By early 1998, the four-story brick-and-horsehair-plaster building atop Marvin Hill had no more leases on life. Not quite dead, but nearly gone. That it was the annex of the long-departed Anniston Inn didn’t matter much to the Anniston City Council, which seemed more willing to burn cash at a bonfire than commit to costly renovations.
The prevailing thought: Just let it fall down.
“If you don’t put a roof on (the kitchen) in two years,” former Main Street Director Scott Barksdale told council members that January, “you won’t have to do anything about it. It will be gone.”
Of all of Anniston’s civic foibles, its efforts at historic preservation are a mixture of few victories (the homes of Noble Park, the Noble-McCaa-Butler House, The Finial Hotel, a handful of Noble Street notables) and a too-long list of defeats (Victorian-era homes and other structures that dated back to the city’s origin).
The Anniston Inn Kitchen’s unlikely survival is the result of a collection of people who over nearly a century have refused to let this Anniston landmark go the way of The Pines, Edmund Tyler’s home (burned); the Anniston City Land Co. building (torn down); and the L&N train depot (burned). Current owners Patsy and James Cotton, who are scheduled to auction the building on Thursday, are among the building’s many saviors.
In fact, there may be no other Anniston building still standing — and still in use — that has withstood so many near-death experiences, renovations and bouts of public apathy.
Saved from early destruction
Let’s return to the early 1900s, when Anniston’s economy trembled from the second depression of its brief lifespan and its trademark industry — iron — became second fiddle to textile manufacturing.
Up on Marvin Hill, to the west of the founders’ stately homes, rested the Anniston Inn, Sam Noble’s five-story, Queen Anne-style hotel, which opened in 1885.
In classic 19th-century custom, the hotel’s annex housed the kitchen, living quarters for hotel employees and dining halls for adults and children. (Kids weren’t allowed to eat in the Inn’s formal dining area.)
With its English hotel aesthetics, the Inn’s prominent features were made of oak because Noble thought pine neither sturdy nor regal enough for his city’s first hotel. Architects John Moser, of Atlanta, and George Pearson, of Philadelphia, designed both the Inn and its annex. They employed stonemason Simon Jewell, whose handiwork graces most of the city’s founding churches. Henry Hardell, the Inn’s first manager, hailed from Philadelphia, as did many of the hotel workers, who relocated to Anniston and bunked in the annex.
Three times in the next 20 years, fire broke out in the annex — mischievous children apparently set the fires — and threatened the Inn itself. A brick firewall and the city’s horse-drawn fire companies prevented doom. In fact, the firewall that repeatedly protected the hotel eventually protected the annex, a fateful twist buried in Anniston lore.
Tough times, lots of students
One of Anniston’s historic quirks is that its famous Inn spent nearly as much time as a school as it did a hotel.
Those aforementioned economic downturns stunted the city’s growth, particularly in the tumultuous 1890s, and investors interested in bankrolling the next New South business venture dried up. Train stations brought fewer and fewer monied outsiders to town.
Two years after the Anniston Inn opened, curtains hung from the ceiling of the dining hall, closing off half of the annex’s biggest room.
The opening years of the 1900s saw the hotel close (smaller ones had opened on Noble Street) and the Inn house a succession of boarding schools and colleges, including the Southern Female Seminary and the Anniston College for Young Ladies — the former being a popular location for soldiers training at Anniston’s Camp Shipp during the Spanish-American War. It even had a brief life as Anniston’s first upscale apartment complex.
In 1917, with Camp McClellan opening north of town and the city’s population swelling, Lt. Gov. Thomas Kilby, of Anniston, led the effort to re-open the hotel and use it to host military dignitaries. A banquet in the dining hall during the Great War honored Gen. John J. Pershing, who had come to review units at Camp McClellan.
One early morning in January 1923, an electrical fire brought down the Inn — but not the annex — destroying part of Anniston history and allowing city leaders to consider Marvin Hill as the perfect location for a new municipal park.
Not all lamented the loss of the ill-fated Anniston Inn. “As a hotel, it was always a failure, being located too far from the center of town, but was put there with the idea that Anniston’s wonderful summer climate would bring people here from the South of us to spend the summer,” H.H. Stringfellow wrote in The Star on the afternoon of the fire.
A building’s new life
After the fire, Marvin Hill represented loss and opportunity. Stringfellow called for turning the blocks between 14th and 15th streets into a large-scale park with a children’s playgrounds and a swimming pool, an idea that gained traction.
A year later, in 1924, a newly formed women’s civic organization, the Axis Club, staked its claim on the annex, which stood amid the rubble of the Anniston Inn.
“I am firmly convinced myself that the city should acquire the Inn site,” Mrs. T.S. Herren, Axis Club president, told The Star, “and I believe that the building with a little remodeling would be an ideal place for the Axis Club.”
And so it was.
In 1925, the Axis Club received a 99-year lease and the city’s promise to pay the property taxes on the annex. The club agreed to renovate the building, install new heating, lights and plumbing, and decorate the grounds.
On June 29, 1926, with renovations incomplete, the club held its first luncheon in what it would come to call its clubhouse, which featured multiple floors of dining rooms, meeting spaces and bedrooms. Visitors from across the city and Camp McClellan attended an open house the same day.
“The historic site of the old Anniston Inn on Marvin Hill was the busiest place in Anniston yesterday, so stirring were things in the neighborhood of the new Axis clubhouse, with women, workmen, cars and drays and furniture in abundant evidence,” The Star reported the next afternoon.
In time, the Axis Club changed its name, becoming the Women’s Civic Club, and its clubhouse aged, as all buildings do. Even so, the brick building on the hill above Zinn Park became a center of civic activity during the city’s boom of the mid-1900s.
City Hall deeded the annex to the women’s club in 1968. Five years later, the building earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, even as concerns rose that its deteriorating condition required attention.
In the 1970s, as the clubhouse neared its 100th birthday, the women’s club raised money to pay for yet another round of seemingly continual restorations.
Additional improvements in 1984 and 1985 replaced wallpaper, installed new floors and cabinets and updated the plumbing, allowing the club to hold its meetings there for several more years. “This place,” club member Louise Bates told The Star, “was just about falling in.”
It almost did, a leaky roof and political indifference threatening its survival until the Cottons and their good intentions arrived in 2000. More than $850,000 of renovations from the Cottons helped them turn the Anniston Inn Kitchen, which also serves as their home, into a popular niche location for weddings and corporate meetings.
In 2015, the City Council conveyed ownership of the property to the Cottons, who were mulling retirement. “The problem,” former City Manager Brian Johnson said, “was they didn’t own the building, so if they walked away, they’d lose all their investment.”
Thursday’s auction gives the Anniston landmark — and its invaluable firewall — a chance to embark on yet another phase of its fascinating life.
Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor.