Born from fire, and twice rebuilt from ashes, Downtown Toccoa’s Albemarle Hotel has witnessed Toccoa’s growth, and its struggles, for more than 100 years.
Visitors to historic downtown Toccoa may have noticed the fresh paint, the tidy landscaping and numerous other improvements undertaken by the current owners pursuant to a consent order. The subsequent improvements have brought the aging building back to some of its former glory as one of the oldest and most popular institutions in Toccoa.
At the close of the 1800s, Toccoa’s G.W. Edwards built the Edwards House hotel at the corner of E. Doyle and S. Pond streets. Edwards was one of a dozen incorporators involved in building a 20-mile railroad line connecting Toccoa, Mize, Red Hill and Carnesville. Edwards was listed as a director and Vice President of First National Bank in Toccoa in the January 1912 Con. P. Curran Directory of Bankers and Attorneys and the January 1914 Rand McNally Bankers Directory and List of Attorneys.
In 1898, a fire destroyed the Edwards House hotel and several other buildings.
“At Toccoa, Ga, Edwards’ hotel caught fire. As the place does not patronize fire protection, the flames spread to the Methodist church across the street and destroyed it; a cottage, wagon shop, residence, store, and brick storehouse speedily sharing the same fate. Loss, $12,000; insurance, $7,000. Fire protection and fire insurance cannot be neglected with impunity,” stated the Saturday, April 23, 1898 edition of New York’s Fire & Water newspaper.
The following year, rebounding from the destruction of the original hotel, Edwards rebuilt a short distance away on the northeast corner of N. Alexander and W. Tugalo Streets. At approximately the same time, Edwards’ brother-in-law, E.P. Simpson, built the Haddock Inn, which was sold in 1911 to Richard Forrest to house the Toccoa Falls Institute. In 1913, a chimney fire sparked a blaze that burned the Haddock Inn to the ground.
As the 20th century settled into its first decade, Edwards sold the Edwards House hotel to John and Texanna Burgess, who named it The Albemarle in honor of their former home in Albemarle County, Virginia. The hotel was then sold to Calvin Simpson, who later sold the property to a group of Toccoa businessmen, who asked Mrs. J.O. Freeman to manage the hotel, according to Kathryn Curtis Trogdon’s “History of Stephens County.”
“Rates of $2.25 per person included supper, room, and breakfast,” Trogdon wrote.
In the early 1920s, Freeman purchased the Albemarle Hotel and continued to manage the popular hotel under her own ownership, building it into a highly popular hotel and gathering place for the community, according to several local newspaper articles of the time.
But in the morning hours of Tuesday, April 1, 1924, flames once again took their toll.
“The Albemarle Hotel, possibly the oldest landmark in Toccoa, was totally destroyed by fire at 5:30 o’clock, Tuesday afternoon, April 1,” states an article in the local paper. “The conflagration originated in the flue of the kitchen range at the southwest end of the structure, and, fanned by a strong wind coming from the southwest, it was not many minutes before the entire rear of the building was in flames.”
Despite speedy city fire department response, the blaze quickly grew strong enough to push firefighters back, and the fire truck was moved to a fire plug a half block away from the burning building.
“The blaze was the most spectacular ever witnessed here. The high wind carried shingles and bits of wood to adjoining buildings and set on fire the residences of Messrs. D. S. Wommack, J. B. Simmons, Mrs. Zadie Ramsay, the Baptist Pastorium, and also awnings at the Rogers’ store, two blocks away. Large cinders showered residences and the ground as far away as four blocks from the scene of the fire, and although the water was being thrown on the hotel in the face of the wind, a heavy spray was carried over three blocks away,” reads the newspaper report.
Conflicting with several written records, and research conducted by Trogdon in preparing her book, that confirmed the history of the hotel and Edwards’ involvement, the newspaper report of the fire stated “The Albemarle Hotel was built about 51 years ago by Dr Oliver Doyle, and although additions have been made at various times, the original structure still stood until Tuesday.”
"Older residents of our city attach much sentiment to the “Old Albemarle,” as it was the gathering place in years gone by for entertainments of every description, and visitors from miles and miles around always made it a point to be present when Toccoans entertained at the Albemarle,” the article continued, again contradicting records by stating that Freeman purchased the hotel directly from Simpson. County property records only go back to 1945, and provide no indication of the correct line of ownership.
Like Edwards before her, Freeman was not daunted by the raging flames that destroyed the hotel, and by 1925, she had rebuilt the hotel, this time building it from brick and increasing the height to three stories. Freeman, along with her daughter Lou Mae Freeman Collier (Mrs. A. B. Collier),continued to be hands-on in the running and management of the hotel.
The new Albemarle Hotel was considered one of the most modern hotels in the state, but Freeman’s efforts to “fireproof” the building with brick construction instead of wood proved inadequate, and in November 1932, the Albemarle once again caught fire.
“Albemarle Hotel is destroyed by fire Monday; Gigantic blazes raged for five hours, imperiling whole city,” read the newspaper headline. “For five hours firemen and more than two-score volunteers fought gravely against great odds in an effort to save parts of the building, but the fire gained such a hopeless headway that all could be done was to save the surrounding structures,” the article continued.
“Hundreds of townspeople immediately left their businesses and went to the fire and worked their best in the extreme excitement to remove house furnishings and personal belongings of the guests. L. F. Harford, a representative of the Home Loan bank, who was a guest of the hotel and resided on the second floor, was trapped in his room for several minutes after the fire was burning at its best. According to Mr. Harford, an attempt was made to go to the back of the hotel and escape down a fire escape, but he could not make it and a similar attempt was made to get out the front but again he was driven back by the flames. The steps were first to burn and there were no possible chance to escape there. Finally, Mr. Harford was noticed and a ladder was obtained for his rescue.”
Despite the structural and cosmetic damage done by this latest fire, Freeman and her daughter once again set about rebuilding.
“Citizens throughout this section will be interested to learn of the rebuilding activities on reconstructing the well-known and popular Albemarle Hotel,” states an article in the local newspaper in early 1933. "The hotel, which was owned by Mrs. J.O. Freeman, was partially saved, and the dining room and lobby and four walls remain to form the beginning of the new structure. Unfortunately rain has done considerable damage to the unburned section during the past two months, but now that work has begun it is hoped the hotel will be ready for business again in the course of three or four months.”
The new Albemarle, built by Freeman and financed, at least in part, by a local bond issue, was a “modern fire-proof hotel containing 66 rooms, 46 of which are bedrooms (not counting the 23 bathrooms).” Built of brick and hollow tile, the hotel was equipped with hot and cold water in every room – an unheard-of luxury in those days, and the entire building was heated by means of an “up-to-date steam plant."
“The bondholders will be represented by a board of trustees, who will assist Mrs. Freeman in the erection of the building as follows: C.H. Dance, president; J.R. Herndon, secretary treasurer, S.B. Carter, S.M. Gaston, H.T. Mozeley, B.H. Mozeley, W.J. Rothell and J.F. Smith, all of Toccoa. The opportunity is now open to every man, woman and child in Toccoa to own a gilt-edge “Albemarle Bond.” The building committee, under whose direction the bonds are being offered, expects to limit the sale to $1,000 to any one individual, so that the bonds will be distributed to a greater number of our citizens,” states a newspaper article promoting the sale of the bonds. “No safer investment will ever be offered the people of Toccoa, so take advantage to-day. Let your name appear among the bondholders of the new Albemarle as one of Toccoa’s progressive citizens. The new Albemarle will be the greatest asset that Toccoa will have for years to come, so buy a bond!”
Freeman and her daughter continued as proprietors of the new Albemarle until Freeman’s death in 1945, when it passed in her will to Max Green, who sold it in 1967 to R. V. and Laura Murray and the hotel was converted into the Alexander Apartments, according to county records.
The current owner, C E West Realty, bought the property in 1996, and continued to run the apartment complex for a period of time. Sometime around 2014, C E West Realty sold the property to Revitalizing Community Partners of Northeast Georgia, and the Toccoa Historic Preservation Commission, in January 2016, approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for renovations to the apartment complex in a project designed to return the building to its use as a hotel. The exterior renovations approved by the HPC did not include approval for the addition of new 2nd and 3rd floor windows requested by the owners, but included replacement of the roof; all deteriorated wood, all doors and windows, and demolition of the existing porch, which was to be reconstructed according to an approved drawing and plan. Exterior brick cleaning and other exterior curb-appeal and landscaping items were included.
However, a year later, the HPC rescinded the Certificate of Appropriateness and withdrew all grant applications for the project as the property condition deteriorated to the point that the HPC censured Revitalizing Community Partners, calling the building an “eyesore.” Following continued lack of payment for the property, it reverted to C E West Realty, which is currently looking for a buyer, said Christian Hamilton, Toccoa Main Street Manager. The Albemarle was valued at $150,016 ($83,968 land, $60,539 improvements, $5,509 accessory) in 2019, according to county tax records.
(Appreciation to Stan Smith, Vickie Whitworth, Kelly Vickers and Christian Hamilton for their assistance with the history and photos of the Albemarle.)