By Don Rhodes | Photos courtesy of the Augusta Museum of History and Don Rhodes
It didn’t take long for J.E. Henderson Jr., an executive of the J.M. Lang Co. fertilizer company in Savannah, to realize that something major was happening to the Albion Hotel early that Saturday morning 100 years ago on November 26, 1921.
He awakened about 2 a.m. by a commotion in the corridors of the hotel on the south side of the 700 block of Broad Street and was startled because his room was extremely hot. Even more alarming was the bright light caused by flames bursting through the walls of the Harrison Building just a few feet away from his window.
“In the halls of the hotel,” he later recalled, “the bellboys were rushing from door to door awakening the guests, and with this noise mingled the crackling of the flames and the hubbub of the crowds on the street.”
Throwing his clothes into his traveling bag, Henderson joined other guests in their pajamas fleeing the building. He hurried a few blocks south on Eighth Street to the Plaza Hotel near the Union Train Station and managed to secure the last available room. “From my window, I could see the fire envelop building after building until the whole block was at length swallowed up in the flames which leaped and twisted against the red sky and cast a red glow over the whole town,” Henderson vividly remembered.
A century later, few Augustans know about the 1921 fire. They seem to better remember the Great Fire of 1916 that took place in the same block, on the other side of Broad, just five years earlier. That’s partly because the 1921 fire was contained to the 700 block of Broad and part of Eighth Street (or Jackson Street). In addition to the Albion Hotel, the fire consumed some of the Genesta Hotel, gutted the Harrison Building, the Johnson building and The Augusta Chronicle’s location at Ellis and Eighth streets in an annex of the Harrison Building where it was moved after the 1916 fire.
The exact cause of the 1921 fire never was determined. Witnesses described hearing an explosion at about 1:45 a.m., but the cause of the loud noise remains a mystery. Investigators believed the fire started on the fourth floor of the Harrison building where Alberta Dawes McCloud rented space teaching violin and cello lessons, and Dolly Palmer Jones had a separate office teaching voice and piano lessons.
Augusta merchant J.B. White, who had built the U-shaped Albion Hotel with his store on the ground floor of the eastern wing, subsequently would construct another magnificent building on the 900 block of Broad, now used for personal residences and commercial businesses including The Book Tavern and the New Moon Café. The eastern wing of the Albion ─ that survived the 1921 fire and exists today ─ would be used by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and later by J.C. Penney’s. The middle wing was demolished and turned into a short street between Broad and Ellis called “Albion Way.” The western wing initially became the home of the Richmond Hotel that opened in 1923 and later the Richmond Summit federal government-assisted residential facility. Over time, the Albion Hotel faded into nearly extinguished memories despite its downtown presence from April 1901 to November 1921.
The Original Building
Construction on the Albion started in April 1900. Builder J.B. White insisted that his new store open by September with the hotel rooms to follow. Augusta construction firm, McKenzie & Son, was awarded the contract using light cream brick and Georgia marble. The architect was Willis Franklin Denny II, born in Louisville, Ga., who studied architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Denny designed many other prominent structures including Rhodes Memorial Hall and the Piedmont Hotel in Atlanta, the Jefferson County Courthouse in his native town of Louisville and the First Baptist Church of Augusta at Eighth and Greene streets.
The year after Denny died of pneumonia, in 1905 at age 31, the Albion boasted a hotel-wide telephone system in which “a guest in any room can talk to any other room in the hotel, and he may also ask to be connected with the local telephone system.” And when that connection was made, the guest in any room could “communicate with any residence or place of business in the city which has a phone” or could ask for a “long-distance” connection to “any part of the country.”
It had all the bells and whistles of the Bon Air-Vanderbilt and Partridge Inn hotels in Augusta, the Hampton Terrace in North Augusta and the Willcox Hotel in Aiken. But whereas those grand hotels catered mostly to “Winter Colony” visitors escaping the northern cold, the Albion mostly hosted business executives from afar and world-famous celebrities performing in downtown venues like The Wells/Imperial Theatre, Modjeska Theater and the Grand Opera House.
In early 1902, White leased the hotel floors to Bryan Lawrence who immediately spent several weeks traveling throughout northern and eastern states buying furnishings for the lobby and rooms. Bedroom furniture was bought in Grand Rapids, Mich.; carpets and parlor furniture in New York City; leather furniture in Chicago, Ill., and kitchen range and bar furniture in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Chronicle, from the same side of the 700 block near Seventh Street, kept close tabs on the hotel’s development. One news article observed, “The Albion, while not the largest, will be one of the neatest, most pleasant and convenient hostelries in the south being but a few minutes from the Union [train] depot, only a short walk from ‘Cotton Row,’ right in the midst of the shopping district and in speaking distance of The Chronicle office.” Ironically, The Chronicle has been in the Herald Building/News Building directly across the street from the remaining eastern wing of the Albion Hotel for more than seven decades.
You don’t hear voices speaking across Broad Street these days. But, if you stand in front of the Imperial Theatre and look upward to the southeast, you can see the arched windows of the original Albion Hotel’s eastern wing 100 years after the fire that destroyed the rest of J.B. White’s architectural dream.
Native Augustan George T. Stallings used the Albion in March 1904 to house his Buffalo (New York) Bisons baseball team during spring training at Warren Park. The team managed by Stallings would win the Eastern League championship at the end of that season. Ten years later, Stallings would manage the Boston Braves (later Atlanta Braves) team from last place to win the National League championship and forever earn Stallings his nickname of “The Miracle Man.”
That same spring, a teenage baseball player from Royston, Ga., named Ty Cobb ─ while staying at the Albion ─ made one of the biggest decisions of his career, changing baseball history while placing himself on the path to becoming the first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He remembered the dreaded telephone call to his father back home who thought Cobb was “going straight to hell for playing baseball.”
“I didn’t know what to do then,” Cobb told The Chronicle’s sports editor, Johnny Hendrix, in 1957. “I called home from the old Albion Hotel. I had another offer to go to Anniston, Ala., but I never dreamed of telling him I had that offer. If he told me to come home, I would have gone. But he didn’t. You know a father never knows when he is inspiring a son. He asked me what I was going to do, and then I was telling him about that offer. He said, ‘Well, son, you take the offer, and don’t come home a failure.’” Cobb did what his father advised and joined the Anniston minor league team for a few months. The new manager of the Augusta Tourists later called him back to Augusta, which led to Cobb being hired by the major league Detroit Tigers the following year.
Another prominent guest of the Albion Hotel included Woodrow Wilson, as governor-elect of New Jersey. He stayed at the Albion in 1911 while visiting the city where he had lived 10 years as a preacher’s kid, son of the pastor of First Presbyterian Church.
Local architect Henry Ten Eyck Wendell, designer of St. Paul’s Church (constructed after the 1916 fire) and several homes on The Hill, committed suicide in August of 1917 while trying to escape from two city policemen escorting him down the Albion’s rear metal fire escape on Ellis Street.
Charlie Chaplin used a room of the Albion to freshen up in April 1918 just before performing to a packed house at The Wells Theatre (later the Imperial Theatre), just across Broad Street, in promoting the sale of World War I liberty bonds.
Appears in the November/December 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.