The Edison Walthall Hotel: 75 years in the making

by Staff Writer

Published: August 25,2003

JACKSON — As legislators held session in the New Capitol, which celebrates its centennial this year, a few blocks away, the Edison Walthall Hotel opened in the spring of 1928 alongside other downtown hotels like the Robert E. Lee, the King Edward and the Hotel Heidelberg.

Seventy-five years later, the Edison Walthall is the only one of these four downtown hotels still open. The hotel’s staying power is especially appreciated by supporters who are pushing to make downtown Jackson a place that doesn’t close down after the workday is finished. John Lawrence, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, said Jackson is fortunate to have local ownership of a quality hotel like the Edison Walthall.

“It’s extraordinarily meaningful on so many different levels,” said Lawrence. “We have a high-class, well-run hotel in an urban area, which is absolutely necessary for both the tourism market and also business development because business travelers have to have a quality place to stay.

“They are also wonderful corporate citizens who provide meeting space for us to entertain prospective clients and investors,” said Lawrence. “The hotel provides a wonderful economic development boost that makes our job easier.”

The Edison Walthall property has changed hands — and looks — a few times over the years. The current owner, Earl Gaylor, bought the property in 1990 and restored it to its original period of construction. The hotel property started out in the early 1920s as a three-story building for the Jackson Baking Co. The bakery was considered the place to go by local ladies who bought high-end cakes, petit fors and other sweets. They also dined in its elegant tea room on the first floor in what is now the hotel’s main dining room.

The bakery was bought a few years later by a group of Jackson businessmen who saw the building had three very important assets — location, location, location, according to local historian Forrest Lamar Cooper. The building was gutted and rebuilt with five extra floors. It opened in the spring of 1928 as the Hotel Walthall among private homes and a few businesses on Capitol Street. Lamar Street on the hotel’s back was still a new street for downtown Jackson.

The hotel is rich with history — including local lore about a fight in the lobby between Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. and the editor of the Jackson Daily News, now known as The Clarion-Ledger. The governor was none-to-happy about what the paper was publishing about him, and when he encountered the editor in the lobby, the two had a knock-down, drag out fight in front of the hotel’s guests and staff.

Thanks to Earl Gaylor, the Edison Walthall’s interior is rich with 1920s-style decor, but the hotel has not always stayed true to its original construction. Investors who bought the hotel in 1967 refurbished it with a more modern look for that era, including the rainbow-colored tiles on its exterior that many native Jacksonians remember. The hotel was then called the Downtowner, and later became a Radisson in the 1980s. It was taken over in foreclosure by Deposit Guaranty National Bank. That’s when the Gaylor family stepped in.

Earl Gaylor, a native of Ohio, has invested about $7 million to outfit the hotel in 1920s decor. The hotel is full of amenities that hearken back to another era — chandeliers in the elevators, an elegant library, a wood-paneled bar, a barber shop and an elegant dining room where brunch is held each Sunday. The lobby walls are adorned with artwork found in the hotel’s attic by the maintenance man and almost thrown away.

The hotel is run by Earl Gaylor and his son, Stephen, both of whom have years of experience in hotel and resort operation. Earl Gaylor ran his own hotel and resort company, Noble Inns Corp. in Atlanta for years, and Stephen Gaylor worked for the Boston-headquartered Promise, which merged with Hilton.

When Earl Gaylor came to see the Jackson property for the first time, he found concrete block walls and bare floors in the guest hallways. But he looked past appearances and saw what the hotel could become.

“I liked its lines, and I thought it was laid out in an interesting way,” he said.

Fortunately, it was built with an extra-solid foundation capable of withstanding pushing and pulling by Yazoo clay, and former investors had made several improvements, including adding a pool, a parking garage and enlarging the guest rooms. Typical of old hotels, the original rooms were about 10X15, what is now a typical size bathroom, said Stephen Gaylor, who is now the Edison’s general manager.

The rooms were enlarged to a more comfortable size for guests and outfitted with plush furnishings and marble to fit Earl Gaylor’s vision of an upscale, full-service hotel. Although the Gaylors were careful to stay true to the building’s early-century construction, they outfitted the rooms with modern conveniences like high-speed Internet access.

This is important to the hotel’s clientele, which consists of 75% business customers. Many of the Edison’s customers are repeat customers who stay in the hotel when they visit Jackson on business.

“After hassling with the airlines, it’s nice to come in and be greeted by name and get personal service,” said Stephen Gaylor.

Another large part of the Gaylors’ business is meetings and receptions. On any given day, the Edison hosts five or six meetings, and during wedding season, there are four or five rehearsal dinners and receptions every weekend. For one especially large wedding, the hotel hosted a reception for 800 people on two floors.

With the interior restoration complete, the Gaylors have set their sights on the exterior, but there are no definite plans for when the outside will get a facelift. For now, they are enjoying the benefits of years of hard work and the realization of a dream to create a full-service hotel for business travelers.

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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