Ask McGehee: What ever happened to the Bienville Hotel?

In 1900, it was announced that Mobile would soon have a new hotel on the northwest corner of St. Francis and St. Joseph streets. The northern side of Bienville Square had been largely residential up until this point.

Atlanta architect G.L. Norman drew up plans for the six-story building faced with decorative stucco. Advertisements mentioned  spacious verandas overlooking the square for which it was named. Visitors were invited to enjoy Mobile’s mild climate “and the perfume of roses, mingled with the hospitality of Southern people.”

Beneath the hotel were a billiard room, a barbershop and a rathskeller. Lunch was available here for 35 cents, but that did come “with a stein of Schlitz.” During the summer months, the rathskeller advertised its “famous mint juleps.”

A First-Class Operation

To the east of the lobby, the main dining room was decorated “in old English.” There were also two private rooms for dining. A “table d’hote dinner with wine” could be enjoyed in 1901 for a dollar. Patrons were assured of “skillful, polite waiters and a high-class chef.”

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The kitchen, reading rooms and a “gentlemen’s parlor” were located on the west side of the first floor. Guests were guaranteed “cheerful and restful surroundings” where the decorating scheme included “a vivid effect in old rose and cream, Moorish red, antique oak, Flemish black and red, all complimented by tropical plants.”

Each room on the six floors above was equipped with its own washbasin. A bathroom between every two rooms contained  the toilet and tub. A newspaper account marveled at the “best sanitary plumbing and ventilation throughout.” Each floor featured a sitting room so that guests could have the option of entertaining friends outside of their private sleeping quarters.

Two elevators connected the hotel’s basement to its roof, which also could be used for entertainment. A September 1901 newspaper advertisement enticed guests with “Moving Pictures, Stereopticon and Illustrated Songs with Drey’s Orchestra at Bienville Roof Garden
Every Night.”

The Bienville Hotel had no ballroom to attract the Mardi Gras crowd or convention business. The Cawthon Hotel (1907) and the Battle House (1908) eclipsed it in popularity. It survived, perhaps, only as a more economic alternative.

Change in Sight

Once World War II and the shortage of hotel space ended, the Cawthon and the Battle House underwent substantial renovations. No record could be found of any such work at the Bienville. In 1952, it was announced that the building would be remodeled, not as a hotel, but for office space, complete with air-conditioning.

The ’50s were anything but fabulous when it came to downtown Mobile’s architecture. James Karagan, who had previously managed the hotel, named the building for himself and gutted the first floor for commercial use. The grand entranceway vanished to provide space for a corner drugstore and an office for Eastern Airlines.

By the mid-1960s, the Karagan Building was largely vacant, and the owner opted for its demolition. Apparently unhappy with the local wrecking companies’ bids, Karagan joined a crew in bringing the building down himself, brick by brick. In 1969, the corner was home to the new Commercial Guaranty Bank, but today that building houses a law firm.

Tom McGehee

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