.

It would take a book to tell all of our stories, but I am glad I began recalling the old days. It will help to erase the horror, shock and sadness I experienced the night I watched the “Grand Old lady” burn. When I texted Duncan (he is a cameraman with WWF) to tell him it was burning, he texted back later with: “Is she gone?”

I called Julia, who is a librarian at Westwood College in Atlanta, and she cried as if a relative had died. A few days later, she sent a remembrance to her dad. It is full of beautiful memories; and it made me realize their childhood wasn’t too blemished by our purchase of the old hotel 34 years ago, when we were all young. I am sad for current owners Jim and Darlene Rotch, for their loss of both the White Elephant and the hotel. They left her in an elegant state. They were planning to celebrate her 130th birthday. I was planning a speech since they had invited me to give one. Now that party will not happen in the grand ballroom.

We are left with our memories. I have memories of the annual “Night of the Tenth Moon Costume Ball,” the luncheons, the picnics on the porch, birthday parties and weddings. Many couples had their first date on the porch. In the 1880s, there were teas and soirees. In the 1920s, there were dances. Thousands of guests have enjoyed the hotel’s hospitality since 1884.

I am proud the Padgett family and friends saved her. I am thankful for the owners who came after us, for they embellished and completed her. The hotel had three decades of additional life because a couple from Atlanta fell in love with the beautiful crown atop Lookout Mountain in Mentone, Ala. And no fire can erase the memories of the past 30 years.

– Sandra Duncan Padgett

 

It’s an odd thing growing up in a rotting castle. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of being so young in such an old thing, or maybe it’s all of that space to ramble around and hide from the world. Whatever it is, there is no doubt that the Mentone Springs Hotel had an impact on me.

I’m not talking about the fascinating people I met or the childhood friends and cousins I played hide-and-seek with. Not the nature of the surrounding area – Beauty Springs, DeSoto Falls, the brow. Not even all the oddities I stumbled upon that were abandoned by previous owners. Absolutely all of those things  hanged my life and impacted me, but that is not what this is about. What I’m referring to here is something else – the space and place that was the old hotel.

I was not quite 10 years old when I first crossed the threshold. My first memory of its inner being was the basement. That is where Norville Hall lived, and eventually where my family stayed. There was little to no natural light, but the small amount that came through revealed two plastic sidelight windows next to the opening that led to the dungeon. We called it the dungeon, but it was a cellar that had a massive, 4-foot-wide, wooden-beam door. Between the eerie red lights and the bellowing sound of the dungeon door, my imagination ran dark fairly quickly. The floors were slate black, and the air was damp even on that late summer day. To say I was hesitant to enter would be to put it mildly, and the goose bumps on my arms stood out as a testament to my fear.

But my parents and brother entered, so naturally I followed. It’s the plight of being the youngest (or maybe it’s a gift).

After that, the old hotel and I began an understanding with each other. It had a captive audience of a 10-year-old girl and it cast a spell on me. The sudden shadows, the creaks, the groans of old wood, the oddly placed doors and handrails, the angles, those fantastic turret rooms – all of them blended into a hodgepodge of fantasies. “What was that? Did you see that?” My skin would crawl with the unknown.

Those abandoned rooms needed airing out. So that’s what we did. We lightened the load on the structure. We put a roof on. And painted and painted and painted again. And the place flowed with people – the curious passersby, friends, strangers, family. All those dark corners would ebb almost to nothing, and the fireplace glowed doubt away.

But in the years I lived in the hotel with Mom and Duncan, it would go back to being a rotting castle during the week. Some of the shadows would reclaim a room and their spot in my mind. A place I had previously walked with head held high would find me wide eyed and terrified all over again. My bravery wilted in the quiet of the Mentone Springs Hotel’s dusty halls and stairs. The building didn’t seem ready to change, and no one seemed to notice but me. Indeed, my dad would come up on weekends straight from Atlanta and tackle this and that. The flow of helping friends converged. Prez would make spaghetti and meatballs, Terry would pick guitar and sing, Sandy would lend one hand and drink with the other, Dad directed traffic and made sure none of us were too idle for too long, Mom laughed and talked and everyone got covered in dirt. And that is the slow way to change a building.

And change it did – and we did with it. I stopped trying to escape to the outside so much. I even  began staying upstairs and out of the dungeon. The windows seemed to let in more light, and the walls took on brighter and lighter colors. The rotten boards were replaced. Some of the groans subsided. The old lady began to feel herself again and remember who she was as more and more life poured through the doors.

May we all be so lucky to let light in. Rest in peace MSH – I’m glad you found yourself before the end.

– Julia Padgett

My love affair with Mentone began when I was a small child. I visited there with my parents many times. While in college at Auburn, I worked for the Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative and one summer got to walk every inch of power lines in Mentone and beyond. In that process, I fully absorbed for the first time the genuine beauty, both natural and manmade, of the area.

In 1976, while living in Birmingham, where I practiced law, I purchased The White Elephant Galleries building (then known as the Sunset Inn) with a friend and colleague, Frank Young. We had no business plan for that building. We just knew that if someone did not step in soon it would be lost forever. We opened the antiques mall in March of that year and operated it together for many years before I bought his interest. It operated continuously from July 1, 1976, until the fire took it on March 1 this year, and it reopened May 1 in a building adjoining the property.

From the vantage point of The White Elephant, I observed closely the comings and goings at the Mentone Springs Hotel, the initial decay and later the splendid restoration efforts of Ray and Sandra Padgett, Dave and Claudia Wasson, Andy Talton and others who made substantial and unique contributions to the grandeur that was ultimately to be hers. She was a grand old lady, and everyone who encountered her came to love her.

In all those years, I never dreamed of owning the Mentone Springs Hotel. I always considered her far beyond my reach. In 2010, the opportunity to purchase the property came unexpectedly and at a point in my life when I thought, with the energy level, expertise and enthusiasm of my wife, Darlene, I just might be able to manage the time and financial commitments required.

Initially, Darlene and I had as partners in the venture our great friends Sam and Katherine Tortorici. The four of us, with help and encouragement from a lot of old and new friends, pitched in to complete the restoration work that had been ongoing for years. When the demands of Sam’s highly successful banking career meant he and Katherine had too little time in their busy lives, Darlene and I bought them out and became the sole owners.

Darlene’s love for all things Mentone, all things business and all things Mentone Springs Hotel soon became apparent in the fast-paced improvement of the operations of the bed and breakfast, the restaurant and onsite and Internet retail sales.

On Saturday evening, March 1, the Mentone Springs Hotel had never been more beautiful nor more widely known and loved, and possibly never closer to financial viability. Then, in less than two hours (as Darlene and I sat in our home in Birmingham, where I was recovering from surgery), all was lost – the hotel and the galleries – in the massive fire that began in the upper reaches of the hotel, most likely from an electrical short.

Despite the horrible loss of these historic and irreplaceable landmarks, Darlene and I, and the Mentone community, are fortunate. Although there were guests in the hotel, no life was lost and no serious injury occurred. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the Mentone Fire Department, the Mentone Police Department and many others who pitched in to help, the fire did not spread beyond the two structures.

How do you replace a loved one who has been taken by tragedy? We, and many friends and  acquaintances, have come together in physical presence, and by social media and other means of communication, to mourn our loss, much as we might mourn the loss of a dear relative.

Mentone will survive and ultimately grow stronger because of the loss. The heart of Mentone is not destroyed, because its heart is not in the buildings there. Rather, it is in the hearts of those in the community and far beyond who love it dearly and will always nurture and care for it so future generations can experience the pure joy it brings.

No long-range plans for the hotel and galleries site have been made at this time. Debris clearing has begun, leaving in place most of the stones that mark the final resting place of those historic structures. Darlene and I are committed to an ultimate use of the property that will be compatible with Mentone’s glorious past – and the glorious future that is sure to come.

– Jim Rotch