- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - Lisa Wolfe Goodwin often wondered growing up why she couldn’t have the white picket fence or neighborhood like her friends, but over the years she has grown to appreciate her childhood in the Majestic Hotel.

She’s been told over the last few months since the loss of the original, “yellow brick” building that she should share her story, and this summer she spent her time writing her memories down as a start to a longer work in progress.

“A few years ago, Miranda Lambert came out with a song entitled ‘The House that Built Me,’” she wrote, adding that she always liked it, but it never quite fit her childhood.

“It wasn’t a house that built me, it was a hotel. Looking back now, I must have had a charmed childhood.”

Goodwin’s father, Leo Wolfe, had worked with Southwest Hotels - the parent company that owned several stately structures in Little Rock, Memphis, Kansas City and Hot Springs - since, she said, the end of World War II in the mid-1940s.

“He had been with the company since, I’m assuming, around 1945 or ‘46,” she told The Sentinel-Record (https://bit.ly/1Aah9bk ). “He was just a boy from south Arkansas and never lost his roots, but when he was asked to take over the management position at the Majestic in 1954, he stayed until his retirement in 1982.

“I never really realized it was a special place to grow up. All I knew was there were times I didn’t appreciate it.”

The family moved in to one of two red brick duplexes behind the hotel along Cedar Street close to Whittington Avenue at the time that there was only the original building and the red brick annex.

Goodwin writes in her story that, when her family came to the hotel, the widow of Southwest Hotels founder H. Grady Manning was living “at least part-time in a beautifully decorated and unique apartment on the fifth floor of the annex building - an apartment my parents would later move into when I left home for college.”

In a story Goodwin remembers, her father had told Manning that other, more modern hotels being constructed around the country had pools, and that if the Majestic was to be competitive, it needed one, too.

“In the grassy area west of the annex building was a beautiful and very large tree that Mrs. Manning was especially partial to,” Goodwin wrote. “The obvious place was where that tree was, so of course, the addition of a pool was out of the question.”

When Manning passed away, Wolfe gained permission from “whomever was his new boss - Joy Scott, the Mannings’ daughter, possibly - to cut down the tree and build the pool.”

Goodwin said that this simple addition gave the Majestic an edge, as the hotel pool was considered one of the more beautiful pools in the area.

Her mother was “quite the seamstress and horticulturist,” and one of her favorite activities was to garden and keep the landscaping of the hotel looking pristine. Behind the hotel was a large greenhouse with steam heat piped in from the hotel, making it perfect for growing healthy flowers and plants.

“As it turned out, there were quite a few people who stayed there at the hotel that never knew there were gardens that were picture-perfect in a park-like setting, along with beautiful landscaping, all terraced with natural rock right behind the original portion of the hotel,” she said.

In the late 1950s, the family grew and moved to 136 Cedar St., which was one of the remaining duplexes, renovated to make a four-bedroom home. Shortly thereafter the Lanai Towers was built, and each room was a different color.

“There was a ‘red room’ and a ‘purple room’ and a ‘gold room,’” she said. “Everything from the shag carpet to the bright bedspreads was a distinct color that was assigned to that room. Because it was the 1960s, those bright colors and carpeting demonstrated some of the newest concepts in hotel accommodations and such fun to show off to my friends and family who visited.”

Everything, including the glass elevator in the new addition to the hotel, made for an exciting adventure for Goodwin and her friends.

“One whole side was glass and it looked out over the front of the annex building, as well as Park Avenue,” she said. “My friends that came to visit would always ask if we could do that in our excursion playtime around the hotel and of course, I was more than happy to oblige. It was a novelty that never seemed to wear off.”

The hotel, being close to The Vapors, saw its share of celebrities, entertainers and visitors from all over the world. As she grew up, Goodwin had many jobs around the hotel, with duties as simple as making friends with the guests at the pool and telling them all about what to do in town to working the switchboard, which brought its own entertainment at times.

“Back then, hotel rooms didn’t have TVs, so in the original building there was a room on the first floor with a little TV in it and there were always guests there, watching one of the three channels and enjoying themselves,” she said. “And one time while on the switchboard, there was one little guest roaming the halls of the hotel.”

A monkey that escaped from the Arkansas Alligator Farm & Petting Zoo had decided to take up residence in the hotel for a day, “going on a little adventure not unlike my own adventures in the hotel,” she said, with a laugh.

“It started when a lady called me from the TV room saying the monkey was hiding behind a curtain and I thought ‘OK, maybe she’s been watching a little too much TV today,’” she said. “But then we started getting sightings from different people all over the hotel. They finally caught him, but you really never knew who - or what - you might see at the hotel.”

From the time she was young, Goodwin’s father instilled in his family a love for his adopted hometown. With other community-minded individuals, Wolfe helped found the Advertising and Promotion Commission when Hot Springs was being re-branded as a family-oriented destination. He respected the hotel managers and owners in the area and all competition was friendly.

“On Sundays on the way to church, he would say ‘Let’s go count the cars in The Arlington (Resort Hotel & Spa) parking lot,’” she said. “But it was all in good fun. He and manager Ed May were good friends and he would say ‘It’s important that we’re all full. If we succeed, the town succeeds.’”

In fact, it wasn’t uncommon if either the Majestic or the Arlington filled up for the hotels to send guests to each other, as they were both owned by the same company. In these instances, guests were offered what the hotel staff “lovingly” called the “toilet rooms.”

“When the original building was constructed in the early 1900s, most people came to Hot Springs to take baths, and the Majestic had a wonderful bath house on the first floor, above the lobby of that building,” Goodwin said. “During that time, the guests had no need for a bathtub or shower in their hotel room, as they went every day to the bath house in the hotel for a bath and massage. So there were quite a few rooms in that building that had only a bed, a sink and a toilet.”

These rooms later were only rented to those guests desperate to find a place to stay during the live race meet at Oaklawn Park or during the summer tourism season, but Goodwin said those guests would often come and thank the staff the next day because they would go to the bath house, have a bath and massage and experience the Spa City’s history. And when U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander, who represented the eastern district of Arkansas, was only able to stay in a “toilet room,” Goodwin said she was mortified.

“He laughed and told us a story about being on a camp out with Boy Scouts, with only a dog in a pup tent to keep him warm,” she said. “I’ll never forget how good-natured he was about his accommodations at the grand Majestic Hotel.”

Goodwin, who later earned her degree in teaching from Ouachita Baptist University, realized that teaching was not what she wanted to do right away and pursued her career as a travel writer for the Arkansas State Department of Parks and Tourism for many years.

“When I interviewed, they asked me why I was interested in the tourism industry and I told them ‘Are you kidding? I didn’t have a choice,’” she said. “I grew up knowing that loving your community and showing others how special your hometown is was very important.”

She traveled and moved with her husband over the years, but returned to Hot Springs in 2013 to the sinking realization that the hotel she called home - which closed in 2006 - was in such deterioration that it seemed beyond repair. The day it burned in February of this year, she said it was more like losing a loved one than a piece of Hot Springs history.

Her visits had become few and far between, but the memories of the hotel stick with her every day.

“I remember the Majestic as a busy, happy place where guests were loyal and faithful to the grand old hotel that many had come to know so well,” she said.

The Sundry Store, Dutch Treat and H. Grady Manning dining room all held special memories from getting an ice cream cone or sundae after work and visiting her father in his office to family holiday dinners, listening to the organist play songs like “Tea for Two” or “Georgie Girl” just for her.

Her father, who visited the hotel long after his retirement, used to say a fire would be devastating due to the old wood and materials, “and sure to his prediction, it was.” But like many in Hot Springs, Goodwin and her husband see the loss as an opportunity for reawakening.

“These buildings are not just bricks and mortar,” she said. “They are truly part of us.”


Information from: The Sentinel-Record, https://www.hotsr.com

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