Is there a future for the majestic Hotel to rise again?
by Jon Walker | Photography by Jamison Mosley
Built in 1882, the hotel rose above Park and Central avenues as the Avenue Hotel. She became the Majestic six years later and grew as the city did, gaining steam amid the rise of bathhouses.
Once a famous tourism staple — and beloved by generations of visitors — Hot Springs’ Majestic Hotel has seen better days. “Majestic Resort & Spa” remains alive on Google, but the property was shuttered in 2006. A fire decimated the derelict structure in 2014.
She had a brighter beginning, though; built in 1882, the hotel rose above Park and Central avenues as the Avenue Hotel. She became the Majestic six years later and grew as the city did, gaining steam amid the rise of bathhouses. By the turn of the 20th century, she was a four-story, brick-domed structure with 150 rooms. In the Roaring Twenties, baseball teams like the Boston Red Sox stayed for spring training. Babe Ruth was a regular. So were mafiosos, who enjoyed secluded on-premises spa treatments.
During World War II, Uncle Sam housed soldiers there. In 1945, as word spread that her doors were reopened to civilians, celebrities like Guy Lombardo began staying. With the advent of air conditioning (a novelty) in the 1950s, regular Americans flocked to the Majestic’s cool rooms alongside better-known guests.
Movie star Alan Ladd, renowned for 1953’s “Shane,” visited. Budweiser magnate August Anheuser Busch Jr. got married there (and brought the Clydesdales). Comedienne Phyllis Diller was one of many famous faces often seen around the hotel in the 1960s and ‘70s. Business was good… until the 1980s.
Locals could blame a highway’s rerouting, cable TV, the cessation of gambling or technologies filling thermal waters’ medical (and economic) niche. Regardless of why, few tourists returned. Renovations throughout the 1990s did not help. The new millennium brought only decay.
By 2006, the once glamorous hotel was shuttered. New owners came and went, each pledging to restore her, but nothing substantial was done. Dust accumulated in the lobby and halls, disturbed only by the occasional trespasser.
And then on an unusually warm evening, Feb. 27, 2014, the Hot Springs Fire Department was called. Smoke billowed as flames rose from the roof. By 6 p.m. on the evening of March 1, the Majestic’s funeral pyre was finally extinguished. It had begun in a crawlspace between the attic and roof of the yellow-bricked section.
“We did get some aerial shots of the burned-out areas,” Ed Davis, chief of the Hot Springs Fire Department recalls, “There was nothing that appeared to have been suspicious about the fire. … There had been so many people in and out of that building because it was unsecured that trying to put together a case on it was going to be kind of difficult.”
No accelerants were found, and the property was uninsured. Whether or not the fire was intentional, Davis suspects an urban explorer is to blame. Hot Springs native Brenda Brandenburg, on the other hand, believes it was a homeless person.
“It could have been somebody trying to find shelter for the night,” Brandenburg says, “It wasn’t really-really cold, but that doesn’t mean that somebody wasn’t trying to heat up a can of soup or whatever.”
Brandenburg is the founder of Facebook’s “Save Her Majesty” page. Her father, a musician, often played at the Majestic’s Magnolia Room in the early 1970s. Childhood explorations imparted lasting impressions of grandeur and beauty.
“Probably my favorite, favorite place at the Majestic — and probably the favorite place of a lot of people — was the pool area,” Brandenburg notes, “It was guarded, and it was enclosed, so you could kind of be in this area where there were lots of people gathered around the pool. But at the same time, it looked like you were in a garden because there were such beautiful flowers around.”
Brandenburg isn’t the only one who remembers the area. Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough has fond memories, too.
“I can remember in high school, we’d sneak in and go swimming in the pool,” Burrough admits. “We had friends who had parents who actually worked there, so you know it was easy for us to sneak into there and enjoy their amenities. That’s really some of the fondest memories that I have.”
Like many locals, Burrough was saddened by the hotel’s demise. Although the downtown area has seen more than 115 businesses open since 2014, he recalls the icon’s burning as “a devastating loss.”
The iconic landmark, however, may be poised to rise from the ashes. The city held public input sessions earlier this year to discuss new ways to rebuild. More than 130 people attended the first meeting, contributing numerous ideas and proposals, while the city’s website received more than 200 suggestions.
Proposals Burrough describes as “prevailing” include luxury resorts with facilities that utilize the city’s namesake waters. Contenders include Grand Point Investment Group, North Mississippi Real Estate Management and VIPA Hospitality Management.
Burrough expects the city to name a winning proposal early this month.