The Lost Hotel

by Ben Boulden

The building of the Goldman Hotel was done in fits and starts and with many difficulties, but the historic structure that once stood at the east end of Garrison Avenue took even longer to meet its demise.

Twenty years after the last tenants left the hotel, Immaculate Conception Church purchased the property on the corner of North 13th Street and Garrison Avenue in 1994 and demolished it to make room for a parking lot.

In 1908, the Sebastian Hotel Co. began construction of the hotel. The builders had completed some of the floors when the company became insolvent. A new company formed by prominent local businessmen took over the project. Lesser Goldman, a St. Louis cotton broker, agreed to help finance the their Southwestern Hotel Co. in exchange for naming the hotel after him.

From its opening in 1910 until the beginning of World War II, the Goldman Hotel was the social center for the city's notable families and well-heeled businessmen. Six stories of steel-reinforced concrete were arranged into two wings that fronted North 13th Street. The hotel's owners advertised the hotel as "fireproof" and "European." (They added the third wing to the north end in 1929).

The basement and the first and second floors were public spaces, although the second-floor mezzanine contained suites used as offices and showrooms. The third through fifth floors were used for hotel rooms. The sixth floor also housed hotel rooms in addition to a large ballroom.

A high ceiling of flat panels of glass held aloft by 16 pressed-brick columns around the lobby perimeter greeted visitors entering the lobby. A stairway of cast iron and marble led to the mezzanine, and white oak and glass panels separated the lobby from two restaurants and shops on the first floor. All the public spaces on this level were floored in tile mosaic. Decorative plasterwork in floral and geometric patterns graced the ceilings.

Upon its opening, the Goldman Hotel had no lunch counter. Guests ate in the main dining room where tuxedo-clad waiters served meals with silverware, presented finger bowls and delivered the checks on silver trays. Checks were signed, but seldom paid in cash. Most local people who ate there had accounts at the Goldman and, until the Depression could even draw cash on their accounts.

Not only was the Goldman a place for elegant dining, it was a place for meeting and entertainment. In rotation with the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs and the Marion in Little Rock, the Goldman hosted state conventions of fraternal and professional organizations as well as the weekly meetings of local groups.

Wholesale businesses and factories often set up sample rooms in the hotel for the examination of area buyers. Musical bands such as Eddie Simon's 10-piece orchestra lived in the hotel and played dances every night. In 1930, John England, the manager of the Goldman, started the first radio station, KFPW, which was housed in the hotel and run by Jimmie Barry.

Among the celebrities who stayed in Goldman over the course of its life were: at almost nine feet in height, Robert Waldo, the tallest man in the world; humorist Will Rogers; film stars Rosalind Russell and Susan Hayward; baseball greats Mickey Mantle and Dizzy Dean; Van Buren native and comedian Bob Burns; and female golfer Babe Dedricksen.

In an interesting side note to these celebrity visits, the original Buster Brown and his dog, Tige, were guests of the hotel. During their stay, Tige died and an elaborate funeral was held with burial in the front yard of a Dodson Avenue home.

The Goldman was a classic hotel of bellmen, doormen and other service personnel. The owners maintained a full staff of 125 to 150 people to care for guests in the hotel's 225 rooms. Filling out the complement of maids and others were barbers in a four-chair barber shop where "well-paid" businessmen could get a shave every morning as well as a shoe shine or a manicure.

Cigar stand girls ran a bookmaking operation where their customers rolled dice, "double or nothing," for purchases. These young women also ran baseball game pools and punch boards and were great sources of local information and gossip. World War II ended these practices at the cigar stand and also forever changed the character of the Goldman. Contractors who were helping to build Fort Chaffee flooded the hotel.

After World War II, chain motels and the growing car culture of America sharply cut into the traditional business of the hotel. By the 1960s, the airways had eclipsed the railways as the preferred mode of travel for most Americans, further hurting the Goldman Hotel located downtown near the old train stations.

In that decade, the hotel essentially became an apartment building for tenants who paid for lodging by the week or month. It continued on this basis until a fire marshal ordered all the upper floors to be vacated in 1974 and the mortgage holder foreclosed. Two local men bought all the furniture and fixtures and sold them off piece by piece.

During an abortive attempt at renovation in 1985, the interior of the Goldman Hotel was stripped of nearly all its interesting decorative features, making it truly a shell of its former self.

Since its demolition, it has been left to those who can remember the hotel and events there to fill in the space that once was occupied by the building. It will be left to those who read and hear those memories to imagine what the Goldman Hotel was to Fort Smith and what it might have been again.

Taken from local newspaper accounts and personal documents.