One of the best ways to uncover the past is to speak with someone who lived it. In researching the historic Yarbrough Building, I was introduced to Mary Jane Caylor, a well-known Huntsville figure who has dedicated much of her time to restoring the Downtown neighborhood. She has worn many hats and had many stories to share.
During our afternoon of exploring the building, we discovered a beautiful story of old Huntsville and the former life of one elegant downtown hotel.
Mary Jane Caylor and I made our way to the steps of the historic Yarbrough Office Building on the corner of Holmes Avenue in Downtown Huntsville. As our eyes adjusted to the sun-filled day, Mary Jane examined the front door.
“I can still see Chapman standing here greeting guests,” she said. “He was the head bellman at the hotel, and he was so nice to us as children.” She shook her head as if to break her trance. “He wore an all-white jacket and was friends with the other bellman, Grant. You know, Holmes Avenue used to be a major thoroughfare. Traffic, parades—it was the place to be.”
Located along Washington Street and Holmes Avenue, the Yarbrough Building was once a towering icon to the City of Huntsville. The four-story fragment of history welcomed families, guests, and traveling businessmen as the Yarbrough Hotel between 1923 and the early 1960s.
In a time when the city had a more modest population and the glitz and glamor of a new hotel attracted the elite, the Yarbrough was a promise that the town was growing and evolving.
We ambled up the steps beneath the elaborate awning and opened the doors to the lobby of the office building. For Mary Jane, born in 1942, the building held many happy memories.
“See that banister there?” she said while pointing to the ceiling and motioning her hand in a circle. “When I was little, I would hang over the side of it and get a spanking every time.” She chuckled as she continued to examine the lobby.
“Is it very different from when you were a child?” I asked.
She paused for a moment. “In my memory, this place was massive. And when I return for visits, I’m reminded that I saw it through the eyes of a child.”
Plans For A Grand Hotel
More than a simple brick and concrete structure, the Yarbrough Hotel was known as one of the premier hotels in the Huntsville area in the 1920s. On March 29, 1923, the Yarbrough Brothers announced in the Community Builder that the construction of a four-story hotel would take place, costing roughly $150,000. It was proposed that the hotel would include 75 rooms and communal baths on each floor.
“It was a luxury to get a bathroom to yourself at the Yarbrough,” said Mary Jane. “That was the setup—Jack-and-Jill-style bathrooms with one shower.” Even today, you can still see the same restrooms on the 3rd and 4th floors—sans the showers.
According to the National Register of Historic Places, Mr. Brogan of Fayetteville, Tennessee held the contracts for the footing and J.H. Goodwin was the concrete contractor.
Plans were later proposed by architect D. Anderson Dickey to add an additional 5th story to the Yarbrough that would house 20 guests rooms and a large banquet hall. The manager at the Twickenham Hotel, located where The Garage at Clinton Row is today, had announced a week prior that they would be adding their own banquet floor. As it turns out, neither hotel saw their plans through.
The Yarbrough also featured storefronts on the ground floor of the hotel that catered to businessmen, including a barbershop and Hilding Holmberg’s Men’s Wear, located on the corner of Holmes Avenue and Washington Street. There was also a small billiard room near the boiler room on the hotel’s basement floor.
“Adams and Walker Drugstore preceded Hilding Holmberg’s Men’s Wear where Downtown Huntsville, Inc. is housed today,” she explained. “Chad Emerson, the President and CEO, wanted to keep the original floors and you can still see where the stools from the soda fountain were placed. People visit and they love that the history has been preserved.”
And, as history tells it, The Yarbrough Hotel opened to eager crowds with a wonderful Grand Opening Celebration in 1924.
It wasn’t long until Mary Jane’s grandparents moved to The Yarbrough in 1925.
The Smith Family
Mary Jane’s grandparents moved from Corinth, Mississippi to the Yarbrough Hotel with their seven children in tow. They were one of the hotel’s longtime residents, as the children remained there until growing up and going their separate ways. But the family would gather again for special occasions and bring children of their own to visit their grandmother. Mary Jane, daughter of Charles R. Smith Sr. and Leona Butler Smith, holds on to fond memories of visiting her grandmother at the hotel.
As a product of Victorian upbringing, her grandmother, Lena Rinehart Smith, was the definition of refined and expected her children and grandchildren to be well behaved. The hotel was a place where the children acted with much civility—not a place to horse around.
“Any time we were at dinner we would get a stern look if we so much as turned around in our seats,” said Mary Jane. “It was a strict upbringing, but it was good for us.”
Mary Jane and I had found a cozy spot to stop and chat. “What would you say is your favorite memory at the hotel?” I asked.
“Probably the Christmas dinners we had there,” she smiled. “On Christmas night we would go and visit my grandmother in our finest clothes. And, I’m not exaggerating, my mother would bake anywhere between 15 and 20 cakes during the Christmas holidays, thus, she provided the desserts for the Smith Christmas dinners! All kinds of cakes—coconut, lemon, chocolate, white, fruit cakes, you name it.” She paused and smiled.
“Afterward, we’d all gather around the piano and Aunt Elizabeth would play while we sang Christmas songs,” she said. “You know, you rarely appreciate those good days when they are happening, but we are not promised tomorrow. I’m very thankful for those memories.”
We went on to talk about Bertha (the elevator operator in the hotel’s heyday), popular residents at the hotel, and stories of days gone by.
“There was a ballroom on the second floor, just to the left of the elevators,” she explained. “The ballroom adjoined the suite where my grandmother, Aunt Eugenia Smith, and cousin Sara Ann Smith lived at the hotel.”
She told me area high school students took ballroom dancing lessons from Irene Jones there, one of the only dance instructors in the city at the time. The ballroom was also the setting for those family Christmas dinners she adored.
But The Yarbrough wasn’t the only hotel in town back in the day, and when the Russel Erskine opened its doors in 1930 business took a hard hit. The Russel Erskine was much larger, featured 132 rooms and stood 12 stories high.
As the sparkle of the hotel faded and Huntsville began to expand outside of the downtown area, the hotel was less frequented.
“The Yarbrough was very popular for a long time,” she said. “But we especially saw a decline of the downtown area as a whole when the parkway opened in 1955.”
Even with heavy competition, the hotel remained in business for several years before closing in the early 1960s.
The Yarbrough Office Building Today
In the 1980s, the building underwent renovations to reopen as an office center.
Frederick Lanier is the President of the West Huntsville Land Co., a property management company formed in Huntsville in 1923. The West Huntsville Land Co. acquired the ownership of the building in 2002 and has leased out almost all of the space to thriving businesses including Heart of the Valley YMCA, Community Development, and several successful law firms. He joined us on our walk through the past and shared some of his insights on the building.
“My father always told me to never own a building with an elevator,” he sighed. “Three months after I purchased it the elevator failed. Because of the hydraulics, it took awhile to get it fixed, but we haven’t run into any major issues since.”
A proud owner of other historic buildings downtown, Frederick said that the lobby of the building was just as it was the day he bought it.
“It’s almost fully occupied here and the tenants love it,” he said. “We are like a family.” He gestured for both of us to follow him to the back of the building where we were greeted by a small awning that boasted a large “Y” on its front.
“That’s the original symbol for the hotel,” he explained. “We had them recreate it as a way to remember the building’s significance.”
In addition to the original lobby, the second-floor mezzanine was retained for historic purposes, as well.
“It is very important to us as stewards of the Yarbrough to preserve the historic integrity of the building,” he said. “This is a piece of Huntsville history—it’s a part of who we are as a community.”
Mary Jane’s father, Charles, and Frederick’s father, Pete Lanier, were great civic leaders and good friends.
“Daddy would be so happy to know that Frederick owns the Yarbrough today,” she said. “He has done an outstanding job in preserving the historic significance of the hotel.”
A Downtown Dream
As we completed our tour of the building, Mary Jane looked around the busy downtown streets.
“I remember a time when shops downtown were boarded up,” she said. “You didn’t travel downtown. But now, it’s moving back to where it once was—a wonderful place to bring families and live, dine, or enjoy a night out.”
We shut the doors behind us and strolled back to the corner of Holmes.
“There are days I don’t need to drive through downtown to get somewhere, but I find myself doing it anyway,” she remarked. “I just love seeing the crowds and families—it’s wonderful. And the Yarbrough, well, every time I step inside I’m happy to be there.”
NOTE: All information for this article was collected from copies of The Huntsville Daily Times, the National Register of Historic Places database, and the interviews mentioned above. If you have additional information about the Yarbrough Hotel, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to include additional or updated info.
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CRUNKLETON COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE GROUP