Walking through the Empire Hotel is like scavenging through the remains of the Titanic as it rests on the ocean floor.
Through every corridor, up every stairway, around every corner waits one more piece of evidence, a reminder of elegance lost.
A visitor can still picture a lobby furnished with big, black leather chairs or a ballroom filled with chandeliers and midnight dancers.
The claw-foot tubs left behind suggest nights of luxurious baths. Bricked-in mantels recall a turn-of-the-century time when cozy fires flickered in every room.
The Empire Hotel was once the place for orchestras, commerce, fine dining and sterling conversation.
Writers used words such as “sumptuous,” “first-class” and “fashionable” to describe this place.
Today, one must rely on “dirty,” “dusty” and “dead.”
The grand halls and spacious rooms — some big enough for a half-court basketball game — can’t hide the decades of inactivity.
Wallpaper barely hangs on in lifeless strips, as though it went through Father Time’s shredder. Boards poke through damaged ceiling plaster, ravaged by leaking water.
On some hallways, the pine floors rise and fall in waves or sport dangerous holes that seem to have no bottom.
Light only filters in from the Main Street windows. All the others — scores of others — are boarded up.
But for years, even decades, the Empire Hotel has been the most talked about building in downtown Salisbury. City Councils have dreamed of its resurrection. Preservationists have drooled over its possibilities. The recent Downtown Master Plan makes its redevelopment a major goal.
“It’s on everybody’s list,” says Randy Hemann, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc. “It’s just one of those things that is kind of so obvious.”
Mary E. Ragsdale, now in her 90s, owns the Empire Hotel and has controlled its destiny since it was left to her decades ago. Hemann credits her with being a good custodian. The building is secure and structurally sound.
Ragsdale went to considerable expense last year to install a rubberized roof over the old hotel to curtail the water damage. In 1984, she also used a low-interest loan and grant money to remove aluminum storefronts and restore much of the hotel’s handsome brick facade.
From the outside, the Beaux Arts-style, red-and-tan brick landmark has held up well. It’s characterized by ornate architectural motifs, handsome windows and its sheer size. It takes up at least half the 200 block of South Main Street.
The words “Empire Hotel” are painted in green at the top center of the building.
Despite periodic visits to her Guilford County home by delegations of Salisburians, a sentimental Ragsdale has always been reluctant to sell the three-and-a-half story Empire Hotel.
Hemann says when that day does come, she has promised to give Downtown Salisbury Inc. the first chance to buy it.
“If we could acquire it tomorrow, we would,” he adds.
Ragsdale still receives income from stores on the street level of the building, including Sandbox Buddies, Magnolia House Interiors, La Verre Designs and Power Play Paintball. Attractions on Main recently vacated its spot, which once was the hotel lobby.
Wallace Realty has been the longtime local manager for the property.
A $9 million project
Downtown Salisbury Inc. recently had a pro forma analysis done on the Empire Hotel, including the section that now belongs to Ralph Baker Shoes. Hemann cautions that the analysis was elementary, based on general estimates of construction costs and rental rates.
The analysis concluded that the building could be purchased and renovated for use as a hotel again for roughly $9 million. It also stated that such a project would be economically viable through the income generated from 73 rooms (at 65 percent occupancy), five retail stores, a ballroom and meeting room.
A completely restored hotel could generate almost $1.3 million a year in income for its owners, the analysis said.
In addition, Michael A. Kanters and Bryant G. Pearson, both with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management of N.C. State University, did an “economic impact assessment” of what a restoration of the Empire Hotel would mean to the local economy.
Their April 2000 study concluded that such a project would lead to 152 new jobs, $2.2 million in new income, $6.5 million in annual retail spending and $2.6 million in annual service purchases.
“The Empire Hotel has the potential to be a major partner in Rowan County’s effort to bill itself as a historic destination,” the study stated.
Hemann said one of Salisbury’s major selling points to out-of-town visitors is its historic ambiance.
“It would be nice to have a hotel to match that,” he says.
Hemann ticks off what he considers many advantages to the hotel’s redevelopment, one being a “great location” next to a strong residential neighborhood (the West Square Historic District) and across the street from an active theater (the Meroney).
A developer would have 40 percent tax credits available to him for renovating an historic structure. Hemann also likes the existing size and layout of the second- and third-floor rooms.
“Most people have no idea that there’s this much raw space,” Hemann says of tackling roughly 70,000 square feet in all. “If it takes 15 years, it’s worth it. If it takes 20 years, it’s worth it.”
The old hotel lacks any space for parking, except for on-street spots in front. Hemann believes valet parking could work and even be a plus. He also points to several potential parking sites close by.
Previous operators carved the second-floor ballroom, roughly 4,000 square feet, into a wing of smaller hotel rooms. Downtown Salisbury Inc. envisions bringing back the ballroom to serve as a backdrop for community events and meetings.
Remnants of the old ballroom still exist. At certain spots you can see the porthole windows, alcoves and ornate, heavy-beam ceiling with its richly painted spaces in between.
Years of emptiness
The Empire Hotel closed for good in 1963, leaving its rooms empty for almost 40 years. At its closing, it had 28 “residential guests,” having become, in later years, more apartments than hotel rooms.
Construction on the original hotel building, the Boyden House, began in 1855, leading to a grand opening May 17, 1859. Historians assume federal occupation troops stayed at the Boyden House after the Civil War.
The name changed briefly to the Davis House with an ownership change in 1886.
The Gay Nineties ushered in a new manager, Oliver Wendell Spencer, a name change to The Central, and what probably should be considered the hotel’s glory days.
The building itself underwent radical modification and expansion in 1907 under the direction of architect Frank Milburn, noted for his Spanish Mission-styled train stations along the Southern Railroad line.
The redesign added two cupolas on top, a stone and concrete portico entrance and many of the extra Victorian details still evident today. The cupolas and and portico are gone.
Salesmen, known in older times as drummers, came into Salisbury by train and carried their wares in huge trunks. The Central set up a separate samples room for salesmen to show off goods.
Spencer and his porter sidekick, Cicero Christian, gained a reputation as great hosts, offering attractive rooms and good meals in the second-floor dining room that would later become the ballroom.
Eli’s Band, an all-black orchestra, made a name for itself at The Central near the turn of the century. Prominent Salisburians of the day sat in chairs on the sidewalk in front of the hotel to swap stories.
The hotel’s later years
Pete Murphy, the state House speaker from Salisbury, came to consider the hotel lobby one of the town’s three social centers, along with the
Elks Club and Purcell’s drugstore. By then, The Central had become the Empire.
Gordon Foutz may have had the longest connection to the Empire Hotel, managing the establishment for 34 years until 1959.
Pat Laughridge, the only daughter of Foutz, lived in the hotel from age 6 into her teens. The family resided in several different apartments over those years.
“It was wonderful,” she says. “It was a happy home for me.”
Laughridge has a photograph of herself and a friend riding a tricycle on the hotel portico. She still has two sofas and two chairs saved from a remodeling, when the hotel tried to modernize with metal in the 1950s.
Through the years, she often has thought of all the bellboys who worked at the Empire.
“They helped raise me,” she says, recalling how she learned to ride a bicycle in the wide hallways upstairs.
Laughridge celebrated one of her birthdays in the ballroom. Her father invited the whole second grade. The decision to make a new wing of rooms out of the ballroom occurred in the war years because business had picked up, Laughridge says.
As a child, she loved sitting behind the lobby desk and listening to the conversations of Murphy, Dan Nicholas and others.
Guests included “real interesting characters” who lived at the hotel and travelers who the family called regulars, Laughridge says.
A dance school instructor gave Laughridge free lessons in exchange for living at the hotel. Lord Salisbury, whose real name was George MacPoole, also lived there.
A painter for the railroad, the flamboyant Lord Salisbury — known widely as “the loudest dresser who ever strolled the streets of a Carolina city” — traded his painting services for a place to stay.
In her day, Laughridge acknowledges, the Yadkin Hotel was the hotel in Salisbury. But her father’s Empire Hotel was nice, clean and had its set of rules about what could happen there, she adds.
Hemann recently retrieved the hotel key and took a group of people with flashlights on a walking tour of the upstairs floors.
Some things remain of the old days: sinks, toilets, tubs, transoms, alcoves, numbered doors — even a small bar of Ivory soap with an Empire Hotel wrapper.
They represent just glimpses of what used to be and recall the melancholy words Post Managing Editor George Raynor used in 1959 on the hotel’s 100th birthday:
“It has seen the poor and the rich, the eccentric and the normal. Once it was the center of informal gatherings of the town’s leaders, the site of the most fashionable balls. Today, it lives a rather hum-drum life as a small, mainly residential hotel with little of the flavor of its salad days.”
More than 40 years later, even the hum-drum life is long gone.
The Empire Hotel now sits on the bottom of the ocean on South Main Street, waiting to be found.