NATCHEZ – After a tornado ripped through downtown Natchez on Feb. 28, 1998, tearing off the roof and most of the top floor of the historic Natchez Eola Hotel, hotel manager Ron Brumfield received a phone call from the owner who had only one question: should we shut down?
“I certainly didn’t think so,” said Brumfield, who has managed the hotel since 1994. “Fortunately, he decided not to close it.”
Three months later, the hotel was sold to Bob Dean of Baton Rouge, a historian who purchases and restores historic properties. Dean also owns Hotel Bentley in Alexandria, La.
“Renovations in 1998 and 1999 cost close to $4 million,” Brumfield said. “However, the hotel has been beautifully and fully restored. Before the storm, we had 128 rooms. After the renovations, we expanded to 132 rooms. We turned the old lounge on the top floor into two owner’s suites, available for around $600 a room per night. Two other large rooms were split into four rooms. All of the walls and ceilings were redone on the entire property. All of the tile and tubs in the bathrooms were refinished and granite floors were put in. From head to toe, everything was redone.”
In 1999, the Eola Hotel was franchised as a Radisson Hotel, and officially became known as the Radisson Natchez Eola Hotel.
“The elevators have been automated. Radisson insisted on that,” he said. “The original elevators are there, but instead of the hand crank, you see punch buttons. The service elevator is still hand cranked, though.”
Before the storm, the occupancy rate was “in the ballpark of 42%,” Brumfield said. “Now, we’re in the neighborhood of 48%.”
“With Radisson’s corporate marketing muscle, Gold Reward Points and worldwide accounts through major corporations, it’s helped us market the Eola,” he said. “An interesting distinction: where other Radissons may have 70% of their occupancy as corporate business, 70% of ours is tourist.”
Walter Tipton, director of tourism management and development for the City of Natchez, said the Eola is “still the premier historic hotel property in Natchez.”
“Since the tornado, the tourism business has been consistent,” Tipton said. “We are facing some stiff competition from the Gulf Coast and from the casinos in Tunica. And we’re in a downside with gas prices that have nearly doubled in the last couple of years.”
In 2001, the 80,000-square-foot hotel is back on the market. The asking price? $7.75 million, or $96.88 per square foot.
Built at a cost of $750,000, the Eola Hotel originally opened on July 1, 1927, and has been described as having “an intimate European atmosphere with finely appointed guest rooms.” Located at the corner of Main and Pearl Streets, it was – and still is – the largest building in downtown Natchez.
Originally financed by the Natchez Investment Corp., the company defaulted on the mortgage in 1931 and the hotel was sold to the highest bidder, the Natchez Eola Hotel Corp. This company was organized by a group of concerned citizens whose primary interest was for the hotel to remain open for the benefit of the community.
With the beginning of the Natchez Pilgrimage in 1932, the Eola Hotel was the social center of the town, with a coffee shop open 24 hours a day. But 30 years later, it began to show its age, and competition from chain motels that dotted the highways began to reduce its tourist revenue. Without extensive renovations or improved services, the hotel could no longer make a profit and closed on Nov. 30, 1974.
Norman Germany, a 30-year hotel patron, and Larry L. Brown, a local businessman, were instrumental in the purchase of the hotel in 1978 by a group of investors operating as the Downtown Hotel Group. After a long-planned $6.5-million restoration project was complete, which included the addition of another floor on top of the original structure, the hotel reopened in 1982. The Eola Hotel received a minor facelift in 1994, said Brumfield.
“Business has been on an increase,” Brumfield said. “Natchez is almost strictly a tourism town. Corporate business is down right now, but individual and group tourists are increasing. We host probably between 15 and 20 conventions a year. But our big business is motor coach tours. We easily get 120 or so buses a year from about 30 major tour companies that bring tourists into Natchez.”
Tipton said the city is building a new 56,700-square-foot convention center a block west of the Eola Hotel and should attract in-state associations from Mississippi and Louisiana and other regional groups. At the same time, a city auditorium is being renovated. The Eola Hotel has approximately 3,300 square feet of meeting space that accommodates up to 300 people.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.