Writer: DANNY MOGLE // Photographer: SHANNON WILSON

The old Redlands Hotel building in Palestine did not leave a good first impression with Jean Mollard.

“There were bats and pigeons everywhere. It had a terrible roof. The rooms were stacked with junk … and the windows were falling into the streets,” she recalls.

She wanted nothing to do with the junked-out old building at 400 N. Queen. It was a disaster waiting for a wrecking ball. If she would have had her way, she and her husband, Norman, would have jumped in the car and headed back to Houston as fast as they could. End of story.

But Norman saw something else. A contractor experienced with renovations, he realized the five-story Classical Revival brick building was solid as a rock. The steel beams and concrete flooring were in perfect shape. Yes, the windows were piles of glass, but windows could be replaced. Yes, the rooms were crammed with old furniture and discarded lumber, but that could be hauled away. And yes, there were a few pesky bats and pigeons to contend with. No big deal.

Norman saw potential and when Norman saw potential and made up his mind, Jean knew that it was best to get out of his way because there was no stopping him. Norman made up his mind that he was going to save the Redlands.

Jean says the next thing she knew, they had purchased the old hotel and moved to Palestine. The year was 1976. Some people were convinced that the Mollards had lost their minds.

PLACE OF LUXURY

In the early 1900s, Palestine was booming; times were good. The fields around the city were producing cotton and corn crops that were the envy of farmers across the state. In the vast pine forest, timber moguls were cutting down trees and selling wood to eager buyers. But more than anything, Palestine was a railroad town. Being a railroad town meant prosperity and growth. The city of 25,000 had the good fortune of occupying a prime spot on the main line of the International & Great Northern Railroad.

The one thing that Palestine did not have was a first-class hotel and that bothered some of the fine, hard-working folks in the Young Men’s Business League. These influential leading citizens “had been agitating for a suitable hotel for some time,” notes a history of the hotel.

Many of these same men became directors of the newly organized Palestine Hotel Company, which in April 1914 began selling stock to raise $100,000 to build a fine hotel on the edge of the business district and just blocks away — a comfortable walking distance for weary passengers — from the railroad depot.

Among stockholders were political bigwig Thomas Mitchell Campbell, who had recently served a term as governor, and Royall National Bank President Tucker Royall, one of the wealthiest men in town and a future regent of The University of Texas System.

Before the year was over, construction was in full swing. According to one account, the sand used to mix the concrete was hauled from the Trinity River in carts pulled by teams of strong oxen. A large group of skilled laborers from Italy who had been brought in to build the recently completed Anderson County Courthouse — being hailed as one of the most impressive structures in the region — were hired to help supervise the work.

The Redlands was built as an imposing brick veneer structure fortified with concrete and steel beams. The exterior features limestone window sills, bracketed tin cornice, decorative brick panels and masonry blocks at the corners of the walls.

Special attention was paid to the spacious and open lobby which was anchored by a tile-surround fireplace and had a floor covered with decorative white hexagon-shaped tiles. A skylight in the roof of the mezzanine deck allowed natural light to pour in.

From the lobby, patrons could access a fine restaurant and a barber shop tending to the needs of gentlemen. A large ballroom with a shiny hardwood dance floor dominated the second-floor mezzanine, which also housed the hotel’s luxury suites that even had their own bathrooms. The top three floors were devoted to guest rooms — 86 in all.

The Redlands opened with great fanfare on March 18, 1915.

In the program for the grand opening, the proud directors boasted that their new hotel is “serving notice on the world that the rustic and uncouth town has gone forever, and in its place is blossoming forth a modern city abreast of the times and fully alive to all the niceties of twentieth century living.”

HARD TIMES

The Redlands was the toast of the town. “The hotel was used for the regular meetings of the Palestine Rotary Club and was the frequent choice for luncheons, soirees and receptions” attended by members of high society, says a history of the building.

But the good times did not last long. There were not enough guests to keep the rooms filled. According to some accounts, the water pressure was terrible. No one wanted to stay in a hotel that did not even have enough water for a decent bath. Despite being fancy and popular with the locals, the Redlands proved to be less enticing to guests and ultimately became a financial sinkhole.

It closed in 1919 but fate was smiling on Palestine. Within only months, the International & Great Northern (I&GN) Railroad leased the entire building to serve as its new headquarters, an arrangement that continued for the next 37 years.

The railroad needed office space not hotel space. It covered the beautiful tiled floor in the lobby. It closed in the skylight on the mezzanine. It knocked out walls in some places to create large work areas and closed in other spaces to create small offices. An entrance fronting Oak Street was closed as well as the street entrance to the old barber shop.

During this period, several hundred worked in the building processing the mounds of paperwork needed to keep the railroad on track. Over the years, as rail traffic declined, the I&GN was involved in several mergers and name changes. By 1957, the I&GN had become part of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. When the railroad moved its administrative offices to St. Louis, Mo., the old Redlands building was vacated. The Palestine Hotel Company desperately tried to find new tenants but nobody was interested. Eventually bats, pigeons and vagrants moved in. Once a proud symbol of Palestine’s railroad heritage, the Redlands building became an eyesore and an embarrassment.

THE MOLLARDS

Deteriorating year after year, the building had sat vacant for two decades when the Mollards arrived and proposed an ambitious adaptive-use plan to restore it as a hotel with retail shops. In 1976, America was celebrating its bicentennial. Restoring historic properties was considered a patriotic thing to do. Many in Palestine were hopeful, yet skeptical, they really could pull it off. Norman not only knew what it would take to get the job done, he also knew what the building meant to the residents.

Norman grew up in Palestine at a time when everybody knew (or was) a railroad employee who worked there. The building is on a main street and one of the largest in the city. For a long time, it very much was part of the heart and soul of Palestine.

After graduating from high school, Norman enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. He entered the pilot training program in 1942 and was assigned to a squadron on the USS San Jacinto. Flying an F6F Hellcat, he downed six Japanese fighters during ferocious dogfights over the Pacific, according to newspaper accounts. He was hailed as a “Flying Ace” war hero and awarded numerous medals for extraordinary bravery and service to his country during its greatest hour of need.

Norman served 27 years in the Navy, retiring as a lieutenant commander in 1969.

He then launched a successful real estate and construction business based in Houston. He had retired from this venture when he and Jean, and Jean’s brother, Robert Laughlin, took on the daunting task of saving the Redlands.

Norman Mollard had come home.

Jean says they immediately went to work cleaning up the huge mess. One of the first things they had to do was repair the sagging and leaking roof. They ordered truckloads of new windows to replace the nearly 100 that had been smashed by vandals.

They knocked down some of the interior walls, scraped off gobs of ugly paint and stripped rooms down to the bare essentials. They removed flooring and rediscovered the beautiful tiles in the lobby. They removed a false ceiling on the mezzanine and rediscovered the skylight. They slowly and carefully began adding modern amenities while preserving as much of the character of the building as possible. Jean filled the rooms and public spaces with antiques from the early 1900s.

The Mollards converted much of the top floor into a penthouse and moved in. Jean operated her antique exporting business from the basement. By spring of 1977, enough of the restoration had been completed to reopen the lobby, which now housed Jean’s retail antique shop.

Jean says nothing thrilled Norman more than giving a historic building new life. He typically acquired buildings in bad shape for next to nothing, renovated them and sold them. He then used the money made on one project to bankroll his next project. His restorations in Palestine include the Texas Theater and buildings in the popular Old Town district.

In 2002, Palestine Chamber of Commerce honored the Mollards for their work in the community. In 2007, Norman died from a heart attack. In a story in the Palestine newspaper noting his death, he was remembered for saving some of the town’s most treasured structures.

“He strived to make his community a better place in which to live. He loved the old historic buildings and worked tirelessly to help beautify downtown Palestine. Norman was a community leader, a good neighbor and wonderful friend,” his longtime friend Bill Tatum said.

Jean told the paper that she treasured the time she had with her beloved husband. “Some people live a lifetime and never have the love and respect I have had for my life of over 30 years with Norman. It has been an adventurous trip. He saw no barriers; anything was possible. And we lived it that way.”

NEW LIFE

Laura Westgate, manager of Palestine’s Main Street program, shudders to think what would have happened to the Redlands had the Mollards and Laughlin not enter the picture.

“It really was a rescue,” she says. “If they hadn’t come here it (the building) would have been gone and there would have been just a big giant gaping hole. … It needed someone to step in with vision (of what it could be again) and he had that.”

The Redfire Grille restaurant and gift shops occupy the inn’s first floor. The upper floors house furnished extended-stay apartments with housekeeping services as well as overnight rooms. The Mollards’ old penthouse is receiving another update.

Largely good as new (some work remains on the upper floors), the Redlands is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a preserved structure of historical significance. Jean is determined to complete the renovations they started side by side long ago.

“Norman would be proud to see the work is continuing,” says Jean standing in the lobby, a display paying tribute to her husband’s wartime service behind her.

The original builders somehow knew that against all odds the Redlands would stand the test of time.

Copyright © 2017 Redlands Historic Inn