published Monday, July 28th, 2014

Where grandeur once stood: Renowned Mentone Springs Hotel now only memories

The Mentone Springs Hotel overlooks Alabama Highway 117 in Mentone, Ala., in this file photograph from 2012. The hotel was one of the oldest hotels in the state of Alabama.
The Mentone Springs Hotel overlooks Alabama Highway 117 in Mentone, Ala., in this file photograph from 2012. The hotel was one of the oldest hotels in the state of Alabama.
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    This debris is part of all that remains of the renowned Mentone Springs Hotel in Mentone, Ala.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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    Stone supports and tall chimneys are all that remains of the Mentone Springs Hotel.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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    A few serving ware items remain at the site of the Mentone Springs Hotel that was destroyed by fire.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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    The Mentone Springs Hotel sign remains following the huge fire that claimed the century-old structure.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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MENTONE, Ala. — Since 130 years of history went up in flames in March, only memories and blackened stone stand testament to the former glory of the Mentone Springs Hotel, the "Grand Old Lady" of East Alabama.

The hotel had greeted visitors ascending Lookout Mountain to Mentone since 1884. It was home to countless guests and hosted hundreds of weddings, prom dinners, parties and teas, holiday pageants and honeymoon nights. Generations of people spent shady afternoons on its grand front porch. Right up to the end.

Since the fire five months ago, the people of Mentone have soothed their wounds and watched spring flow into summer on the hotel grounds. Butterflies oblivious to the loss of history flit from bloom to bloom among surviving landscaped plants around the scorched rock foundation and the wildflowers attempting to reclaim the land.

Ray Padgett and his wife, Sandra, owned the Grand Old Lady from 1980 to 1991 and now own an art gallery, antique store and coffee shop called Kamana, just down the street. They are credited with doing the most extensive restorative work on the hotel, though many of its owners did what they could to maintain its grandeur.

The Padgetts spent every weekend that decade resurrecting the hotel from near death. In 1980, the Grand Old Lady had spent very little of the previous 20 years as a hotel and at the time was owned by a man who worked on pipe organs and had filled the hotel with organ pipes and parts.

The siding then was bare wood weathered gray, and the famous front porch was gone. But Padgett, a few paid workers and a number of volunteers worked tirelessly to restore the hotel to the glory of its heyday, when the mountaintop was a destination for people seeking the healthful benefits of the local mineral springs.

"The point was to save the building," Padgett, 73, said Thursday. "You have to be a little crazy to do that."

Today, Mentone, a town of around 360, is an artsy community tucked into the Northeast Alabama mountains about 35 miles south of Chattanooga. It's filled with musicians, art galleries, cafes, antiques, handcrafters and a handful of vital businesses like gas stations, a hardware store and a produce stand.

Its side streets are secret trails beneath a canopy of trees leading to hidden, quaint homes, forests and pastureland.

Mentone was named in 1884 for the French city of Menton by town founder John Mason's daughter, Alice. Dr. Frank Caldwell, the original builder of the hotel, requested that the town be so named, according to Mentone Area Preservation Association records.

For Ray Padgett, the people always made the hotel what it was. The Mentone Springs Hotel was the town's centerpiece because it reflected its residents, who were musicians, painters and dreamers.

But the hotel was a large, aging building that challenged its owners through the years.

The Padgetts had completed renovations in 1991 and opened a restaurant just before they, too, sold it so they could move to Vienna, Austria, as part of Ray's job with Coca-Cola.

The 13-decade-old hotel burned to the ground March 1, triggered by an electrical fire that started on the hotel's second floor. Eight guests were staying there at the time, among them a newlywed couple, according to David Tucker, firefighter and chairman of the board for the North Lookout Mountain Fire Protection District.

"We were fortunate it was before bedtime," Tucker said. "Everybody was downstairs in the lobby."

A whiff of something burning drew the guests' attention, and they could see smoke on the second floor.

The bridegroom "ran upstairs with a fire extinguisher," said Tucker. But the flames had spread too far and the guests and staff fled the Grand Old Lady.

Eleven agencies responded to battle the blaze as word went out in cellphone texts and Facebook posts that the Mentone Springs Hotel was being consumed by flames, he said.

Tucker said winds from the east pushed the heat of the blaze against the White Elephant building next door until the flames engulfed it, too. The winds from the east might have saved the rest of the town lying to the west of the hotel.

Birmingham residents Jim and Darlene Rotch have owned the hotel since 2010 and continued to improve the Grand Old Lady as she marked her 130th year.

"My wife and I just absolutely enjoyed its history and mystique. It was a lot of hard work, but it was a labor of love," said Jim Rotch, who came to adore the hotel as a child growing up in nearby Fort Payne, Ala.

Now, Rotch, Padgett and others in the community look ahead to Mentone's future without the iconic hotel. And they're hopeful.

"I worry about Mentone because that property is such a focal point that the community has to pull together and realize that there is a lot more to Mentone than what that structure was," Rotch said. "It's a place where local people and people from all over the world come together.

"No loss of a building can take that away," he said.

Ronda Bruckno, who owns the Mountain Properties real estate office across the street from the hotel, said the loss hasn't had much of a negative financial impact on the town, though it is a heartbreaking emotional loss.

Bruckno's ties to the Grand Old Lady through marriage and family go back to 1965. And she said she feels especially linked to it through her daughter, who in the 1980s played with the Padgetts' daughter at the hotel that she "thought was like a castle."

Last spring, Bruckno's grandson and several of his friends had their high school prom dinner and photos taken on the hotel's sweeping front porch. They were likely the last prom dates to enjoy the hotel in its resurgent prime, she said.

"It's like a great masterpiece that's been lost."

But the town will carry on, she said.

Summerville, Ga., residents Betty Lambert and husband, Dennie, were in town on Thursday looking for a potential spot for a business and maybe even a home.

"I've always loved Mentone," Betty Lambert said. "We came back here just a couple of weeks ago and I said, 'Where'd the hotel go?' and I asked and talked to someone and they told me it had burned down. How sad that is."

On the other hand, the loss of the Grand Old Lady didn't change the Lamberts' minds about a possible business and home in the mountaintop town.

"Mentone is a gorgeous little town. It has a lot of character," Betty Lambert said. "I don't think people will ever stop coming here."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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