Thursday, May 19, 2011

Marion's 1920s Era Landmarks Restored

General Francis Marion Hotel

On May 27, 1927, to much fanfare, the 57 room General Francis Marion Hotel opened in SW Virginia's Smyth County. It immediately became the social center of the town of Marion, a hotel where civic clubs met, ladies played cards, society wedding receptions were held and debutantes had their coming out parties. When the hotel threw open its doors, the town was dazzled by such features as a doorman, switchboard and elevator.

The hotel took its name from General Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War hero in whose honor the town itself had been named. The Hotel was built by Charles Clarke Lincoln, Sr., Marion’s wealthiest resident, and Dr. William M. Sclater, who together spent $175,000 on the project. Lincoln also owned the Virginia Table Company, Marion’s largest industry at the time. When the old Hotel Marion, located across the street, was rebuilt a year later, Charles Lincoln decided to rename the new hotel after himself to avoid confusion (see historic photo above; click to enlarge).

On the upper mezzanine, in the Card Room, today’s visitors can still admire the floor tile motif of playing cards and a trademark black rooster with a bubbling cocktail.  A black rooster was code during Prohibition for “Drinks Served Here”. In the ballroom, the original walnut paneling and oak floor are still intact, as are the terrazzo floors on all three lobby levels, the original registration desk, switchboard, and a display cabinet, now used as a reception station inside The Black Rooster, the hotel’s restaurant. The original door facades still grace the hallways, and every room is individually decorated. In a nod to today’s savvy travelers, all 36 guest rooms feature flat-screen TVs and complimentary high speed internet. When the $4 million restoration was completed in 2006, the original coffee shop was converted to a full service restaurant.

Lincoln Theatre

On the same street as the General Francis Marion Hotel, the 500-seat Lincoln Theatre was originally a movie house dating from the late 1920s. Conceived and built by the same owner as the hotel, the theater opened two years later, on July 1, 1929. The building also incorporated residential apartments on the side facing the steet. The Lincoln Theatre’s Art Deco interior was designed to evoke images of an ancient Mayan temple. The unusual auditorium was embellished with painted appliqués of exotic creatures and mythological gods. In juxtaposition to this stylized architecture, six enormous murals (each 15' x 20') depicting scenes from national and local history were painted and installed. One of them depicts British Gen. Cornwallis surrendering to George Washington at Yorktown. Painstaking restoration of the original canvases was completed in 2005 by Conrad Schmidt Studios (Wisconsin).  See the before and after photo:

Lola Poston, a local artist of Shawnee Indian heritage, was paid $50 for each of the original murals, which were painted on cotton panels using water-based paints. Her former home at 144 W. Main Street in Marion (at the corner of Sheffey Street) now houses the Appalachian Spirit Gallery. Ms. Poston later decorated the White House under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

Fully restored  in 2004/2005 at a cost of $1.8 million, the theater now hosts live performances and is one of only three extant Mayan Revival-style theaters in the nation. The Lincoln Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Virginia Historic Landmark. The Lincoln has hosted the Song of the Mountains bluegrass music concert series for the past five years and is also the setting for the Song of the Mountains television series, which is broadcast on over 190 PBS affiliates throughout the country.