Monday, March 12, 2001

New life for an old hotel

By Kimberly Hefling
The Associated Press

        PADUCAH, Ky. — Some nights, world-class blues echoed through the halls of the big boardinghouse in the corner of Paducah's black business district deep into the morning hours.

        Although they performed at Paducah's white hotels, black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Cab Calloway couldn't stay there. So they packed up their instruments and spent the night at the Hotel Metropolitan, where impromptu jam sessions delighted guests.

[photo] Paducah's Hotel Metropolitan was built in 1909 by Maggie M. Steed.
(Associated Press photo)
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        But time has taken its toll on the 17-room boardinghouse where BB King once strummed his guitar, “Lucille.” The white paint is chipped. The sign is weathered. The once prosperous Upper Town business district surrounding it is now known as a haven for drug dealers.

        But none of that dissuades Betty Dobson of Paducah, who looks at the hotel, formerly owned by Hall of Fame basketball coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines, as an opportunity to revive the community.

        Ms. Dobson, president of the Upper Town Heritage Foundation, says the 1999 condemnation of the nearly century-old hotel was a blessing in disguise. When she stepped inside, she knew it should be preserved.

        “You could almost see and feel them in the building,” Ms. Dobson says of the famous African-Americans who stayed there. “You could feel the spirit of the whole place.”

        The Upper Town Heritage Foundation, a community group that had formed just weeks before the condemnation and was looking for a project, decided to renovate the hotel. They talked Mr. Gaines into donating the place to them and then fixed the Metropolitan's infrastructure problems.

        Now, they are $70,000 short of raising the $379,000 needed to transform the hotel into a museum honoring the town's black history. The group's goal is to make the hotel the centerpiece of a walking tour to promote the city's black heritage.

        “We wanted to use history to bring back develop ment,” Ms. Dobson says.

"Up and up'
        The Hotel Metropolitan was built in 1909 by Maggie M. Steed just blocks from where freed slaves set up refugee camps at the end of the Civil War. Mrs. Steed, a 24-year-old black woman, was able to persuade a white-owned lumber company to support her endeavor.

        It is thought the hotel was built in connection with the 1909 opening of the West Kentucky Industrial College, one of the first schools in the region to train black teachers, so instructors and out-of-town students would have a place to live.

        “It was up and up,” said 84-year-old Mary Sledd. “It was not one of those hotels you wouldn't want to be caught in.”

        The hotel was an important part of the Upper Town business district. Black people barred from entering certain white businesses in Paducah and surrounding towns went to Upper Town to get a haircut, shop or eat.

        The hotel was bought by Mr. Gaines, a Paducah native, and his parents for $4,000 in the early 1950s. His parents renovated it and then lived on the first floor of the hotel in order to run it.

        In many Southern towns, black travelers had difficulty finding a place to spend the night, a restaurant or even a restroom, says Laurence Bergreen, author of Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. Black musicians during the 1930s and '40s played for whites at the ritzy Irvin S. Cobb Hotel, but weren't allowed to stay there, said history Professor Berry Craig of Paducah Community College.

End of the road
        Jim Crow laws slowly began to crumble with the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education ruling in 1954 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.

        The Hotel Metropolitan — like other black boardinghouses — started to lose business as black travelers opted to stay at chain hotels, Mr. Gaines says.

        “When integration came in, that was the end of that type of business and such,” says Mr. Gaines.

        The Metropolitan continued to operate as a boardinghouse until 1996. Mr. Gaines says an aging relative of his ran the hotel toward the end, but the upkeep was difficult and there was little business.

        The neighborhood changed too.

        When business owners died, their business usually closed. Many young black people sought work in St. Louis or Detroit, Mr. Gaines says.

        Integration also contributed to the district's decline, Ms. Dobson says.

        “We wanted to be equal, so we lost our roots so to speak,” Ms. Dobson says. “We wanted to be a part of the dream, so we forgot we needed to support each other.”

Youth don't understand
        Ms. Dobson steers her car down a street one block from the Hotel Metropolitan. She points out vacant lots that were once home to black businesses or landmarks. One used to be Lincoln High School, the school attended by Mr. Gaines and other black teens.

        Young people in Paducah and elsewhere don't understand the pain of segregation, 84-year-old Ms. Sledd says.

        “They know about Rosa Parks, but they don't know (segregation) happened in their local community,” she says.


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