Ask McGehee: What is the history of the Spring Hill Hotel?

Black and white photograph of The Spring Hill Hotel that was once located in Mobile, AL
Above The Spring Hill Hotel opened in 1904 on a large lot fronting Old Shell Road, just east of McGregor Avenue until a fire reduced it to ashes in 1906. The tracks of the electric trolley line are just visible to the right. Courtesy Historic Mobile Preservation Society

According to the May 3, 1903 edition of the Mobile Press-Register, the new Spring Hill Hotel was under construction on the south side of Old Shell Road, just east of today’s McGregor Avenue. It was designed by the noted local architect, Rudolph Benz, in what was termed “Spanish Renaissance.”

The building would consist of a pair of two-story wings with balconies on both sides offering southern exposure to all 50 rooms. The description noted that “several” would have connecting baths and described the plumbing arrangements as being “entirely modern.”   

The central section would hold a parlor and reception room adjoining a dining room capable of seating 250. Nearby would be located the hotel office as well as a billiard room and smoking room. The kitchen and “steam laundry” would operate in the basement.

A Fire Would be Almost Impossible

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Located in this section was a landmark of a tower from which guests could reportedly enjoy “a look over the city and Mobile Bay.” This tower also contained “surplus water to be used in case of a fire, but the precautions are so ample that the latter contingency is almost impossible.”

The property was described as having “mammoth live oaks, stately pines and numerous smaller trees.” Located here would also be an “electric light plant to supply all the requirements for the interior and for many [light] globes outside the structure.”

The hotel was built by the Spring Hill Hotel and Improvement Company, whose president was Godfrey Mertz, owner of a Downtown produce and grain company. The manager of the hotel, who also provided “unsurpassed cuisine,” was Charles Schimpf,  operator of a popular restaurant down on Royal Street. 

Transportation between downtown Mobile and the hotel was provided by a 30-minute ride aboard the electric trolley, which passed in front of the building. The property also held a livery stable in case a guest preferred hiring a private rig to explore the area. 

Attracting Snow Birds

The hotel was open for business the following year and publicized its facilities in newspapers in the Chicago vicinity to attract what were termed “winter visitors,” although it was declared to be a year-round resort.

One advertisement termed it, “One of the most desirable winter resorts in the South with high elevation surrounded by cultivated gardens. It suggests at once a serene feeling of contentment and healthfulness.”

Another declared it as, “Unexcelled as a health resort … On a high hill surrounded by large pine forest, very close to Mobile on electric car line. Equipped, up-to-date steam heat and electric lights. Rates from $9 and up per week.”

And yet another, apparently seeking summer visitors, declared the hotel offered “delightful breezes” and that “the pure pine ozone and crystal-clear spring water combine to produce a panacea for all the ills that flesh is heir to.” And all of this with “moderate rates.”

A Memorable Night

The hotel was enjoyed barely three seasons before the previously declared “unthinkable” happened. At 2 a.m. on March 6, 1906, the hotel, which was “filled with guests from northern cities,” caught fire.

The flames were discovered by hotel stenographer Lena Gazzam, who was credited with waking every guest with the result that there were no casualties.  According to newspaper accounts, which appeared coast to coast, many of the hotel guests had “narrow escapes, leaving their effects, including jewelry and diamonds to a large amount, in their rooms.”

Although there were no deaths, the disaster did cause, “Mrs. E. E. Braiden of Chicago to become prostrated and she has since lost her reason through the fright she experienced.” The estimated value of the destroyed hotel was given as being between $50-60,000. In today’s dollars, that would be approaching $2 million.

And Miss Gazzam, the heroine of the night, is listed in the next two years’ city directories as having moved back to town and working as the stenographer for architect George B. Rogers. She married in 1917 and died in 1960.

No resort replaced the lost hotel. Within a year, real estate ads began appearing for the sale of “The hotel grounds of Springhill — the most valuable ground in Mobile County for high-class homes: 460 feet on car line (Old Shell Road), 800 feet on Dawson Lane (later renamed McGregor Avenue).” The property was eventually subdivided for commercial development.

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