Almost three decades ago, in spite of public outcry, carefully positioned explosives reduced Tyler's stately Blackstone Hotel, dubbed the “Queen of East Texas,” into a mangled heap of brick, wood and mortar.
“It was an icon here in Tyler,” said Sherry Kidd, a historian with the Smith County Historical Society. “The Blackstone Hotel touched everyone's lives.”
It's a parking lot now.
But plans are under way to bring back the hotel's iconic image and feature it on a new structure proposed for downtown: a multi-story parking facility disguised as a streetscape, Tyler Architect Jason Jennings said last week.
Until then, the Blackstone lives on in grainy photographs, yellowing newspaper articles and fond memories.
Drive today past the sea of concrete where the once grand hotel once stood, at 301 N. Broadway Ave., and it's easy for the imagination to wander — back to the hotel's glory days, when it was a favorite gathering spot for oilmen, and the best place in East Texas to buy gumbo.
“Everything went on at the Blackstone,” Tyler Historian Mary Jane McNamara said. “Everybody had their graduation parties, church receptions and everything there. It was such a lovely, graceful place.”
The original five-story luxury hotel, with its vertical neon signage, opened Nov. 29, 1922, amid great fanfare, featuring live entertainment, elegant dining and fine paper programs.
Tyler businessman Johnny Wright told the Tyler Morning Telegraph in 2000 he remembered the hotel's early days.
“I was a kid when it was built,” he said. “The chamber of commerce had all of its meetings there. There were also a lot of banquets, dinners and dances held there. … During the oil boom, the lobby was always loaded with oil fellows. It was a really nice hotel.”
Newspaper accounts describe cots set up in the lobby for hotel patrons in the 1930s because every room was filled with people speculating for oil.
Tyler businessman Phil Hurwitz, also in 2000, told the Morning Telegraph he was living in Kilgore when the Blackstone was in its heyday. He and a group of friends made weekly treks to Tyler every Saturday night.
“They had big band dances with people like Hugh Cooper, Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey,” he said. “They would play one-night stands, while they were passing through on their way to California or something. It was a lot of fun.”
The Smith County Historical Society safeguards a variety of hotel artifacts and records, including a publicized account of a one of the hotel's most unusual visitors.
It seems a local businessman once used the hotel as a temporary holding facility for his newly-acquired Angus bull, which was loaded onto the hotel's elevator and carefully escorted to the presidential suite for a weekend stay.
An advertising flyer of the day described the hotel as “Traditionally, the finest hotel in Tyler” featuring tasteful d￩cor and comfortable overnight accommodations.
Even the giveaway souvenirs were quality — black matchboxes with gold etching, made in Sweden.
Businessman Rob Jones, 64, a Historical Society member, remembers the hotel from his days as a young agent with American General Life.
“I moved to Tyler in 1974,” he said. “I was in my mid-20s. The Tyler Jaycees were meeting there, and I thought it was grand place.”
Many people visited the Blackstone because of the daily menu choices offered by its premiere restaurant, The Creole Coffee Room.
An original menu dated Nov. 11, 1960, offers an 85-cent lunchtime Chef's Special: veal pot pie with vegetables, creamed potatoes, string beans, rolls, sherbet and coffee.
And for evening, diners could choose from a variety of entrees, including roast choice beef with bordelaise sauce for $1.40 or the baked shrimp ala creole with steamed rice for $1.25.
“They had the best gumbo,” businessman Bill Hughes said last week, recalling his bachelor days. “On Friday, that's where we went to see all the pretty secretaries.”
Hughes, also in the society, said he was introduced at the Blackstone to a young George H. W. Bush, who had aspirations of being a career politician and later became the 41st President of the United States.
“George wasn't a Texan originally,” Hughes said. “He came to Texas and made a fortune in the oil business. … He was a good fellow.”
It was rehabbed in the 1950s and expanded in hopes of increasing profitability.
A garage and distinctive wrought-iron railing was added to give the building the flavor of New Orleans, attracting more than 3,000 visitors to its “inspection parties,” records show.
Keating Zeppa said his late father, Joseph Zeppa, was on the board of a financial entity that received title to the hotel and sold it later to investors with Delta Drilling Company.
“For its time, it was a great place,” Zeppa said, who later became president of the drilling company. “It had a nice, big lobby and a reception desk.”
Eventually, hopes the Blackstone would generate a handsome return for the investment began to dim. In 1978, Delta Drilling sold it.
There was talk, at that time, of converting the hotel into apartments to make best use of the space, but the hotel's then owners, First City National Bank of Tyler, opted instead for a 150-space parking lot, records show.
Two months later, the nearly 64-year-old hotel was imploded.
“It was a sound building,” Ms. McNamara said. “It was advised it should be converted to apartments, so they tore it down.”
A 1985 editorial by the Smith County News dubbed the occasion, “A Black Day at the Blackstone.”
The expected demise of the grand old dame, the Queen of East Texas, spurred many people to scramble for souvenirs.
The late Jake James bought all the carpet and had it pieced together for his personal use, historians said.
“My kids bought some of the neon (signage), and how they got up there to get it, I'll never know,” Mrs. Kidd said, recalling the magnificent glow of the signage.
The day the Blackstone was reduced to rubble was big news, attracting more than 250 bystanders, records show.
“Everybody came up to the top of People's Bank to watch the implosion,” Zeppa said.
Almost three decades after the dust settled, Jennings, with Butler Architectural Group, seems determined to make sure the Blackstone Hotel is not wiped off the landscape forever.
His design for Tyler's proposed four-story parking structure includes features found on the original, such as repeating windows, a two-tone exterior and something unexpected for a commercial structure: flowerboxes.
“It's kind of quaint,” Jennings said of the boxes. “It adds details, and this is the Rose Capital, so having flowers seems good. I guess it felt right for Tyler, because it is Tyler.”
Two other historic buildings, Tyler Commercial College and the old Smith County Courthouse, also are featured in Jennings' design.
“I never lived in Tyler when it (the hotel) existed,” the architect said. “Only after it was gone did anyone appreciate what it did to add character to downtown. That building had a lot of life in it, with people coming and going. Now it's a desolate parking lot. Once the wrecking ball starts swinging it's past the point of no return.”