To remember the tragic loss of life, and a piece of Darlington County history, we post this article from the News and Press, 2014. It was on this day in 1968 that the Park Terrace Hotel burned.
This article appeared in the Darlington News and Press on April 23, 2014 and was written by Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer. Photo’s supplied by the Darlington County Historical Commission.
Anyone who sees and enjoys the new Wes Anderson film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” could leave the theater with mixed emotions – amused and entertained by the story, but feeling a bit melancholy that the titular hotel’s classic edifice and snappy service are relics of the past. That feeling might be even more intense for locals who recall that Darlington once had its own grand hotel, a beloved downtown touchstone lost to the ravages of fire.
The hotel moved from dream to reality in 1912, when a group of trustees (Bright Williamson, W.M. Haynesworth, and C.B. Edwards) ponied up the funds to build a noble inn for their hometown. The classic design came from Savannah architect and former Darlington resident Hyman Witcover, who, despite his stellar work, later took the trustees to court for non-payment of his fee. Haynsworth & Lawton, the same firm that built the Arcade Hotel in Hartsville, erected the building in 1915.
Initially dubbed “The Hotel Melrose,” the structure itself was elegantly simple: four stories of concrete covered in pale pressed brick, accented with bright red Spanish tile over porticos and balconies, crowned with twin lookout towers on the roof. At the front entrance, two iron columns topped with globe lights lit the neatly manicured walkway, bordered by neat hedges and flowerbeds.
The hotel went by various names in its six decades of life. From 1913 to 1914 it was called The Melrose; it then survived five years of benign neglect as The Park from 1915 to 1920, when drugstore owner and hotelier W.H. McFall purchased and totally overhauled the building from attic to basement.
McFall and his managers were reputedly sticklers for cleanliness, and they held the staff to very high standards of service and conduct. The Hotel McFall went on to achieve distinctions of excellence from commercial hotel reviewers who hailed it as the cleanest hotel in South Carolina, and from government officials who gave it 980 out of a possible 1000 points in a 1922 state hotel inspection.
During those early heydays, the hotel had all the modem conveniences that were still so novel to country folk. There were separate guest and freight elevators, and a state of the art (for the era) fire suppression system. A central steam plant in the basement heated all of the forty guest rooms, each of which had a telephone, and a private bathroom with hot and cold running water. The McFall also served as a terminal for Greyhound and Queen City Trailway buses, making it a convenient meeting spot or stopover for business travelers and tourists.
In the lobby, sunlight streamed through glass doors topped with fanlight windows, and the leather club chairs of the whitewashed room looked ideal for relaxing to read the morning paper Overhead, a tall, coffered ceiling and cooling fans kept the summer heat at bay, while low and discreet radiators along the walls maintained warmth in winter. Period photos show a glass case next to the lobby desk sold tobacco supplies and Fatima cigarettes.
For twenty-four years, the Hotel McFall thrived as an accommodation, an event host, and a dining center for casual to semi-formal meals. Many old clippings tell of social gatherings at the hotel, and crowds often packed the balconies and towers to watch political speeches on the Public Square.
In 1944, after H.W. McFall passed away, the hotel transferred to Thomas J. DuBose, who ran it as The DuBose Hotel for only a year before selling out to restaurateur and Darlington native Vance Butler. Renamed The Park Terrace in 1945, the hotel would bear that marque for the rest of its life.
Butler, owner of local eatery The DeLuxe Cafe, played up the friendly atmosphere of the hotel dining room and broadened its appeal as a dinner destination. In 1947, he installed hospitality guru Joe Saleeby as manager of the cafe, and increased traffic by advertising specialties like steaks, chops, chicken, and spaghetti. “Our motto: Courtesy and Service,” read one cafe ad. Unfortunately, time bore down hard on the rest of the hotel. Equipment that once was considered modem had fallen out of date, and employee standards began to slip. One 1947 fire inspection report lambasted the Park Terrace for numerous laxities, including bare live electrical wires, oil stored at the top of an elevator shaft, trash piled in comers and stairwells, and no exit lights or signs on any floor. The report concluded, with tragic prescience, that the hotel was “a first-class fire trap and death trap.”
Adequate repairs were made, and the hotel continued to operate without major incident for another twenty-one years. Some accounts note that it was a slow and steady slide downhill for the once great business, as it struggled to fill rooms that were increasingly out of date. The lion’s share of building traffic went not to the hotel or cafe, but to James “Spot” Mozingo’s law offices, located on the ground floor’s Orange Street side. Vacancy rates went up and booking rates went down; by the late 1960s, rooms at the Park Terrace could be had for as little as $2 per night. The day before Thanksgiving in 1968, the Park Terrace’s luck completely ran out.
Early that morning, a fire of undetermined origin broke out on the fourth floor and was confirmed just after 4 a.m. by three Darlington policemen. Fire and rescue personnel worked quickly to evacuate the hotel’s twenty-one guests, but some were trapped on the engulfed upper floors and could not be found in time. Darlington Fire Chief Leon Beckham described the third and fourth floors as “a blast furnace.” Those floors were so gutted they eventually collapsed, taking part of the second floor down with them. Firefighters battled the blaze for a full day, and then began the grave task of recovering bodies. Marion Butler, brother of owner Vance Butler, was among the dead. Also killed were guests Keith Windham and Buck Shaw of Darlington, and Mike Jamerson of New Orleans.
The bumed-out husk, a blackened and ghostly reminder of tragedy and loss, stood nine more months before demolition began. The lot at the comer of Main and Orange remained vacant until 1972, when a Hardee’s restaurant came to town and ushered in the fast food era. Now, the lot is again vacant – a simple patch of green grass, carefully maintained by Carolina Bank – and for those who never saw The Park Terrace or The Hotel McFall, it’s hard to imagine that a majestic building once stood on that spot. The proof exists only in grainy photographs and painted postcards, and in the memories of those who witnessed the grandeur of Darlington’s first class hotel.