In April 1909, construction crews began work on what would become one of the largest and most palatial hotels in the South. It was called the Hotel San Carlos—nicknamed the Gray Lady of Palafox. For almost 100 years, the building stood in the heart of downtown as a monument to Pensacola’s early cosmopolitan hopes.
The idea for the hotel came from local businessmen James Muldon and F.F. Bingham. In the booming part of the early 20th century, luxury hotels were being built all over the country. The awe-inspiring buildings became symbols of a city’s progress, and Muldon and Bingham wanted that type of notoriety for Pensacola.
The two men formed the Pensacola Hotel Company and started looking for a site to build. They eventually purchased land on the northwest corner of Palafox and Garden streets at a cost of $75,000. The land was previously the site of the First Methodist Church, which relocated to Wright Street.
The hotel was designed by New York architect William Lee Stoddart and erected by local firm C.H. Turner Construction Co. at a cost of $500,000. A sturdy beam-and-girder structural system, designed to withstand hurricane winds, was covered by ceramic tile and stucco. When the hotel was completed, it featured all the amenities and luxuries available at the time. Guests had access to a beautiful lobby, ladies reception room, trellis room, reading and writing rooms, gentleman’s smoking room, wine service rooms, and a barber shop with an adjoining shoeshine parlor. In addition to the shared space, the San Carlos maintained 157 guest rooms. Each room featured an exterior window and modern furnishings. The hotel was also outfitted with its own water supply. Fresh water was provided for the guests through use of a well, a rooftop cistern and a water purification system.
The hotel opened for business on Feb. 1, 1910, with room rates set at $1 per day. The first guest to sign the log book was Peter Hargrove, a salesman from Nashville.
The oppulence of the building immediately made it the center for Pensacola high society. Over the years, a number of important political figures, sports stars and celebrities enjoyed a stay at the San Carlos. Among those were: Adlai Stevenson, George Wallace, Bob Sikes, Jack Dempsey, Walter Hagen, John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Liberace.
Changes in lifestyle and an increase in the popularity of motels eventually sent the San Carlos into a downward spiral. The hotel ceased operations in 1982 and remained vacant for over a decade. Despite efforts to maintain the hotel as a viable business venture, the building fell into disrepair. Estimates to refurbish the hotel exceeded the $15 million mark. City officials were left with no option, and they made the agonizing decision to demolish the famous landmark. Despite being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the building was razed in 1993. A new U.S. Courthouse was built on the site in 1998.
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