Extra: Saving the St. James Hotel in Selma
The St. James Hotel in Selma has stood since 1837 — decades before the Civil War, through the Civil Rights Movement. While it’s been closed and boarded up for years, there’s an effort underway to save the St. James and this important part of Alabama history.
The St. James is known as the crown jewel of Water Avenue, overlooking the Alabama River near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where thousands gather each year for the Bridge Crossing Jubilee to retrace the steps of Bloody Sunday. Selma’s Civil Rights Interpretive Center is nearby.
Many visitors have wanted to stay in the St. James as a part of their trip back into history. But the hotel’s future has been in doubt for years.
“It has always been an anchor to Water Avenue,” Sheryl Smedley, the executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce said. “From the very beginning, this was the hotel that anchored this street and it’s our history and it’s worth saving.”
Despite its picturesque setting, the hotel has been in less than picture perfect condition. It has been left broken, shuttered and empty– but now that is all changing.
Recently, the hotel was purchased by Birmingham-based Rhaglan Hospitality, which is a Hilton brand. It is currently undergoing repairs in the hopes of reopening later this year.
Selma Mayor Darrio Melton says the community is excited.
“I think it is a great thing, not just for residents here in Selma, but for those who frequent the city of Selma, tourists, for example, who come and have been looking for a place to stay outside of your traditional hotels. Everybody wants to be inside the St. James Hotel,” he said.
The purchase also took a huge burden off the city, which had taken over management of the hotel in 2015, when it was still open. After a number of ups and downs, the hotel was boarded up in 2017.
“As I often tell people, the city shouldn’t be in the hotel business. We’re in the revenue business,” Mayor Melton said.
Frank and Jesse James stayed in the hotel. During the Civil War, Henry Gee owned it. When he left to fight, former slave and self-made businessman Benjamin Sterling Turner managed the hotel.
Thanks to him, the St. James was left standing.
“He was running the hotel when the yankees came in, and they did not burn here. They stayed here as part of their headquarters. When they left, they had burned most of Selma but they did not burn the hotel, out of honor to Benjamin Sterling Turner, so we’re thankful for that,” Patty Sexton, a former member of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority said.
Later, he would become the first African-American to be elected to Congress.
In modern times, President Clinton and President Obama have graced the halls of the hotel.
Efforts to modernize the hotel have been going on for decades. In the mid 1990s, a committee worked for three years to raise the money needed to renovate the hotel. The campaign gave residents and businesses a way to add their name to history by sponsoring a brick or a room. Selma’s Larry Striplin headed a private investment group with some well known names, including NBA legend Charles Barkley.
Their efforts culminated in 1997 with a grand reopening. Visitors said the hotel rivaled places in New Orleans and even Paris.
However, the hotel would go through years of ups and downs afterwards until the boards went up and it appeared once more that the St. James wouldn’t survive.
Last spring, the hotel was sold to Rhaglan Hospitality which is working to revive the hotel once more, leaving residents and those who have worked extremely hard to keep it alive — hopeful.
“We’re still going to have an antebellum, riverfront hotel in Selma, Alabama, but we are going to be hooked to a national chain and get a lot more national exposure,” Sexton said.
Much of the original architecture will remain the same with the updating. The original fireplaces and mantles are still in all of the original rooms. There will be some new additions, such as 13 more guest rooms and a grand staircase in the middle of the lobby.
Rhaglan Hospitality recently held a job fair. By the time the doors open, at least 50 new employees will welcome guests to the St. James which is set to open later this year.