Bobby Harrell delights in discussing his four years of after-school work experience at the John Sevier Hotel that began in 1949 when he was 13. His father, Iss and uncles, Henry Street and Earl Harrell also worked there. Street was maintenance supervisor.

“I worked weekdays from 4-9 p.m., said Bobby, “operating the hotel’s freight elevator at the northwest loading dock. Sometimes I worked on weekends in the housekeeping department cleaning windows and wallpaper, flipping mattresses and performing other assorted jobs. My family lived on W. Walnut Street. I rode a city bus to the downtown station and walked along the train depot to the hotel. At night, I caught the bus back home. It cost ten cents to ride. In its heyday, the hotel stayed full, especially being so close to the train depot.  I got frequent calls for service from maintenance workers, waiters delivering food to people’s rooms and others.”

The rooms at the John Sevier had private bathrooms and steam heat in every room via radiators. Although there was no central air conditioning system, guests could request that a window unit be installed in their room for an added fee. Iss assisted Henry in all maintenance of the hotel and worked in the boiler room in the basement in cold weather months keeping the stoker going to supply heat to the building. Bobby recalled that the cellar had an old fashioned telephone with a receiver attached with a cord.  

The basement was smaller than the upper floors, being located primarily under the kitchen and dining room. Since the hotel was built over five springs, pumps had to run continually to prevent flooding. One area was used for processing live chickens. A man, known as “Pop” Conley, performed this work at a large stainless steel workplace. The dressed birds were then placed in several large walk-in coolers. Meat arrived by the half and quarter sections. Transfers were routinely made from the basement coolers to one upstairs in the kitchen. The chef, whose first name was Norman, served as meat cutter.

“Another area downstairs,” said Bobby, “was where they made ice cubes. They filled metal cylinders with water and placed them in brine water. After the ice froze, workers used a large power table saw to cut large sheets of ice several times producing slightly larger than normal ice cubes. “The ballroom and dining room were very popular and in continuous use. The kitchen had a large stainless steel dishwasher. The large ballroom had a number of chandeliers, massive curtains and hardwood floors.

“Sometimes on Sundays, I worked as busboy, assisting waiters by carrying large trays of food to people’s table. The daily restaurant menu was printed each day at the first floor northwest desk. The typesetter inserted letters by hand into the machine and manually cranked out paper copies. It looked like a miniature version of an old printing press. After the chef prepared the menu for the next day, a man came to the food storage area in the basement with a four-wheeled buggy and returned with enough food for use in the kitchen the next day.”

Bobby remembered the hotel supervisor: “Monroe McArthur was the big boss when I worked there; we called him Mr. Mac. K.D. Hurley was assistant manager. Mac was a good fellow. He walked around all day singing the same little song, ‘Day Dee Day, Day Dee Day, Day Dee Day.’ Mr. Mac owned two automobiles, a 1950 Cadillac and an older Lincoln. He kept both parked on the Market Street (south) side of the hotel in reserved spots. Obie Belton was his personal chauffer and usually drove for him. Occasionally, Mac drove the car himself. Those were the days when automobiles had straight shift and a clutch. He would push the gas pedal to the floorboard and the clutch just about to the floorboard and ease out of the parking space with the motor flying and the car barely moving.”   

Bobby recalls taking an inebriated painter on the elevator to the 8thfloor to paint some windows using a portable outside scaffold. He reported the man’s impaired condition to his uncle who, in turn, hastily went to the room where he was working. Henry found the worker with a window open and ready to attach his scaffold to the window. He was promptly escorted downstairs in spite of his insistence that he was not intoxicated. Outside scaffolds were attached to the inside of the windows, providing abstemious painters a safe way to access the outside of windows. Washing windows was done inside the room without the need of a scaffold. Since there were 250 windows in the building, cleaning was a never-ending chore.

A small laundry, located on the 10thfloor, handled the restaurant’s washing needs, but towels, washcloths and bed linen from rooms were picked up and washed by Johnson City Steam Laundry at 200 S. Boone.

Unlike today, where businesses have installers come in and replace large sections of carpet, one man replaced it in rooms and other areas almost on a constant basis. Salesmen, referred to as “sample men,” often came to the hotel with large quantities of clothes for public display. Bobby took them on the freight elevator to the display room. Bobby recalled when a man climbed the hotel from the Roan Street (east) side of the building in the late 1940s by carefully and methodically walking on and holding onto bricks. Such stunts were popular in that era.

Bobby said that, excluding one high school reunion that he attended at the John Sevier Hotel, he has never been back in the building. He cherishes the memories of his work experience at the old hotel. 

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Recently, a city resident whom I will call Mary revealed two stories to me that evolved around her late father, Frank (assumed name), a once well-known and successful downtown businessman in his day. In 1945, Frank escorted his young daughter to the Windsor Hotel to reveal a long-held secret that would be talked about by family members for years.

Frank lamented that the once magnificent grand hotel had fallen into disarray as evidenced by tattered velvet curtains, cords that had fallen down and dirty windows everywhere, a far cry from its heyday. After walking past the hotel lobby, the pair climbed the steps to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, Frank pointed to a block of private rooms along the north end that he said were once reserved by hotel management for special guests and events.

Mary indicated that her father always had a love for ‘a good card game’ and routinely met at the hotel with three of his closest friends to play cards in one of the private rooms. Frank remembered when some men, discreetly identified as Al Capone’s bodyguards, joined them and became regulars in the card games whenever they were in town. This occurred from about 1921 to 1926.

Mary further explained: “Daddy said ‘Capone’s boys,’ as he called them, came in after dark, played several hands of cards and then left. They were never seen in town in the daytime. Everything was done quietly and with as little fanfare as possible. Daddy believed the ‘boys’ either stayed at the hotel or left in the early morning hours.”

On one memorable evening, Frank got the surprise of his life when Al Capone abruptly walked into the room, sat down at Frank’s table and began playing cards with his group.  Frank emphasized that this was one isolated occurrence and that he established no rapport with the underworld kingpin that night; he simply played cards with him.

Mary later learned from her father that “Scarface” routinely ran alcohol from Newland, NC to Johnson City along a 44-mile stretch of two-lane dirt road. He said the straight section of road between Newland and Elk Park became known as “Smokey Straight.” 

Mary then offered a story of her own: “In the summer of 1946, our family went on vacation to Miami Beach as we often did. During the trip, Daddy and I drove over to Al Capone’s estate (on diminutive Palm Island in nearby Biscayne Bay). Along the way, Daddy told me that because Al was very sick and near death, he had been granted an early release from prison to return to his Miami home. When we arrived at the Capone main gate, Daddy walked over and spoke some words to the guard. I stayed behind in the car.

“Although we were not permitted to go through the entrance to the house, we were allowed to walk around the outside of the metal fence to the pool area. “Daddy pointed through the sparse shrubbery to a frail looking man slumped over in a beach chair. It was Al Capone. He looked terribly sick. “While we were standing there, some men came over to us and began talking to Daddy through the fence. A few of them appeared to know him. I stayed back a short distance.”

Al died at his Palm Island home about six months later on January 25, 1947 at the age of 48. Mary said she has replayed these two events in her mind hundreds of times over the years.

Mary concluded by saying: “It was important to Daddy that his family know about his brief encounter with Al Capone and his ‘boys’ in downtown Johnson City. Now I want to share it with others.” 

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Johnson City Comet readers eagerly opened their newspapers on Sunday morning, April 10, 1910 to these attention-grabbing headlines: “Carnegie Hotel Burned Down This Morning – Alarm Sounded at One O’clock – Hotel Totally Destroyed.”

Civil War General J.T. Wilder built and furnished the palatial Carnegie Hotel in 1891 at the southwest corner of Broad Way (Broadway) and Second Avenue (Fairview) for $125,000. R.N. Farr, a man experienced in hotel management, leased it and opened the complex to customers on Sept. 27 of that same year.

The three-story edifice contained 125 rooms with six additional storage rooms along the sloping south end at First Avenue (Millard Street, between hotel and railroad tracks). The best materials were used throughout the structure, the interior finish being antique oak. Immense plate glass windows in all rooms provided abundant daytime lighting, with more shining down through a large opening into the centralized lobby. The interior was endowed with an electric passenger elevator, numerous accessible stairways, spacious hallways and a ventilation system.”

Dining rooms were large and beautifully furnished; parlors and reception rooms were unequaled in finish and furnishings. The Comet further stated: “Its billiard, library, bath and other rooms have the polish of perfection.” The roof, overlaid with pitch and gravel, provided guests with an impressive observatory where “one can see quite a distance up and down the valley and across the mountains miles away.”

On the south side, there were two 100-foot verandas with wrought iron balustrades extending out from the first and second floors of the hotel proper. A large entrance veranda faced Second Avenue. Along its sides were several additional smaller verandas, each extending from the terminus of a hallway. The hotel offered first class water and electric systems including lighting by gas. Rooms were heated by radiation from a furnace below. The floors were laid with very fine carpet. Every room was elegantly furnished.

The Comet offered this précis of the Carnegie: “The auspicious beginning of this magnificent enterprise marks a new and important epoch in our history. It is a proud and enduing moment in far-seeing business genius and for the energy, the hopefulness, and the confidence and courage of capital which have transformed in a few brief years, a struggling unsightly village to a gem city.”

For 17 years, the hotel was a showcase for visitors traveling through the city. The trolley made scheduled visits to the Carnegie. By 1908, the hotel was used almost exclusively by the CC&O Railroad. After that, a number of people rented it for a while and pro rated the maintenance costs. The now declining Carnegie was in the process of being converted to an apartment complex when the massive early morning fire cut short its 19-year reign.

The April 3, 1910 Comet article concluded with these epitaphic words: “As the Comet goes to press at 3 o’clock, the ruddy glare of the flames can be read in the sky for miles. It is impossible to save the building and no effort is being made to do so, but the office building across the street occupied by the CC&O officials will be unharmed.“

With that, one of the finest hotels in East Tennessee history went up in smoke and became a fleeing memory.  

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I received a note from the family of a former ETSU professor, referencing an old undated postcard advertisement. Since the responder asked to remain anonymous, I will call her Jane Doe.

The card shows a beautiful two-story brick house, identified as “Westover Manor – Johnson City, Tennessee – Mrs. George S. Hannah, Hostess.” Jane was interested in knowing where the house was located and if it is still standing. She indicated that it looked familiar to her, but that she could not seem to place it. The stately residence is surrounded by a small brick wall with two driveway pillars, each with a large “H” on the front side and a light fixture on top. What appears to be a partially obscured Model A Ford parked in the driveway dates the photo to roughly the early 1930s. The reverse side of the card declares: “A modern, high-class private home catering to transients, weekly or monthly guests. Room rates at $1.00 to $1.50.”

I located a second postcard of the Hannah business, offering additional information: “Westover Manor Guest House – The finest in the south; Known from coast to coast and from Canada to Florida; Johnson City, a central point going north, south, east and west; Three miles from city on old Jonesboro Road; Famous from coast to coast for delicious home-cooked meals.”

Ms. Doe’s mother readily identified the photo, telling her daughter that the house was on the Old Jonesborough Highway just beyond East Tennessee State University. The Doe family had driven past it daily for over 20 years. Ma Doe further recalled that John A. Clack, onetime Bursar for East Tennessee State College, and his wife Vera purchased the house from the Hannah's, rented it for a while and then sold it a fraternity.

Jane searched through a 1974 ETSU Buccaneer yearbook and found a photograph of the house with Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat members and their dates posing in front of it. Jane then recalled a fire in the 1980s that destroyed the interior of a house at about 2800 W. Walnut Street, which she believes was the former Hannah residence. The house was eventually demolished and the property sold, becoming the site of a Sunoco station.” 

According to Jane: “The house was a little over a mile past where W. Walnut Street turns off the State of Franklin Road going toward Jonesborough. The original house and property had four pillars, two on either end of a semi-circular driveway with a brick wall in-between. The drive circled up to the front of the house and back out to the highway on the eastern side. No wonder I felt like I had seen the place; said the Doe daughter. “I grew up driving past there. I remember the brick wall and pillars even more than the house.”

Ned Irwin of the ETSU Archives of Appalachia added more info: “It is listed in the 1939 city directory, but the only address is the Old Jonesboro Highway. The street listing (city limits) for W. Walnut Street then did not extend beyond the railroad overpass. By 1968, the Westover Manor Apartments are found at 2810 W. Walnut, which would be beyond the railroad overpass and across the street from old Bernard School.

According to Jane, the only remnant of the former Hannah guesthouse appears to be an altered east driveway pillar, standing obscurely next to a fire hydrant and metal utility pole. The “H,” like the residence itself, is now but a memory.  

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Rita Garst wrote me a note commenting on the Hotel Windsor and other former hotels in downtown Johnson City. She shared some humorous stories.

“As a kid, she said, “I thought those buildings were skyscrapers; they looked awfully big back then. The last time I went to Asheville on the old highway, I noticed that the old barn that had Windsor Hotel painted on its roof was still there.”

My column in early May offered an epigrammatic history of this long-standing hotel (1909-1961), known briefly as Hotel Pardue before permanently becoming Hotel Windsor. I mentioned that the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs once held their meetings there. However, I didn’t mention the fact that, according to former club member, Allen Harris, Sr., William Jennings Bryan once dined there with the Rotarians. I also didn’t elaborate on just how rowdy these all-male early meetings could become. Horseplay was often the order of the day. The club dining room was then located on the street floor.

The Rotary Club assigned members a seat and charged a quarter to those who were late to the meeting. Paul Smith, former Johnson City Press-Chronicle writer, in an article written just prior to the razing of the old hostelry, offered some humorous examples of the variety of pranks that occurred back then. At one Rotary meeting, members were aghast when one of the hotel waitresses boldly stepped forward and announced to the club president that one of the club members present was the father of her unborn child.

The club leader, playing along with the impromptu gag, asked for the guilt party to stand up like a man and identify himself. Unknown to the group, one chair had been wired to produce a mild electrical shock. At that precise time, a switch was flipped, sending a shock wave to the man sitting in that particular chair. The “guilty” club member immediately sprang to his feet, bringing a spontaneous roar of laughter from those present.

On another occasion, a fake holdup was staged with masked robbers running in brandishing guns, creating bedlam for the frightened onlookers. Some clubbers dove out windows to escape being pilfered or injured. One poor soul was last seen running well past the Lady of the Fountain statue in Fountain Square Park across the street.

Such rambunctious carryings-on were not confined to Rotarians. Lonnie McCown, a longtime secretary of the Kiwanis Club, recalled an amusing event. Members were seated for what they thought was a normal meeting – discussing the issues of the day and enjoying a deliciously cooked meal. Suddenly, two “clumsy” waiters, carrying full loads of dishes on their trays, collided in the meeting room. The impact produced massive quantities of broken chinaware and initiated harsh words between the two servers.

In the “scuffle” that ensued, the “irate” workers drew pistols and began firing at each other. Those present dived under tables and sought whatever shelter they could find to prevent being hit by the barrage of “gunfire.” To the relief of everyone, it soon became apparent that the whole thing was a carefully orchestrated hoax and that the tricksters were in reality using blank cartridges to carry out their foolery.

Perhaps because of these pranks, the Kiwanis Club moved its meetings from Hotel Windsor to the Avalon Dining Room at 309 E. Main Street, later becoming the site of Penney’s Department Store. 

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Throughout its magnificent history, Johnson City has had numerous hotels to serve the lodging needs of the downtown area, especially around bustling Fountain Square.

A few establishments maintained the same identity throughout most, if not all, of their existence; others were short lived, usually selling to a buyer with a new name for their enterprise.

Here is a trivia question for you devoted history buffs. Which three of the 20 hotels listed below occupied the same downtown location between 1928 and 1953?

The building in question was located at 103 E. Market adjacent to a very popular eatery from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s. Choices range from the highly publicized to the totally unfamiliar: Colonial, Dixie, Fountain Square, Grant, Grand, John Sevier, Franklin, Piedmont, Windsor, Belmont, Arlington, Gateway, Travelers Inn, Savoy, Ramona, Lee, Commercial, Brown, Western and Martha Washington. The answer is revealed below.

Norma Myers, curator of ETSU’s Archives of Appalachia, recently shared with me an old photo from their Hotel Windsor Collection. The accumulated works contain many interesting items, including an old floor plan of the Fountain Square Hotel that once stood at 109 W. Fountain Square (also known as Windsor Way).

My research shows that this hostelry was built sometime between 1929 and 1935 along the historic west side of the railroad tracks linking Main and Market. A floor plan map of the 29-room facility gives amazing details about this old lodge. The two-story 3904 square foot brick building stretched 32 feet along the front and 122 feet to the rear. Upon entering the left side of the lobby, the customer encountered a set of stairs on the far left and the office and service desk straight ahead. There was no elevator.

To the right of the lobby was a business, the World News Store, appearing to be a hotel-owned newsstand. Customers accessed the store without going through the lobby; a hallway along the far north side connected with the merchant. The ground floor contained 11 rooms for rent and two public toilets with baths. The ground floor had a 14¼-foot ceiling.

The second floor plan displayed a smaller lobby at the top of the stairs, 18 rooms and 4 public toilets with baths. A window at the rear west wall provided the only means for fire escape from the upper level. The upstairs ceiling was 10 foot. The six bathrooms and bath facilities were designated on the drawing as “public,” meaning the guests had to share these facilities.

It is almost unfathomable today to visualize patrons in 29 rooms sharing six bath amenities until we realize that many folks of that era were accustomed to outdoor facilities at home. The common use of indoor plumbing would have been a sheer luxury. As mentioned in my Windsor Hotel column, the Fountain Square Hotel was also razed in the summer of 1971 after serving the downtown’s guest housing needs for about 40 years. If anyone has any memories of this largely forgotten hotel, please let me hear from you.

Now let me answer the trivia question. The building was located adjacent to the popular Byrd’s Restaurant situated near the Southern Railway Depot. The three hotels once operating at 103 E. Market were the Commercial, Martha Washington and Gateway. 

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The Windsor Hotel still shines in the memories of many area folks. A 1909 advertisement spoke of the former establishment as the “handsomest furnished hotel between Richmond and Chattanooga.”

A 1913 photo engraved envelope reads, “Hotel Windsor, Up-To-Date Modern, Centrally Located, Harry L. Langel, Proprietor.” A billboard painted on an old barn in the 1920s proudly proclaimed, “Windsor Hotel, Streamline Suites, $1.15 – $2.25 per night, R.A. Preas, Manager.”

The three-story brick Windsor Hotel was all this and much more, catering to passengers traveling on one of three railroads lines operating in the city. The large 11,961 square foot edifice stood along the railroad tracks on Fountain Square opposite the future city bus station on the east and the Piedmont Hotel to the north. A city trolley whisked briskly by the enterprise several times daily, providing convenient transportation for guests.

In 1906, J.A. Dennis owned land along the railroad tracks just south of Main Street. He sold it to H.W. Pardue who built a hotel on it in 1909, bearing his name. The Pardue name was spelled out on the brick along the top north and east sides and remained there even up to the day it was demolished.

Dr. James Preas, a local physician, eventually acquired the facility and changed its designation to Hotel Windsor, eventually leasing it to a Mr. W.W. Westmoreland. The business in time became known as the Windsor Hotel. The popular hostelry became a favorite spot for traveling business personnel, special events, honeymooners, political and social conventions and other gatherings.

The Windsor had 50 rooms, 14-inch thick walls and was the only inn in town with an elevator. The internal (non-face) bricks were fabricated in a shop on Water Street. Standard items in each room included steam heat, hot and cold water, private baths and telephones. Amazingly, the original patterned ceramic tile lobby floor served patrons throughout its 62-year existence. The foyer once even sported a small zoo.

The decorative ballroom and dining room on the second floor became the hub of activities. The newly formed Rotary Club used the facility in 1915 with local furniture dealer, Bert Pouder, serving as its first president. Three years later, the Kiwanis Club came into existence with insurance and real estate businessman, Joe Summers, as its leader. Notables who stayed there included William Jennings Bryan, three time presidential candidate and secretary of state in President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet.

Those were the days of two-way traffic on Main Street. Anyone traveling west would notice the Windsor sign immediately after they passed the old post office (now WJHL building). The unique thing about it was how each letter in the hotel name was lighted one after the other: W – WI – WIN – WIND – WINDS – WINDSO – WINDSOR. After the word was fully lit, all seven lights went off, flashed back on, went off again and then repeated the sequence in like manner. A large white sign with black letters sat on the roof of the hotel facing east until the 1950s.

In the years before its demise, the Windsor offered patrons low budget accommodations. Sadly, the old hotel was razed in the summer of 1971 along with the Arlington Hotel, Fountain Square Hotel and several adjoining structures as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts. 

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