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Ceremony honors local historian
Longstreet society cites Nortons work on Piedmont Hotel
From left: Richard Pilcher, outgoing Longstreet Society president, talks with Mike Hulsey and wife Elaine on Sunday during a dedication ceremony at the Longstreet-Piedmont Hotel in Gainesville. The Longstreet Society dedicated the William L. Norton Jr. Community Room. A photograph of Judge Norton hangs on one of the walls. - photo by SARA GUEVARA | The Times

A longtime Gainesville historian’s name is now displayed prominently at the Piedmont Hotel, one of the area’s most historic landmarks.

The Longstreet Society dedicated the William L. Norton Jr. Community Room on Sunday, with credit given to Norton as the key reason the hotel, which was owned and operated by Confederate Gen. James L. Longstreet after the Civil War, was restored.

“The judge had the contacts, he knew the people and which arms to twist ... and he got this all put together,” said Richard Pilcher, Longstreet Society president, speaking to a gathering of people in the room. “By golly, it took him 10 or 12 years, but he got it done.”

Norton couldn’t attend for health reasons, but he was represented by several family members, who posed for pictures and mingled with visitors.

“This would have really been a big thrill for him,” said his wife, Adelaide.

Norton, a retired U.S. bankruptcy judge, has long been involved in salvaging and preserving local history. He is chairman emeritus of the Hall County Historical Society and, as part of that group, edited and compiled “Historic Gainesville & Hall County ... An Illustrated History.”

Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds, who also worked on the Piedmont project, recalled Norton’s involvement with the Piedmont.

“We had enough money to put a roof and the porches on,” he said. “... We had spent all of our money and we were sort of floundering, then along comes the judge and he just finished out (the project).

“He insisted on things like a new wooden floor and some of his own personal touches.”

During its heyday in the late 1800s, the bustling, three-story hotel that took up a whole city block drew many high-profile visitors, including future president Woodrow Wilson and his wife, who gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Jessie.

After Longstreet’s death in 1904, the Piedmont was used for various purposes, including a boys’ school and boarding house. Much of the building was razed in 1918, with the remaining portion serving as a home to family members until the 1980s.

The Longstreet Society, which aims to preserve the memory of the general, began in 1994 to raise money to restore the hotel as a museum and historic landmark.  Today, the building is home to both, and it also serves as the society’s headquarters.

“Garland may have taken hold of us and led us into doing this, but Judge Norton did it,” Pilcher said of the effort, “and we ... will be eternally grateful for him and the support of his family.”

Adelaide Norton said her husband “would have gotten the biggest kick” out of the celebration in his honor.
“He just loves to save things ... the old places,” she said, “and this was a dream he had.”