To mark the 25 years since Pensacola’s San Carlos Hotel was razed, The Pulse is featuring a series of stories chronicling the life of the onetime landmark.
As the calendar closed in on February 1910, workmen raced to make the San Carlos Hotel ready for the throngs of people expected to pour into Pensacola for Mardi Gras.
“The celebration this year will surpass anything in the history of the city,” the Pensacola Journal wrote, estimating that as many as 12,000 visitors would soon descend on the city — a colossal figure given the Pensacola’s 1910 population of just 22,000. With February just days away, hotel manager George Hervey promised the Pensacola Journal that the San Carlos would open on the first of the month — and it did, though only about 60 of the hotel’s original 157 rooms were ready.
Workers erected the seven-story San Carlos Hotel in less than a year — its foundation was poured the previous March — at a cost of a half-million dollars, the equivalent of about $13 million today. It had only been two years since Hervey, the proprietor of two highly-regarded hotels in nearby Mobile, had proposed a first-class hotel while attending a Chamber of Commerce banquet in Pensacola.
Hervey’s proposal was well-received: within days, the Chamber had appointed a committee to begin moving it forward, an effort that would soon birth the Pensacola Hotel Company. To raise funds for the hotel, the company sold stock to Pensacola citizens, offering payment plans.
In June 1908, a site was selected for the hotel: the company paid $75,000 for land on the northwest corner of Palafox and Garden Streets then occupied by the Palafox Street Methodist Church, the predecessor of today’s First United Methodist Church. The foundation for the congregation’s new church on East Wright Street had been poured the previous month, and the last service was held in the Palafox building on December 27.
Four architects submitted plans for the hotel: William Lee Stoddart of New York; Hutchinson & Garvin of Mobile, Ala.; Ausfeld & Blount of Montgomery, Ala.; and W.C. Frederic of Pensacola. Stoddart was selected on Aug. 31. Tasked with revisions to make his plans more “Spanish-style,” Stoddart delivered his final plans for the hotel on Dec. 4. The hotel’s original plans called for an eighth floor and a rooftop garden and restaurant, but those amenities didn’t make it into the final plans.
On January 15, 1909, stockholders approved a name for the hotel: The San Carlos.
The motion to approve the name was approved unanimously, and “many expressions of satisfaction were heard,” the Pensacola Journal reported:
The name San Carlos is typical of Pensacola and of Florida. It suggests at once the romance and chivalry of the early Spanish days and it is distinctive in that there is probably no other hotel of similar name in the United States. Fort San Carlos, the little, ancient Spanish fort at the entrance to Pensacola harbor, and Hotel San Carlos, the magnificent hotel in the center of Pensacola’s business section, will help combine to make the city itself one of the greatest tourist resorts of the south.Pensacola Journal, Jan. 16, 1909
Workers that same month began demolishing the 27-year-old Methodist church, and in March began pouring the foundation for the new hotel.
As construction began, those involved in the project began hyping the hotel.
“Hotel San Carlos will be the equal of the best hotels in the country,” promised contractor C.H. Turner, “and it will be superior to most of them.” Turner also boasted that he planned to eat Christmas dinner in the hotel — a mark on which he fell short by about five weeks.
The construction of the San Carlos Hotel came amid a veritable building boom in Pensacola. Within the prior two years, construction of the Blount and Brent buildings had been completed, and officials had erected a new City Hall — now the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum — on Plaza Ferdinand VII.
As work began on the San Carlos, construction was also in progress on the American National Bank Building at Palafox and Government Streets, now called Seville Tower, and on the First National Bank Building, now occupied by the Escambia County Tax Collector’s office. The city was also in the midst of an extensive street paving and sidewalks project, and the streetcar company had announced plans for a new streetcar line to East Pensacola Heights.
By the first of June, the first floor had been completed, concrete had been poured for the second, and crews had begun working on the third. “It was necessary to work the men for several hours at night during the latter portion of last week,” reported the Pensacola Journal, “and now that the construction is beginning to advance a much larger force can be worked than has been employed heretofore.”
As construction of each story of the hotel was completed, Hervey’s crews came in right behind construction workers to furnish and decorate it.
By mid-July, crews had begun working on the hotel’s fifth floor. “As the skeleton of the great building rises higher and higher, the hopes of ardent Pensacolians rise in consequence, and all are anxious that the hope of the contractor, expressed at the beginning of the work, that he would eat his next Christmas dinner in the completed and occupied building, would come out in good shape,” the Journal wrote.
In September, a steel girder weighing more than a half-ton fell from the building some 60 feet before crashing into a cement beam, though no workers were hurt.
By October, workers had begun pebble dashing the hotel’s completed concrete exterior, and terra cotta work had been completed up to the hotel’s seventh story. Despite the progress, it became clear that Turner wouldn’t realize his goal of completing the hotel by Christmas. The focus instead became to open the hotel before the busy Mardi Gras celebration. In November, crews even worked on Thanksgiving Day.
The hotel’s crockery and glassware — much of it emblazoned with a custom San Carlos coat of arms — arrived in Pensacola in December, with custom-built furniture following not far behind. Carpets, tapestries, bedding, and linens, all embroidered with the name or crest of the San Carlos, were supplied by the Pensacola Dry Goods Company. The Jesse French Piano and Organ Company of St. Louis delivered three pianos for use in the hotel.
On Jan. 26, with less than a week to go until opening day, workers began taking down the scaffolding that surrounded the San Carlos. “Work is now being rushed on the building,” the Journal noted, “large forces of men working night and day.”
But they were out of time. Less than half of the San Carlos’ rooms were ready to receive guests, and the hotel’s café couldn’t open because its range hadn’t arrived in time, but Hervey opened the hotel’s doors as promised on Feb. 1.
“Last night the electric lights were turned on and a part of the unsightly fence, which had been erected as a safeguard for the public by the contractor, was torn away on the Palafox street side,” the Journal reported. “Large numbers of visitors, attracted by the brilliant illumination of the grand office of the hotel, went over there last night and expressed great pleasure and satisfaction at what they found.”
“The hotel has not been seen on the interior by the general Pensacola public,” the paper continued. “The work on the building has been rushed so within the past few months that but few visitors were safe in the house and when the hotel is opened today, it will be a revelation to the Pensacola as well as the traveling and out-of-town public.”
The hotel quickly became the center of the city’s social scene, its cafés and dining rooms and clubs filled with the movers and shakers of Pensacola’s white elite. It also became the center of the Carnival celebration that had driven its opening day; its balconies became the spot where the Carnival’s king and queen were unveiled to the public, and a prime viewing spot for Mardi Gras parades.
With the reopening of Pensacola’s Navy Yard as Naval Air Station Pensacola and the onset of World War I, the San Carlos became busier than ever. In 1922, William Harbeson acquired the hotel and began a massive expansion which would more than double the hotel’s capacity.