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August 22, 2001

Volume 9; Issue 33

 

King Edward Hotel marks 140 years of Mississippi history

 

On August 8 Hinds County sheriff's deputies braved broken glass and pigeon droppings to staple seizure notices to the King Edward Hotel. The move could be the beginning of yet another effort to either finally restore or thoroughly raze the downtown eyesore, which has been steadily accruing broken windows and transients since its closing in 1967.

 

Whether the building is torn down or renovated into something new is entirely up to potential buyers, who may soon be able to bid on half the building's ownership due to the seizure, executed from a July 23 court order against out-of-town property owners who still owe about a $1.6 million judgment. E. Dean Morley of McLean, Va., is the owner whose half ownership will be up for bid Sept. 1 if the judgment is not fully paid.

 

Though the future of the building is visibly murky, the surety of its role in the past is thoroughly documented. The old building has undeniably seen a lot of history.

 

Its earliest beginnings can be traced back to 1861, when Major R.O. Edwards, founder of Edwards, Miss., recognized the impending fortune of the railway line sprouting from Vicksburg. At the time, cotton poured in from the lower Delta regions into Vicksburg, which then required a connection between itself and the central portions of the state. From there, the railway would then progress to Scott County and then nearby Meridian. Travelers would need lodging. The dollar signs, to Edwards, were obvious.

 

Edwards erected a three-story hostelry on the corner of Mill Street and Capitol. He called it the Confederate House. In a foreshadow of things to come, Union Gen. William T. Sherman took a match to the Confederate House two years later, along with all the other buildings and towns that crossed his path on his march through the state. Edwards attempted to rebuild the place in 1867 but died before its completion, and left his name with the property, which has retained it since.

 

Tales run wild about the hotel's use as a pampering place for state and local legislators and national figures.

 

The early part of the century saw the advent of the prohibition years, and every county in the state was supposedly drained dry of drinking alcohol. Personal accounts from casual observers, however, claim that the tendrils of prohibition stopped at the lobby doors of the Edwards Hotel, known prior to 1923 renovations as the Edwards House.

 

Both Mississippi and out-of-state legislators were treated to the coddling of lobbyists, who kept expensive call girls in good supply and bragged that the whiskey was often "packed 30 cases high in the hotel lobby" during the three-month legislative sessions, according to a statement from deceased Mississippi legislator Walter Sillers in a 1960 State Times article. Sillers was one of the first politicians to make the grand building a permanent lodging.

 

During these early years, plenty of political shenanigans went on at the Edwards House. So thoroughly laden was the building with Mississippi politics that the hotel was often called Jackson's second capitol. Political figures of no small measure strolled about the halls, often engaging in lively shouting matches with one another. Short, portly, derby-topped vocal segregationist and two-time Mississippi Governor Theodore Bilbo (later a U.S. senator) admittedly took a bribe during a "secret caucus" which resulted in wealthy planter LeRoy Percy beating James K. Vardaman. Vardaman, a tall figure clad exclusively in a stunning white suit with white top hat and long black locks of hair spilling about his shoulders, was famously vocal in his animosity, and remained so throughout their political careers. But pricey deals such as this were supposedly commonplace in the era when U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures.

 

Other national figures such as Charles Lindbergh also made appearances, according to statements from assistant hotel manager Charlie Miller in a 1967 Clarion-Ledger article.

 

"He was a tall boy with blond hair and freckles," Miller said. "Decked out in a full dress suit, he walked right up the stairs to one of the civic clubs."

 

The Edwards Hotel served as a home to the highbrow for most of its existence. The second-floor convention hall seated 400 and allowed 140 couples to dance to big band music on its elegant hardwood floor. It sported the first elevator in Jackson. In 1938, a two-room suite with a marble bath cost $40 a month.

 

The Great Depression led to the property reverting to the mortgage holders. The Enochs family owners regained the property in 1946 and ran it until Milner Enterprises bought it in 1954 for $1 million. The drive-in lobby for automobiles, swimming pool and other amenities were added during these years for almost $800,000. The hotel then opened a health club, as well as a terrace grill called the French Veranda. At this time, the place was officially called the King Edward.

 

But by the 1960s, automobiles were well on their way to conquering America. With the addition of the nation's interstate highways came the independence of the country from the railroad system, the same one that had helped spark the birth of the hotel in the first place. Joining in the attack on the hotel's business was competition from other nearby hotels and the general shift of business from West Capitol Street. The building was forced to close its doors in 1967.

 

"We just can't make money," said Dumas Milner of Milner Enterprises in 1967.

 

"They couldn't make money," said former Sen. Henry Kirksey, "because they had to get desegregated. Before desegregation the only blacks there were bootleggers. After blacks came in it lost popularity with white customers and had to close."

 

In 1976, the defunct hotel property was put on the National Register of Historic Places and many proposals for its restoration have come down through the pipes since then, but none have made it to the waterspout. Even current owner E. Dean Morley had bought the property in 1981 from Standard Life with the good intention of renovating the hotel, but being on the National Register of Historic Places put the property under the scrutiny of the National Park Service, which refused approval of the renovations.

 

Since then, the hotel has persisted in being a fire hazard, the source of a methane scare, the center of a tax liability suit and in many opinions a 12-story pigeon nest.

 

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., a former Jackson city planner who remains steadfast in a crusade to revitalize the downtown Jackson area, has expressed a very serious determination in doing something about the dilapidated property, especially in light of the massive renovations currently underway across capitol street at the Union Station, and at other projects. Johnson has said that the decrepit nature of the hotel could seriously compromise any renovations in the near vicinity.

 

"The city is committed to the development of the downtown area," Johnson said. "And acquisition of the King Edward would be in accordance with enhancing the ongoing and proposed projects in the West Capitol Street area. We want the building to be refurbished or razed. Either way, we want the situation to be conducive to the positive changes taking place with the Telecommunications Conference Center, the Farish Street Project, the Union Station Development and the proposed new Federal Courthouse, all in the downtown area."

 

Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter wrote in a 1976 letter to then Mayor Russel C. Davis that construction sources had informed him that the ancient building was still one of the most structurally sound buildings in Jackson. So structurally sound in fact that tearing it down may actually cost the city more than restoring it.

 

"That letter reflects my attitude then and my attitude now," said Winter. "Besides, it is an historic building that I think could add great character to downtown Jackson, so I hope that we will ultimately see it's restoration."

 

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Baton Rouge Advocate

June 18, 2003

Section: News

Page 7

 

Jackson looks to restore King Edward Hotel

 

DEBORAH BULKELEY

 

JACKSON, Miss. - Jackson is accepting bids for renovation of the King Edward Hotel, a long-closed landmark that neglect has reduced to an eyesore and a haven for pigeons.

 

Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. said Monday that the hotel, which closed in 1964, soon could be on its way to once again becoming a focal point of downtown Jackson.

 

"The issue is that we need a very viable downtown Jackson," Johnson said. "It's the hub of the metro area, the hub of state government, and we're going to have to make some investments to make that happen."

 

The mayor said the city wants to enter into a public-private partnership to develop the 12-story building as a hotel, apartment building, office space or a combination of those.

 

Johnson said that if refurbishing the building can't be done affordably, the city will consider tearing it down.

 

The building, built in 1923, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is listed among the 10 most endangered historic structures in Mississippi.

 

The mayor said restoring the King Edward would complement other downtown projects, including renovation of the Union Station Depot, across from the hotel.

 

However, the deal is far from sealed, and efforts to restore the hotel have failed in the past.

 

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Mike Kountouris, 88, who remembers when the hotel a block from his Mayflower Cafe was a hub of community activity. "We used to get a lot of business from them."

 

Johnson said there is a major difference in the renovation approach this time.

 

"This is the first time the city is in the driver's seat in terms of ownership," he said.

 

Johnson said the city now has sole ownership of the hotel, which should offer encouragement to developers.

 

Johnson did acknowledge that, while developers have expressed interest, the city has yet to receive a bid since the Jackson Redevelopment Authority published a request for proposals April 26. The deadline to submit bids is Aug. 5, he said.

 

Also, Johnson did not specify how much funding the city would be able to put up for the project.

 

"We're willing to look at any reasonable request coming from developers," he said.