The Hunt Tower’s stark art-deco style stands out from the rest of downtown Gainesville, and despite its 1930s look, the lot it sits on is one of the oldest in the city.
James Law bought Lot No. 1 for $150 in 1831 and later sold it to Adolfus Dauvergne who built the first building on the land, a grocery store and family residence. That building was consumed by a large fire in Gainesville in 1851, and the Arlington Hotel was built on the lot in 1882. The hotel was renamed as the Dixie-Hunt Hotel in the 1920s after Jim and Aurora Hunt acquired the building, and it became part of the Dixie chain of hotels. Upon her death, Aurora Hunt deeded the property, then worth about a quarter of a million dollars, to Brenau University, according to the National Register of Historic Places.
Both the Hunts were significant philanthropists in the area. When Jim Hunt died in 1925, the Gainesville Eagle wrote, “he was the very soul of honor, and his word was as gold without alloy.”
About this series
As the pace of development in Gainesville reaches a fever pitch, The Times is examining the history of some of the buildings downtown and nearby in this weekly series. Other stories in the series include:
Tragedy struck again when the 1936 tornado in Gainesville leveled the hotel, along with much of downtown, also killing about 200 people.
Brenau rebuilt the Dixie-Hunt Hotel in 1937, hiring architect William J. J. Chase, whose firm is responsible for several early 20th century Georgia courthouses and about 100 schools around the state, according to a Community-Wide Historic Structural Survey from 2011.
The register entry in 1984 stated, “It is the only historic hotel remaining in the town, and it is the most important example of private investment in Gainesville after the tornado, when much of the town was rebuilt with Federal assistance.”
It was the Dixie-Hunt Hotel once again, now with a chic art-deco style, a rare choice for Georgia. It has a reinforced concrete frame and structural tile walls, finished with stucco on the exterior. It rose above most other buildings in the city at five and a half stories high, shaped with two wings to the northeast and southeast, with its tower in the middle, which used to hold hotel rooms and a top story suite.
The Norton Agency bought the building in 1981 and did some renovating, though much of the original structure and features remain. For example, it still has its original lobby, even though the building no longer has a concierge to welcome guests.
Frank Norton Sr. converted the hotel to an office building and renamed it from the Dixie-Hunt Hotel to the Hunt Tower. He had the building repainted, installed new wallpaper, carpet, electrical and air conditioning and heating shortly after, his son Frank Norton Jr., CEO of The Norton Agency, said.
Now, the first floor houses the law firm Stewart, Melvin & Frost LLC, one of the first tenants under Norton, and Luna’s, a fine dining restaurant that has had the location since 1997.
But even in its hotel days, the building was multi-use. Bullet holes can still be seen in the brick wall of a basement storage room from where high schoolers used to practice riflery during World War II.
“Everyone had to chip in,” Norton said. “Riflery was part of the education offerings.” Norton’s father told him teenagers used to shoot targets in the basement, when it still had a dirt floor and wasn’t yet full of filing cabinets.
The building still has basement walls intact from before the 1936 tornado, and Norton said he loves the old catacombs, nearly bare and visibly aged.
“This is actually one of my coolest spaces that I love in the city of Gainesville,” Norton said. “I’m fascinated with urban archeology.”
Norton framed the building’s original blueprints and has them on display in a main floor hallway. Snug hotel rooms have been converted into offices on upper floors. He’s managed to keep many original features like the original marble, handrails and light fixtures.
“We tried to keep the art deco look … but still have a freshness to it,” Norton said.
His father once planned to build a rooftop bar and restaurant on the top of Hunt Tower, but he couldn’t do it while retaining historic building tax credits, Norton said. So, the roof and the exterior has stayed as it was originally, and the building’s lobby area has avoided major renovations for the same reason, showing echoes of its past as one of the town’s premier hotels.