A group of photographers is working to document a long-closed, historic hotel in Pine Bluff, while it's also being studied by architecture students. The hotel was once considered among the finest in Arkansas, but has been abandoned for nearly half a century and after a hard winter, the once grand structure is deteriorating fast.
The two story lobby with marble walls and plaster ornamentation is crumbling. The curved ceiling once featured stained glass, but that’s broken, allowing water to pour in.
“When we’ve shown it to people in the past, people were kind of astounded. But what’s so fun about this is bringing people in here and having them take their first look at the lobby. It’s pretty astounding isn’t it? You get in here and you just go ‘wow!’ And then you leave it and it feels sort of sad that you’ve left it alone again,” said Rita Henry, who leads the Blue-Eyed Knocker Photo Club.
The hotel was designed by architect George R. Mann, who also worked on the Arkansas State Capitol, the Hotel Marion, the Boyle Building and the Arkansas Gazette building.
On the second floor of the Hotel Pines are meeting rooms and a ballroom that hosted some of Pine Bluff’s key social events.
“It opened in 1913 and we actually got in to start doing the photography around October, so it’s been about a hundred years," Henry said as a passing train outside was blasting its horn, giving a hint to the history of the building.
The hotel was built near the tracks, a short distance from Pine Bluff’s Union Station.
“It was probably one of the finest hotels in Arkansas at the time and I think it’s really interesting that you see it kind of tracks with the development patterns of Pine Bluff," said Vanessa McKuin, executive director of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, who got her first look at the hotel this past weekend.
"So when Pine Bluff was booming, the Hotel Pines was booming. When the railroad passenger service stopped on the railroad in 1968, that’s when you really saw kind of a decline of the Hotel Pines because that’s where the major client base came from, that passenger railway. Once that passenger service shut down, the Hotel Pines shut down shortly after that.”
The six story hotel, at the corner of Main Street and 5th Avenue, featured retail shops on the ground floor and rooms for all price ranges on the upper floors. While there are large luxury suites, some rooms, especially on the higher floors, are the size of dorm rooms with shared bathrooms.
Rita Henry began bringing photographer friends to the hotel saying "we don't know what's going to happen to it." Among them has been Darrell Adams, an American History teacher at Forrest Heights Middle School in Little Rock.
“I hope that we can document this and get a good documentation of what was inside, what was left before it completely goes away because it is rapidly, even since the last time I was here less than two months ago, it’s in an even worse state now. The water is obviously getting in now in a lot more places and starting to do a lot more damage.”
After being closed for 44 years, Adams notes that going through it can be dangerous.
“You just have to be very, very careful, watch where you step, because there are sections that aren’t stable and you could easily fall through the floor if you’re not paying attention. But if you take it slow and use good sense, you probably are as safe as you are in your own house.”
Also going through the Hotel Pines recently were students from the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture. Carl Matthews is head of the Interior Design Department and was struck by his first time seeing it.
“When you walk in, the grandness of the space, the grandness and the ornamentation of the space is certainly not something that you would expect in downtown Pine Bluff. My initial reaction when I walked into the building, I felt like I was in Vienna or Paris,” Matthews said.
For the final project of the spring semester, his students worked in teams to prepare presentations, dreaming up new uses for the hotel.
“Several of the teams developed proposals to link to the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. I’m thinking of one proposal that has three floors of student housing and then some lower floors were very much directed to the art departments and art students, so they put dance studios, music studios and performance spaces. On the ground floor, almost all the teams had a mixture of retail. Some of the teams restored the original ballroom so that it could be rented out for community functions. It’s a beautiful old space,” Matthews said.
But everyone with interest in the Hotel Pines knows breathing new life into the facility is a long shot, especially for a city with a rapidly declining population and one of the highest per capita crime rates in the country.
But McKuin with the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas remains hopeful.
“I’m an optimist, so I like to believe that there’s always a possibility of something happening. We’ve seen properties basically raised from the dead all over the state and all over the U.S. and I think that the right person could definitely make it happen. I think that’s been the struggle for the last 45 years, to get that right person," McKuin said.
The city considered tearing down the building in 1990, but a non-profit bought it and took steps to preserve the structure and seal it up with the goal of eventual restoration.
In 2003, McKuin says it was given to a developer who promised to make use of the building, "and just nothing ever happened with it. Pine Bluff has a tough economy and it’s a very large building and it would be a challenge to put together a viable deal for,” McKuin said.
The property is for sale today for a mere $52,000, but would likely cost millions to clean out and renovate.
Real estate agent Dee Herring says she has two leads, including an investor group that’s working to put together a proposal mixing residential and commercial uses.
She and others say they just hope something can come together to allow the Hotel Pines to see a new life and not become yet another historic building that's allowed to deteriorate until there's nothing worth saving.