Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Tutwiler Hotel

A lot of people don't realize that the Tutwiler Hotel located at 2021 Park Place near Linn Park in downtown Birmingham is not the original Tutwiler Hotel.

The building we know as The Tutwiler was originally the Ridgely Apartments.  The Ridgely Apartments was built in 1913 by Robert Jemison, Jr. and Edward Tutwiler to serve as a high end apartment complex.  It consisted of a total of 120 rooms and apartments.  By the time Temple Jemison decided to transform the Ridgely into the new Tutwiler Hotel in 1986, the Ridgely only had between 30 and 35 tenants left in the entire building.  Most of these tenants were elderly people who had lived in the building for decades.  The rest of the building was vacant and in serious need of repair.

Photo of the Ridgely Apartments shortly after its grand opening, circa 1913

The original Tutwiler Hotel  was a 13 story brick and limestone luxury hotel located on the southeast corner of 5th Avenue North and 20th Street.  Constructed in 1914 by a group of local investors.  It closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1974.

The Tutwiler in 1930
Lobby of the Tutwiler in 1930

In 1913 the President of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company complained to Robert Jemison, Jr. of the lack of decent hotel accommodations in the city.  Jemison teamed up with Harvey G. Woodward, W.P.G. Harding and Major Edward M. Tutwiler, who had just sold his interest in the Birmingham Coal and Iron Company to the Woodward Iron Company the year before.  Major Tutwiler agreed to underwrite the first mortgage and the creation of the Tutwiler Luxury Hotel was off and running.

Major Edward Magruder Tutwiler 

Robert Jemison, Jr.

William  P. G. Harding

The lead architect, New Yorker William Lee Stoddard and local architect William Leslie Welton, accompanied by Hotelier Robert R. Meyer, visited the vanguard of the "Metropolitan Hotels" of the day in other cities to study both their best features and their worst mistakes.  The result blended the Slaten Hotel in Cincinnati, the Blackston Hotel in Chicago, the Vanderbilt hotel in New York and the McAlpin Hotel in New York.

When it opened, it was like nothing the area had ever seen before.  Among other luxuries, the interior featured what the Birmingham Age-Herald proclaimed to be the "Biggest Lobby in America" furnished with heavy "Elizabethan" furniture and dressed with marble walls.  The developers spent $400,000.00 on the furnishings alone.  That figure equals to $9,642,585.86 in today's money.

The doors officially opened on June 15, 1914 and all the leading citizens of the area turned out in droves dressed in their best formal attire to see the "Grand Dame of Southern Hotels".  

The Tutwiler consisted of 325 rooms.  All were equipped with either a bath or shower and telephones.  Rates ranged from $1.50 to $6.00 per room.  That would be the equivalent of $36.59 to $146.34 in today's money.

For the next 60 years, it was a hub of Birmingham playing host to hundreds of celebrities, politicians and dignitaries.

President Warren G. Harding presided over a luncheon in his honor at the hotel during the Birmingham Semicentennial in 1921. Charles Lindbergh held a press conference in the Louis XIV suite in 1927.  In 1937, actress Tallulah Bankhead threw a rousing post-wedding party in the Continental Room which for decades hosted lunches and dinners with live big band music 6 days a week.  Also, novelist Jack Bethea hanged himself in one of the guest rooms in July, 1928.

In June, 1967 the Tutwiler was sold to the local Great Southern Investment Corporation for $1.7M.  James P. Paris, head of the investment group, announced they expected to spend up to $1M to renovate the entire hotel and planned to market the hotel's Regency Room Ballroom as an alternative to "The Club".  However, just 5 years later, the hotel closed for good on April 1, 1972 and was demolished on January 26, 1974.

1985 saw a new interest in the Tutwiler and it was decided to convert the Ridgely Apartments, which was still owned by the Tutwiler family, into a new luxury hotel named after the original.  by 1986, the renovations were completed and the new Tutwiler opened to guests.

It now features 149 rooms.  In 2006 the hotel came under new management and a massive $9M renovation was begun in stages.  Below are a few pictures taken in 2006 in a couple of the unrenovated rooms.

The hotel and the restaurant located in the hotel are said to be haunted by the ghost of Major Tutwiler.  The story goes that the Major stuck around after having lived in the Ridgely apartments prior to his death.  His ghost has a habit of knocking on doors late at night and has been blamed for mischief in the restaurant.

Hotel lore says that a bartender a few years ago kept getting into trouble for leaving the light and stoves on after closing.  This went on for many nights consecutively.  Finally one morning the manager came in to find someone had prepared a large meal and taken out a bottle of wine.  The staff began addressing the Major when they closed at night saying "Goodnight Major" and asking him not to make mischief while they were away.  That seemed to do the trick and while knocks on the doors, lights turning themselves on and off are still least the stoves in the kitchen are off and no ghostly meals have been prepared. 

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