Photo from the postcard collection of Scott B.
THE FRED ROBERTS HOTEL
A Reflection of Our Society
American essayist Joan Didion sees hotels as social ideas, flawless mirrors into the particular societies they service. That analogy accurately characterizes the Fred Roberts Hotel in Dublin. It began as project to capitalize on the new influx of travelers into the city. Through the decades of depression and then prosperity, the hotel rose, fell, and rose again. Today, the building stands on the precipice. Will it fall, or will we as a community take a look backward to its history and take a giant step forward to reflect what kind of society we really are?
If you have lived in Dublin for any period of time, you know the building. It is the four-story hotel at the apex of the Carnegie Plaza in downtown Dublin. You may have asked yourself, "Just who was Fred Roberts and why did someone name a hotel after him?" More than a century before the hotel was built, there was another Fred Roberts in these parts. Frederick Roberts, a veteran of the American Revolution, lived in the southeast quadrant of the city and died there. His remains lie somewhere near the intersection of South Franklin Street and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Bypass. His descendant, Fred Roberts, was a son of David Montgomery Roberts, a Dodge county jurist, lawmaker and native of Laurens County, came to Dublin, leaving behind his automobile business in Eastman for a new one on Jackson Street.
Although Dublin's fortunes began to wane with the coming of the boll weevil and the virtual destruction of the cotton crop, the location of U.S. Highway 80 through the heart of the city gave city fathers and supporters a promise of prosperity. They felt that the highway, which ran the length of the country from Savannah to San Diego, would rejuvenate the faltering economy in the city, which was once the seat of the state's sixth largest county.
It all began as a project sponsored by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. Fred Roberts was named chairman of the project. The hotel was situated on the site of the home place of Dr. Robert H. Hightower, one of Dublin's leading physicians of the late 19th Century. The new Hotel was planned to supplement, if not replace, the aging New Dublin Hotel, which occupied a more preferable location, just one block from both of the city's railroad depots. But railway passenger traffic was declining, more and more people were traveling by auto and the project's promoters found a prime spot between the main line of business houses and the rapidly growing residential neighborhoods to the west, but still within walking distance of the railroad.
Just before the hotel was set to open, tragedy struck. Fred Roberts, the popular Buick dealer, met with an untimely death on April 23, 1926, just weeks after his 40th birthday. The membership of the hotel voted to name the new hotel in honor of a man who was eulogized by the Dublin Courier Herald as "a man who was in the forefront of every movement for the betterment of social and business conditions in Dublin." Shortly thereafter, the first customers signed the register and a new era in hostelries began.
Dubliners had never seen anything like it. The New Dublin Hotel was built in an era when plumbing and electrical fixtures were in their infancy. Architect C.W. Shieverton followed the usual hotel plans by adding retail spaces in the front of the building. Over the next four decades, these two spaces, which occupy the front corners of the building, were used for barber shops, beauty shops and even a soda shop. A dining room was placed in the rear of the first floor to accommodate patrons and as a meeting place for civic clubs.
The exterior of the building features several architectural designs which are unique to Dublin. Three basket handle arches, hand made by Master brick mason Jens Larsen of Dublin, adorn the front entrance. In the center of each of the building's front three sections are three sextettes of ornamental Tudor arches. Above the entrance on the second floor is a large balcony, designed for outdoor parties and as a perch for viewing parades. Located near the top of the top fourth floors on each side of the structure are two Egyptian sarcophagi. These stone mummy-holding coffins were used as symbols of new birth and everlasting life. At the top of each side of the center section are two shields, which carry no emblems. The top center of the building carries the inscription 1926 Hotel Fred Roberts.
Without a doubt the hotel's most famous guest, or group of guests, checked in the waning days of March in 1933 and 1935. Known as the "Gas House Gang," the 1934 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals stopped in town to play the Oglethorpe University and the University of Georgia on their way back home from spring training in Florida. Among the guests were the legendary hall of fame players Dizzy Dean, Frankie Frisch, Joe Medwick, Rogers Hornsby, Leo Durocher and Jesse Haines.
A decade later, history was made from the front rooms when radio station WMLT, the city's first, went on the air in January 1945. When motels along Federal Highways 80 and 441 sprang up in the early 1950s, travelers began to seek the convenience of the new and improved rooms. After three decades, rooms in the hotel, which was once called the Stage Coach Inn, were no longer being rented. Newer and brighter buildings and motels were being constructed near the Interstate highway and the Mall. Rubert Hogan and Carl Nelson, Sr. bought the building and transformed some of the ground floor into professional offices, a practice which lasted until the early 1990s.
In one of its first major projects, the Dublin Downtown Development Authority, the City of Dublin and Laurens County under the Main Street Program in 1991 sought out and was granted a half-million dollar Community Development Block Grant, which provided the necessary funds to begin the restoration of the hotel toward its original grandeur. The city's new philosophy of restoration of historic buildings for a better future was espoused by the Main Street director, Rev. Joan Kilian, whose efforts led to the project's recognition by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation with its 1994 Outstanding Rehabilitation Award. The first phase of the construction project included a full restoration under the supervision of architect Bruce Jennings. Garbutt Construction Company of Dublin carefully removed the modern covers which hid the true architectural gems throughout the 8,500 square foot first floor of the building.
The first floor was designed to house the Senior Citizens Center, which was managed by the Dublin-Laurens Recreation Authority. The facility included a lobby, dining area, kitchen, arts and crafts room, library, and television room, in addition to several office spaces. Hundreds of meals were prepared in and delivered from the facility daily for needy seniors through the Meals On Wheels program.
Today the building stands at a cross roads. The Downtown Development Authority is seeking requests for proposals for the future use of the building. The question the Authority and the citizens of Dublin must ask themselves is "What do we want the Fred Roberts Hotel to reflect about us, pathetic apathy or a Fred Robert's dedication to better his adopted hometown with all of his heart and soul?