A hand-dug well on the grounds of one of Gainesville’s most revered historic sites could be restored early next year to period fashion.
An ornate design will be used in building a structure over the well, or well house, at the Piedmont Hotel, once owned by Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, second in command to Robert E. Lee during the Civil War.
“The archival material says (the well produced) the coolest and freshest water in … North Georgia,” said Margaret Rasmussen of the Longstreet-Piedmont Site Planning Committee.
“That was in the advertising for the hotel,” said committee member Richard Pilcher, who manages the hotel.
He added with a smile: “I think advertising was about the same then that it is today.”
The hotel — or the restored, white clapboard portion of what’s left of the original building — is a tourist attraction but also serves as headquarters for the Longstreet Society, which aims to preserve the legacy of Longstreet, a formidable war commander who sought to reconcile the South and North after the war.
The committee is working to ramp up improvements to the grounds at the hotel, which is off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Maple Street in Gainesville’s Midtown.
The renewed efforts, including dressing up gardens on the property, were given the blessing earlier this month by the Longstreet Society’s board, along with a fundraising campaign to start immediately.
The well, now boarded up in the front lawn, just off the hotel’s wraparound porch, is one of the project’s highlights.
“Most kids haven’t seen a working well before. The hotel is just a big teaching tool, so the (well) would be just another facet to teach, to bring schools and colleges in,” Longstreet Society President C.J. Clarke IV said.
Rasmussen said she even sees the well house as a potential site for weddings.
To restore the structure, work would require excavation by hand — same as the original job more than a century ago — rather than by machine, which “would probably destroy some of the (well’s) integrity,” Rasmussen said.
She said Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds has drawn up the plans to be historically accurate.
“If we can (replicate) this well and well house accurately, that gives us one spot on this site that is genuinely authentic,” Rasmussen said.
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. A room where Wilson’s wife gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Jessie, has been preserved.
The hotel later fell into disrepair. After Longstreet’s death in 1904, the Piedmont was used for various purposes over the years, including a boys’ school and a boardinghouse. Much of the building was razed in 1918 with the remaining portion serving as a home to family members until the 1980s.
A restoration effort began in 1994, soon after the society’s founding. After 13 years of many financial hurdles, the single-story remnant of the original hotel reopened in 2007.
Last year, an old house that sat at the corner of MLK and Maple was torn down, providing a clear view of the Piedmont from both streets.
Its removal helped kick-start property improvements, particularly landscaping. An entrance garden was created where the old house stood, and a flagpole displaying U.S. and Georgia flags was moved to the garden from the front of the hotel.
The property also includes two memorial gardens — one named after Jamie Hollis, the group’s longtime financial adviser, and Jamie Longstreet Patterson, a Longstreet granddaughter who died in 2014.
Rasmussen hopes “a lot of different groups” will participate in improvements.
“There’s something here for everybody,” she said. “Historic gardens in Georgia are pretty important, and we want everything to be as authentic as we can possibly get it.”