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December 21, 2014

Holding onto history Couple looks to pass remnant of Anniston’s past to new hands

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Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2014 6:44 pm | Updated: 6:51 pm, Thu Jul 24, 2014.

On the fourth floor of the Anniston Inn Kitchen is Patsy Cotton's favorite place.

Cotton affectionately refers to the floor as the penthouse level, and with good reason. On that floor is a large window that overlooks Zinn Park and much of downtown Anniston.

"You can see all the lights at night ... and during the winter especially you can see most of Anniston and it's just beautiful," Cotton said.

For nearly a decade, Patsy and her husband, James, have lived in the historic, 130-year-old structure that originally was the kitchen and servants’ living quarters for a long-gone hotel, once known as the grandest in the South. During that time, the Cottons have pumped about $850,000 into restoring the building, all while running a successful event and celebration planning business.

However, the couple is now eying retirement and wants to move on and possibly recoup some of their investment. What Cotton doesn't want, though, is for the building, which she says has become more like a member of the family, to return to a state of decay like that in which she and her husband found it.

"We would not sell to just anybody, it's like one of our children," Cotton said. "We would sell it to someone we know to take care of it."

Currently, the Cottons are working with the city of Anniston to gain full ownership of the building. Cotton said she and her husband started leasing it from the city in 2000.

City Manager Brian Johnson said the Cottons have a 99-year lease with the city. Johnson said it would be in the city's best interest to sell it, given the effort needed to maintain it. He also said it would be fair to let the Cottons gain control of it to sell it, since they've put so much of their own money into it.

"We are not in a position to where we could operate it," Johnson said of the building. "The best option is for the city to dispose of the property to them for a nominal sum and then they could end up controlling the destiny of the property."

Johnson said the City Council would have to vote on the sale, but could not say when that would take place.

Mayor Vaughn Stewart said he supports Johnson's proposal.

"I like the option of keeping it in the private sector instead of it being in the city inventory," Stewart said.

Councilman Jay Jenkins said he was also comfortable with the Cottons taking full control of the building.

"It's a valuable piece now and it was not valuable when they took it on," Jenkins said. "Hopefully, somebody will come in with the necessary energy to run it as an event center."

Without the Cottons, the building might not even exist today.

"When we took this, the city was just going to push it over," Cotton said as she sat in the building's front lobby, once a glass-enclosed porch. "We took it in just the nick of time."

Anniston founders Samuel Noble and Alfred Tyler built the Anniston Inn on 15th Street in 1885. The five-story hotel, with its adjacent four-story kitchen, served visitors for decades.

"It's one of the few structures in the city that still exists that had hands-on work from the founders," Cotton said.

An electrical fire burned the hotel to the ground in 1923. The remaining kitchen was soon donated to the city and the brick and horsehair-plaster building remained vacant for decades.

Cotton said the plan originally was to just restore and preserve the building. However, restoration took more time and money than expected, Cotton said.

"Some of the roof was missing, most of the windows were broken and there were homeless people living here," Cotton said.

Cotton said she and her husband had to pour every penny they had into the building and sell their home. The Cottons live in the building, along with their daughter, her three children, and a family friend.

The Cottons kept as much of the original building as possible. Most of the old brick is still intact. The original dark brown hardwood floors stretch through the reception hall and into the dining room — once the children's dining hall in the hotel's glory days.

"The kids weren't allowed to dine with the adults," Cotton said with a smile.

In 2004, Cotton decided to use the building not just as a home, but as a place for special events and celebrations.

"We had friends and churches who were constantly asking if they could use the place ... and it occurred to us that that might be a good deal," Cotton said. "But then it sort of took off on its own and got a lot bigger than we were able to keep up with."

Cotton had expected to just host events for friends and churches, but weddings and receptions soon took over, she said.

"There's not many places like this, with its own grounds and huge parking lot that's gated ... that makes it attractive to brides and families," Cotton said.

Cotton has slowed the business considerably since 2010, due in part to strain and to spend more time with her parents, who were in bad health at the time. Today, even though she receives plenty of phone calls, Cotton just hosts a few events here and there, some for the city and others for friends and churches.

However, for anybody with the energy to take the business on full-time, they would quickly discover plenty of money resided in the old, yet sturdy walls of the Anniston Inn Kitchen.

"The potential is bigger than we are," Cotton said. "If we had taken it on when we were in our 30s, I can't even imagine what it'd be, but we took it on in our 50s and now we're in our 60s, and can't really keep up."

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