Johnny Vardeman: Joy reigned in early days of Civil War
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To drive past the unassuming, single-story building on Maple Street, one would never guess the Piedmont Hotel once was the high-society hub of Gainesville more than a century ago.
Garland Reynolds certainly had no idea.
Yet, something caught the Gainesville architect's eye one day in 1994.
"Nobody knew where the Piedmont Hotel was. It was lost," Reynolds recalled. "One day, I was out with Jim Syfan looking up and down Maple Street. I had seen a postcard ... from Mrs. (Woodrow) Wilson that marked the room where (her daughter) Jessie was born. It struck me when I saw the window pattern.
It was like déjà vu. And I said, ‘Jim, this old duplex rooming house was it.' And sure enough, it matched exactly.
"It is Gainesville's most historic building."
Today, the renovated Piedmont Hotel sits as a monument to Gainesville's most famous citizen, former Confederate Gen. James Longstreet. The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is likely to renew interest in the hotel and its history.
During its heyday in the late 1800s, the Piedmont was a bustling three-story edifice that took up a whole city block and drew many high-profile visitors. Yet its main drawing card was its owner: Longstreet, a key Civil War figure who had settled in Gainesville during the last quarter of the 19th century.
In 1873, Longstreet bought an interest in the hotel from its original owner, Alvah Smith, who needed the $6,000 investment to finish the structure and pay off debts. Smith never raised the funds to buy back the hotel, and it opened under Longstreet's ownership on June 13, 1876.
Over the next few decades, even as Longstreet took numerous government posts, the hotel prospered. Among its more famous guests were Atlanta icons Henry Grady and Joel Chandler Harris, as well as Civil War generals Dan Sickles and Joseph Johnston.
And as Reynolds recalled, the hotel was the site of a future first daughter's birth: Jessie Woodrow Wilson, in a ground-floor room at the Piedmont in 1887 when her father, the future president, was in town. The room now is named for her and filled with period furnishings.
Local lore tells of the fried chicken served in the Piedmont's dining room as the precursor to Gainesville's reputation as a poultry haven.
According to a narrative of the general's life on the Longstreet Society website, "he was noted for his love of children, and the story is often told that in his later years he climbed three flights of stairs to take an apple to a young guest. He is said to have walked down to the train station to meet arriving travelers and drum up business for his hotel and dining room."
But like Longstreet's health, the hotel fell into disrepair. After his death in 1904, the Piedmont was used for various purposes over the years including a boys' school, a boarding house and, legend has it, even a brothel. Much of the building was razed in 1918 with the remaining portion serving as a home to family members until the 1980s.
Then, Reynolds discovered the Piedmont. Over the next dozen years, the remaining portion of the hotel was refurbished by the Longstreet Society, the organization founded by Reynolds and others to preserve Longstreet's legacy and reveal the real story behind the enigmatic general.
"I had always wondered why he was so hated in Gainesville," Reynolds said. "My mother was a history teacher, so I wanted to know: Who was this awful man? Nobody would have anything to do with him, not sit next to him in church. I started research to find out who he was, and one thing led to another."
Joined by current Society president Richard Pilcher, W.L. Norton and others, the organization began to research Longstreet's life and career, but soon decided it needed a place to call home.
In 1994, the society began to raise money to restore the hotel as a museum and historic landmark. It began with 17 investors, eight of them local residents, all willing to "take a leap of faith," as Reynolds put it. He and others signed a $10,000 loan guarantee with a local bank to provide the funds needed to secure the property.
"Things went from there," Reynolds said. "We totally put a new roof on it, and bought four (nearby) lots."
It took 13 years with numerous financial hurdles, but the hotel reopened in 2007. The total cost of the renovation topped $500,000, with the Longstreet Society investing some $100,000. The original investors all were repaid in time, Pilcher said.
Rooms in the stately building include numerous paintings and artifacts from the general's military career, plus reproduced documents of his many federal appointments. A library is stocked with Civil War volumes, and a spacious main hall is adorned with a large portrait of Longstreet.
Reynolds' love of history and Civil War knowledge later led him to ties with the keepers of Ulysses S. Grant's memorial tomb in New York City. He became a member of that association's building committee as it seeks to renovate the grounds honoring the former president and Union general.
For Reynolds, such an alliance brings full circle the lifelong ties between West Point classmates, and later war rivals, Grant and Longstreet. The soldiers' friendship is depicted in a painting of the surrender at Appomattox in the main hall of the Piedmont. It is believed Longstreet attended Grant's wedding, possibly as best man, when the two were garrisoned together in Missouri years before the war.
"They want to build a visitor's center near the (Grant) monument," Reynolds said. "My deal is that I want a Longstreet room in there."