Ask McGehee: What is the history of Mobile’s Admiral Hotel?

vintage postcard of Mobile's Admiral Semmes Hotel
An early postcard for the hotel touted the novelty of its being fully air conditioned. Courtesy Tom McGehee

The 12-story hotel was opened in November 1940, and named in honor of Mobile’s Admiral Raphael Semmes. It had been constructed over a course of 15 months at a total cost of $1 million — well over $21 million in today’s dollars.

The grand opening still occurred despite an unfinished lobby and sidewalks composed of red clay. The Bankhead Tunnel would open some three months later, spewing thousands of cars past the new luxury hotel.

Inside the New Hotel

Within the hotel were 251 guest rooms, with rates ranging from $3 a night for a single to $4 for a double. In addition were numerous amenities. For starters, the entire structure was air-conditioned — a first for Mobile.

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The marble-floored lobby led to several dining rooms, the Blue Cove Cocktail Lounge, a coffee shop, a drug store, a barber shop and a sales office for National Airlines. Congressman Frank Boykin eventually maintained an office here as well.

The ballroom could seat 550 for a banquet or 750 for a meeting. This large space on the mezzanine was accessible by an automobile ramp with a 10-ton weight limit so that the hotel could host car shows.

On the basement level was located the heating and cooling equipment, a wine cellar, an ice-making plant, an office for the hotel’s engineer and a unique plant that could freeze garbage. In the event of an electrical outage, an auxiliary power system would handle the lighting.

The hotel was overseen by long-time manager Frank C. Drane who lived with his family in a suite on the top floor. A rooftop playground was installed for his son and, at one point, it held a sandbox and wading pool along with assorted ducks and rabbits.

Celebrity Visits and Mardi Gras Central

In 1941, the hotel hosted Eleanor Roosevelt during her visit to Mobile. Other celebrities followed, such as Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Carol Channing and Elvis Presley.

Over the years, the Admiral Semmes Hotel became forever linked to Mobilians as it played host to Junior Miss luncheons, UMS proms, Mardi Gras balls and Senior Bowl events. The balcony facing the Mardi Gras parade route made it a center of activity for Carnival visitors. And, with Highway 90 traffic ever on the increase, the 117-room Admiral Semmes Motor Motel was constructed just across the street in the 1950s.

By the mid-60s, Mardi Gras events began gravitating to the new Civic Center. Then Mobile’s downtown core began a steady exodus west and, by the mid-70s, the Cawthon Hotel had been replaced by a parking lot. Soon after, the Sheraton Battle House threw in the towel, suddenly making the city’s newest grand hotel its oldest. 

In the early 70s, the Admiral Hotel had opened its Admiral’s Corner Lounge where an as yet undiscovered Jimmy Buffet could be found singing.

A Short-Lived Retirement Home

The Admiral Semmes closed its doors in 1978, ending a 38-year run. It was then reconfigured as a retirement home, calling itself the Admiral Semmes Manor. Just as that entity was getting off the ground, Mobile was visited by Hurricane Frederic in September of 1979, and the former hotel had most of the windows blown out. The “manor” did not reopen.

A Change of Hands and Change of Space

Like so much of downtown Mobile at the time, the former hotel stood vacant and forlorn. It was not the only building to be abandoned — the motor motel across Government Street was in a similar state.

In 1982, the hotel was purchased along with the vacant Elks Lodge to the east for $975,000 by local realtor Arthur Pope. A year later, a Dallas-based developer paid $1.8 million for the vacant hotel.

All of the hotel rooms were gutted, with the 251 original rooms being enlarged. With the renovation, rooms now numbered 170. A parking deck was added to the west and the auto ramp to the ballroom was removed.

In 1985, the hotel reopened as the Radisson Admiral Semmes Hotel. Although the rooms were vastly changed, the unique lobby remained, and the hotel rated a listing as a Historic Hotel of America. 

A 2014 renovation cost more than $27 million, converting it into a boutique hotel with 156 rooms. In 2022, it changed hands once more. The hotel remains a Government Street landmark and an important part of Mobile’s thriving Downtown district today.

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