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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The P. A. Smith Hotel- A Grand Possibility

Three stories high and double-wide, the P. A. Smith Hotel was centered in the middle of the "Railroad Street Strande." This was a post card from around 1900. LEFT CLICK on the images to bring them up larger.
P. A. Smith Hotel- 111 Railroad St., Navasota, Texas

After the town of Navasota was located and surveyed by 1854, the tracks brought the railroad by 1859. The Houston & Texas Central Railroad had arranged for the budding village to accommodate the rails, and soon entrepreneurs were setting up tents and building permanent “rock houses.” One of the first of such buildings was a hotel where Noto’s stands today, built by Mrs. Louisa Loftin. It was probably completed by 1860 or 1861, (another source says 1864) either way just in time to suffer the effects of a crashing economy due to the Civil War…

Mrs. Louisa Loftin was a apparently a widow and one of the first residents of Navasota, and apparently had considerable ambition for a woman in those days, aiming to give the other hotels in town a run for the money. She hired J. W. Peterson to build her hotel and soon J. H. Stacey was hired to build a row of rock houses along Railroad Street, which became the center of activity. Structures were erected for Loftin & Fisher, John K. White, R. H. Giesel (also spelled Geisal & Geisel), and A. J. Hall.

Philip Aurene "P. A." Smith was a New York born, Illinois schoolteacher, who was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln.  When the War Between the States broke out, he had sympathies with the South and joined the Confederate army, serving in Parson’s Partisan Rangers. As a Yankee “Copperhead” Smith was obviously an independent thinker, having rejected the persuasions of his Republican friend and president. After serving in the cavalry in Texas he ended up in Navasota by 1869, where he purchased the silent presses of the "Texas Baptist" in Anderson, and established the Navasota Weekly Tablet. Later he bought out widow Lancaster's interests in her husband's newspaper, The Texas Ranger. Smith also owned a furniture store, a cotton business and invested in Real Estate. Besides being a devoted Democrat and journalist, P. A. Smith also built and managed the Navasota Opera House, which stood where the City parking lot at the intersection of Farquhar and Washington are today. .

Around 1900
After building up her trade for several years, Mrs. Loftin started a larger project on neighboring lots 5 and 6 of Railroad Street.  Around this time she married P. A. Smitha man with considerable abilities and designs himself, in 1875.  As they joined visions a huge edifice was erected on these lots, constructed by men known to us as Misters Wiley and Riley. Built of native sandstone  (rubble: not quarried), the name was changed to P. A. Smith Hotel, as the new Mrs. Smith graciously allowed his name to be put on the business. Some sort of trade must have been agreed upon, as (the carpenter?) John Wiley was given a permanent residence on the third floor, from the very beginning of the hotel. This towering stone landmark, which became the centerpiece of downtown Navasota, was finished in 1876, and turned out to be the grandest structure ever built in town, only eclipsed recently by the reconstruction of the old 1903 City Hall.

The Hotel only served as such for a little over a decade, then after Mrs. Smith died in 1890 the upstairs became the Smith family residence for many years. P. A. Smith died at age 74 of typhoid fever in 1903. In 1944 it was conveyed to Mr. Martin Allen. He sold it to Eddie Conally/Coneley?, who eventually deeded it to the Grimes County Historical Survey Committee in 1974, placing it in the fickle hands of the Grimes County Historical Society.

Railroad St. about 1890. This was the end of the P. A. Smith as a commercial enterprise. Afterwards downstairs rooms were rented as offices.

The GCHSC had high hopes and major plans to restore and utilize the P. A. Smith Hotel as a community cultural center with historical exhibits and events.  P. A. Smith Hotel Restoration, Inc. was incorporated and became the official manager of the project, led by Gene Bouliane.

Illustration from P. A. Smith restoration project

They also knew how to organize and more importantly, how to raise money. Impressive corporate and private funds were donated, with a major gift made by a local bank ($6,000) and also an undisclosed amount by Mr. Gene Bouliane, and receipt of matching Texas Historical Commission and Federal ($22,500) grants, and a local bank loaned $32,000 for interim financing, putting way over $60,000.00 in improvements into the property. I know all of this because my father, Ralph B. Cushman Jr., was the contractor hired to oversee the restoration, and I inherited much of the papers he compiled as the contractor and as a board member.

Demolition, architectural and engineering studies ate up some of the funds, then much the stone was re-chinked, windows rebuilt and the roof repaired, until funds began to dwindle. The project proved to be a massive undertaking, and since no work had been done on the building in decades, the neglect had created hundreds of lurking money pits. The "Histerical" folks began to be impatient, anxious to see a functioning facility...

Sadly, after the enthusiasm about the American Bi-Centennial waned after 1976, so did the interest in the hotel. Small town politics began to raise its ugly head, as many of the movers of this project were newcomers. It was obvious a new breed was moving in, shaping the town, making lasting contributions and commitments. But in short order the dreamers, donors and volunteers were disposed of, in various ways, mostly just plain ingratitude and insolence, and the membership remaining after the purging abruptly changed their mind.

I don’t know exactly when, but around 1979 the hotel was sold off, at a loss to Mr. and Mrs. Urquhart, and the proceeds from the liquidation divided and used to fund the Grimes County Historical Commission, (a county-focused historical and preservation information organization) and to jump start a new organization- the Grimes County Heritage Association, led by Georgia Best, (formerly secretary of the P. A. Smith Hotel Restoration Inc. ) which immediately moved into the newly donated R. A. Horlock house on East Washington Street…

I do not know the exact number, but most parties involved agreed that the purchase price for the P. A. Smith Hotel was less than that spent on its restoration, somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000.00.  The Urquharts later sold the building to Dean Arnold who has maintained and used the old hotel for a wood-working factory for a couple of decades.

 The P. A. Smith Hotel is the building with aqua trimmings. 

And now, it is abandoned and for sale again, along with two other buildings on Railroad Street.  Such a disappointing reality for the highest hopes of the Smiths, the Grimes County Historical Committee and the Arnolds, all of whom toiled with good faith and no small amount of investment…

Still, I have to believe the right folks have not owned it yet. So far a couple of serious investors have looked at it and loved its possibilities, but ran into a wall of non-cooperation with the City over establishing a railroad quiet-zone. Ironically, the same industry which brought the old hotel to Navasota, now retards its future.

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