Not much is known about the old Hotel Bienville. I, as a native Mobilian, never knew it had existed until my friend, Gleason, mentioned it. Gleason is ninety-two, we have breakfast every Tuesday and have for the past two years. If you listen well, between the complaints about luke-warm coffee, you’ll hear stories about WWII and the glamorous actors from old Hollywood he met, during his forty years working for an airline. He loves jazz music and will proudly tell you about the time he saw Ella Fitzgerald cry, while singing at an intimate dinner party. In his youth, he knew all the best gentleman’s parlors and places for listening to live music. Midway through this particularly windy, wintery Tuesday morning, he started telling me about a live orchestra that played every night at a hotel called, Bienville. My interest was peaked, so I did some research.
I found that at the time it was built, in the year 1900, downtown was mostly residential. One can only imagine how the six-story hotel on the corner of St Francis and St Joseph must have drastically changed the dynamic of the community. The hotel was designed to be bright, with courtyards and large windows. It boasted modern plumbing with a washroom between every two suites to share. The lobby was adorned with dark wood, rose pinks, reds and cream colors. In the basement, there was a barber shop and restaurant. In the summertime, they served the best mint julep in town.
As a result of the war, the Bienville was closed in the 1950’s. It was remodeled into offices in the 1960’s by a man named Karagan, who had previously managed the hotel. Within the decade, the building fell vacant and, as with many of Mobile’s historical buildings, would be torn down. Mr. Karagan, who had spent much of his life within those walls, helped tear them down brick by brick.
Gleason went on to tell me about the LaClede, another hotel located just before the Bankhead tunnel on Government St. Built in 1855, it became one of the most well to do hotels in Mobile and continued as such, until the end of the twentieth century. However, it wasn’t always that way. As its popularity and demand declined, so did the cost to stay there, and it eventually became a low cost housing alternative.
He told me of the two men he had known who had gambled themselves to destitution and were forced to move into the LaClede and make it their home. His glazed over blue eyes wandered out the window and he said in a quieter, more mournful tone, “They died in that old place, both of them died there.”
His resignation to tragedy has always shocked me. He is often cool and unaffected by tales that leave me taken back and sober minded. His swollen knuckles grasped the diner-style coffee mug and pulled it slowly to his mouth. I’ve often noticed that, for his age, his movements are graceful and he seems to silently float wherever he goes. He was quite the ladies man, when he was young, and he still charms everyone he meets.
“I’ve never even heard of those places, how splendid they sound. I wish I had seen them”, I said, thoughtfully.
He looked at me like I was strange. White eyebrows raised, he waved his hand in the air like he was shooing an imaginary fly and said, “Good Lord…If you think thats interesting, I just don’t know… Sugar, would you mind warming up this danged coffee for me?”
I often think of Mobile as hard clay soil, where not much grows. It is austere and unyielding to change or new venture, yet it seems to have so little respect for it’s own rich history. It is like Gleason, in so many ways. I’ve learned that there are needs here that our generation can meet. Needs for creativity, risk, hard work, discipline and remembrance.