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The Bon Air

Article by Louise Phinizy

This is an offering of Justice and Mercy Regarding the Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel. Despite its current uncanny inertia, the Bon Air stands “ as a monument to the grandeur of another age.” Being perched on Summerville hill, the Bon Air was conceived to look down upon the citizenry below both geographically and socially. Today out front, epic magnolia trees and the remnants of a pool exist where many United States presidents and dignitaries took their ease in the glory days of past. It has been termed as being the most famous survival school of all the places that have for years tried to pass themselves off as Augusta hotels.

 

The Bon Air Golf Club opened in 1897 when prominent citizens of Augusta organized the Bon Air Golf Course. This stellar venue was succeeded by the Country Club of Augusta in 1900.

It must be told that the Augusta National Golf Club would be proper to credit the Bon Air for its beginnings through the Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel’s A-list of the golf-finance-social elite. Specifically, its origin dates the Wall Street banker and winter tourist Clifford Roberts who had met golf champion Bobby Jones while staying at the Bon Air to play golf in the mid twenties.

The hotel began in fanfare shortly after the Civil War. Dr. Tut the manufacturer of Tutts’ Liver Pills bought a four-acre parcel of land and house set in a garden of magnolias and roses in 1888 for $12,500. It was put in name of Sand Hill Hotel Co. The true motive of purchase and vision was to construct a hotel as a haven for wealthy Northerners which it successfully would become.

The original Bon Air was built in 1889 to attract Northeners to Augusta in the winter. Augusta was famous for its ideal balmy winter weather and was a premier destination up until 1930 when the railroads were extended into Florida and the Great Depression had its social-economic effects. Its initial capacity of two hundred rooms was later expanded. The original building was four stories tall having verandas, grand staircases, and towers. It had all the trappings of Southern Mediterranean architecture.

The original building was completely destroyed in a fire at three thirty in the morning in 1921. The Bon Air had had a previous fire in 1909 but suffered minor damage. After the fire in 1921 Sanford H. Cohen and Thomas Barnett raised funds from Augusta to New York to reopen the Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel on 11.5 acres known as the “White palace of Summerville.”At the time, the Bon Air had the largest area of any hotel in the Southeast! It’s plot of land was located South of upscale Milledge, and North of Hickman between Walton Way and Cumming Road.

This herald of Augusta opened in 1924 with three hundred rooms. Occupancy eventually increased to four hundred rooms. The Bon Air was touted the “Summerville Four Hundred” in reference to the blue-blooded occupants in the twenties and thirties. Business even got a boost with the introduction of the Masters in 1934 and the Era of the Big Bands. It became a hot site for lots of local jazz entertainment.

In the roaring twenties and thirties an interesting characteristic of the Bon-Air was the eclectic establishment known as the Conversation Club. It consisted of five and twenty mature men who had two things in common: a love for the game of golf and lots of discretionary money with which they could afford long winters in Augusta. These men arriving primarily from the North and from a wide array of backgrounds ranging from banking to law to baseball would meet for a couple of hours daily to discuss various topics and otherwise solve the world’s problems. These honorable and distinguished men would meet regularly for three months adding more than a dash of class and sophistication to the Bon-Air environment.

Some of the Bon Air’s majestic characteristics included sparkling chandeliers, solid brass stair rails, and marble and hardwood flooring. Perhaps its most precipitous feature was an observatory for viewing the city of Augusta and beyond. The observatory was large, octagon-shaped with glass sides and could hold fifty persons. The Bon Air culminated on the seven floor. Among other rooms of the same design, the Bon Air had the Crystal Room, Terrace Room, Plantation Room, and a White House Press Room.

The hotel provided excellent customer service with two employees appointed per room. The Bon Air had bellhops and everything that would pertain to one of the finest hotels. It has been reasonably quoted that one must be a millionaire to stay at the Bon Air: the Bon Air was quality at a worthy cost.

It was the site of a great variety of activities including: a swimming pool, shuffle board, live orchestras for dancing, and flower shows as well as polo matches and dog shows. And of course, it would not been the same without golf!

The Bon Air also had many illustrious guests, including the author of the classic The Great Gatsby, the iconoclastic F. Scott Fitzgerald. Several Presidents presided at the Bon Air, including: President Taft, President Coolidge, President Harding. President Dwight D Eisenhower and his entourage would secure the entire second floor in frequent visits while in office. It is considered popular myth that President Taft wrote his inaugural address in a room at the Bon Air. Also John D. Rockefeller homed at the Bon Air. In summary, the roster of profound names having graced the environs of the Bon Air included everybody of note from the twenties to the forties. The Bon Air was the epitome of prestige. Almost like a benign scandal, “Augusta became a ….somewhat lazy spa, a place where U.S. Presidents sometimes hibernated.”

All of the professional golfers and wives who went to the Masters prior to WWII lauded the Bon Air as “one of the most pleasurable stops on the tour.” Wife of professional golfer Byron Nelson remarked how “we used to dress for dinner at the Bon Air. It was really very elegant.” The Bon Air had wonderful character and charmed every Northerner who knew the North from the South.

In its heyday the Bon Air had stables filled with horses, men in top hats and uniforms waiting to escort guests for afternoon carriage rides and women in stylish frocks. At this time the Bon Air was so popular that locals would take in visitors until a vacancy arrived. The Bon Air became known as the place for elaborate balls and exciting entertainment.

One would be remiss not to comment on the food at the Bon Air. The menu was more sophisticated than Southern. It catered to the refined tastes of its well-traveled guests. Items listed together included the following culinary vignettes: Chicken a la Creole with Olives; Redsnapper, Sauce Portugaise; Montain Oysters, tomato sauce; Vermont Turkey,Cranberry sauce; and Lobster Salad. A wonderful collection of dessers included: Pudding a al Reine, Wine Sauce; Apricot Meringue Pie; Gelee au Vin de Sautern, and Florentine Ice Cream. Guests could enjoy delicious food and atmosphere unparalleled in the Southeast. The Bon Air strived to be a “home away from home.” It was a home with all the benefits of luxury that was available at the time.

In the fifties the Bon Air was still the place to be, especially for the Masters. “ A majority of contestants lodged at the Bon Air and at night they loitered in the lobby in bronze faces and white sport coats.” During Masters Week a Dixie music band played on the main floor, a cool jazz band played downstairs, and an orchestra played in the ballroom.

However, the Bon Air did earn a more desultory purpose in the fifties as popularity waned with new hotels arising in the South. As disappointing as was this situation, thankfully, at this time the rooms were still filled with convention visitors.

Fastforward to1960, the Bon Air “could best be described as ‘Early Insanity'”. When the Bon Air was padlocked and closed in 1960 many assumed the Bon Air had gasped its last breath. This situation was in sharp contrast to the way the Bon Air was before World War II when it was truly elegant. To its credit the Bon Air had in fact survived fire, two wars, and the Great Depression.

Bon Air was purchased by J.C. Bible in 1961 in conjunction with Mason McNight, Sam Simowitz, and Jim Snow, who reopened it as a potential retirement community three years later. The Bon Air had a completely altered existence in a new era. When it reopened in 1964 as a retirement place, it was indeed no longer so sanguine as its history would suggest. It suffered from severe negligence. From top to bottom it was dusty and dirty. It was described as being, “unsafe, rundown, and dilapidated shortly before being closed. the bathrooms were a scandal. There was very poor water pressure. Emerging water was burnt-orange, pink, and red. Coming out from the basement it made a groaning noise causing the floor to vibrate. And no towels!! There exist stories about the Bon Air’s negligent service to residents regarding cleaning suits to polishing shoes. At this time the Bon Air is too ashamed to admit this is true!!

In 1981 the Federal Government allocated renovation funds to upgrade the building both internally and externally. The Bon Air reopened in 1983 with ninety-one hundred units operating. Residents need be sixty-two or older and be low to moderate income. The latest situation included one hundred fifty-six one-bedroom apartments with 15,446 feet of common space comprised of an activity room, library, chapel, gameroom, sundeck, and laundry room!!

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agreed that the BonAir Apartments should be considered eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (HRHP). In 2005 the Bon Air was purchased by an outsider, Ambling Management for $5.9 Million. In accordance with Section 106, the renovations and repairs must meet certain criteria. These criteria apply to the direct attempt to preserve historic character –defining features of the building and property. For example, renovations should resemble original, historic structures as much as possible. The HUD should be given proof of proposed changes before renovations began.

All changes need comply with the “Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.” Other regulations and program requirements must be addressed such as the Tax Incentive Programs and the Transportation Enhancement (TE-21) funding. All this was accomplished albeit the Bon Air was more flaking plaster than polished chandeliers.

One quarter century later, what can Augusta say about this proud enigma? Is it worth being modernized into something being historic, yet no longer relevant to the standards for which it initially stood? Consisting of good bones the Bon Air is more of an issue than an eye sore. Yet, creativity cries for transformation! The Augusta National can take credit for the pull for greatest in Augusta today. The Bon Air can perhaps become a complement to what unites the local with the regional and spiral off in that direction…..