Saving the Historic St. James

The St. James Hotel in Selma reopened in January, continuing a tradition of hospitality reaching nearly 200 years. Photos by Art Meripol.

On a clear day, you can see forever from a balcony at Selma’s St. James Hotel, or at least see back nearly two centuries.

Built in 1836 along the banks of the Alabama River, the St. James is the only existing pre-Civil War riverfront hotel in the Southeast. The St. James has all the charming quirks of a nearly 200-year-old building. Also, the hotel’s rear-room balconies offer a panoramic view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That was site of the famous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” Civil Rights march.

Jim and Kelly Rushin Lewis, through their Rhaglan Hospitality, brought the historic building back as a Hilton Tapestry hotel.

Lifelong Selma resident and Civil Rights activist JoAnne Bland calls the St. James “a treasure.” But it was a treasure on the verge of being lost forever. Due to financial and structural issues, the historic hotel closed in 2017, and many Selma residents feared it might never reopen.

That fate was averted thanks to a renovation effort led by Birmingham-based Rhaglan Hospitality, which acquired the property from the City of Selma in 2018. The refurbished St. James opened on Jan. 26, rebranded as a Tapestry by Hilton hotel.

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“It would have been a tragedy if we’d lost the St. James,” Bland says. “It’s just a wonderful place with so much history.”

Rhaglan CEO Jim Lewis felt the same way. In 2015, while returning to Birmingham from a beach vacation, Lewis made a point of traveling through Selma simply to see and photograph the St. James. While acknowledging the numerous challenges facing the building, he thought it was a property well worth preserving.

“I felt there was a strong possibility that if we could get Hilton to flag it with one of their boutique brands, we had an asset that could be saved,” Lewis says. “And if not, we probably couldn’t save it.”

The courtyard feature fountains.

Even with Hilton’s backing, Lewis says the hotel had enough structural problems (for example, wood rot and termites had severely damaged one side) that funding from a variety of sources was needed. This included state and national Historic Tax Credits, financing from the American South Real Estate Fund, an Opportunity Zone investment from Woodforest National Bank, and funds from the USDA Rural Development program.

“All those were essential in order to complete the capital,” Lewis says. “Without any one of them, we wouldn’t have what we have today.”

Business Center.

What they have is a hotel that exudes 19th-century glamour along with 21st-century technology and conveniences. Many historic touches remain, such as the original tile in the guest bathrooms, the fireplaces and mantels, lights fixtures and oil paintings.

But there have been numerous improvements and upgrades as well, including changes to the kitchen (“It had been like cooking in a barn,” Lewis says) and the addition of a staircase leading from the lobby to the second floor. The renovations also enabled the hotel to increase the room count from 42 to 55.

“There was a lot of sensitivity to preserve what was already there and respect the history and the tradition, but also improve it,” says Kelly Rushin Lewis, a partner with the Jones Walker law firm and Jim Lewis’ wife. “The community is very invested in the project and very emotional about it. It was important to do something they were happy with.”

Interior spaces echo a more gracious time.

As far as many Selma residents are concerned, simply having the St. James back in business is cause enough for celebration. After all, the hotel’s roots with the city are deep. It was built only 16 years after Selma was founded, and endured through the Civil War, the Great Depression and the turbulent Civil Rights era.

The St. James was touted as far back as 1884 in “Selma, Alabama, and its Attractive Features,” which was basically a travel guide for its time. The publication described the St. James as a “well-kept hotel … in high repute with the traveling public.”

“It is a large structure with spacious rooms and hallways, and all the conveniences belonging to a first-class hotel,” the publication continued. “It crowns a lofty bluff, overlooking the Alabama River for many miles in both directions, and commands a view of beautiful landscapes for a great distance beyond the river.”

Several decades after those words were written, that view was changed by the construction in 1940 of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which has since become easily the most famous landmark in Selma. The hope among city officials is that the renovated St. James will provide a bridge of its own, leading visitors to stay in town and seek out other things to see and do.

“We have people who come here every day to walk across the bridge, but they don’t explore anything else,” says Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce. “The hotel is another attraction for those travelers, and it can get some of them to spend the night and explore other sites in our community.”

That is important, because tourism provides a significant boost to the area’s economy. According to a report from the Alabama Tourism Department, travelers spent approximately$87 million in Dallas County in 2019 and were responsible forthe existence of nearly 1,200 jobs.

There also is hope that the reopened St. James will help spur additional projects throughout downtown Selma. Rhaglan purchased the old Dallas Seed Building adjacent to the hotel with tentative plans to create meeting and banquet spaces, and Smedley expects development to continue from there.

“We’re just so excited to have it reopened,” Smedley says. “There is anticipation that it will help attract other developers to our community and redevelop our downtown area.”

Lewis agrees. He points out that the St. James currently employs 45 people — mostly locals — with the potential for further jobcreation. “It’s a perfect economic development tool to kick-start Selma’s rejuvenation,” he says.

Bland longs for that day. She says the hotel will enable downtown  to “come alive again.”

“The bridge already attracts thousands of people to Selma, and now they have a beautiful place to stay overnight,” Bland says. “From that, we’ll get those other businesses — the restaurants, the stores — because people are coming here and staying.”

Outdoor views stretch along the Alabama River.

And Bland knows the best place to be to watch it all happen.

“The view from the balconies at the St. James is astonishing,” Bland says. “You can look at the bridge and think about the history of it and imagine those people walking across. Then you can just sit there and relax, and let the Alabama River soothe your soul.”

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