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June 16, 2021

Empire Hotel is still majestic to History on Tap tour goers

Inside the Empire Hotel

Historic Salisbury Foundation's History on Tap tour of the Empire Hotel drew hundreds of curious visitors that have never been inside the historic building on Thursday afternoon.

By David Purtell

david.purtell@salisburypost.com

Lots of lucky people got the chance to take a walk through history during a tour of the Empire Hotel Thursday evening.

Around 250 people walked through the iconic building on South Main Street during the Historic Salisbury Foundation’s History on Tap event, the first of three to be held this summer.  Tour goers listened as guides told the hotel’s story. After the tour, people gathered in the alley adjacent to the hotel to drink beer while musician David Myers played his guitar .

The hotel stands across from the Meroney Theater and first opened in 1859 as the Boyden House — named for Nathaniel Boyden, who was a local lawyer and politician. The hotel was expanded in the early 1900s and the name, which at the time was St. James Hotel, was changed to Central Hotel, and then later to Empire Hotel.

High ceilings

Kathy Shue, of China Grove, was outside the hotel waiting in line to check in — and waiting for her daughter to show up. For Shue and most of the others in line, the tour would be their first time inside the hotel.

“A lot of history to it,” she said.

Graham and Danielle Corriher were also in line.

“Heard a lot about it,” Graham said about the hotel. He said he’d like to see the building renovated and reused — something city officials and preservationists have been trying to get done for years. The estimated cost to renovate the hotel is in the millions.

The hotel’s rooms, with high ceilings and large windows, were lit only by the late afternoon sun coming through the glass. Where the sun’s rays couldn’t reach, lamps were placed to guide people up stairways and down hallways. The wood floors creaked with each step. Several people brought their own flashlight. The air in the building, like outside, was hot and humid.

Robert E. Lee visit

A guide told tour goers that on April 1, 1870, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, had breakfast with his daughter at the hotel. Lee died in October of that year and, for most Southerners, remains the most revered figure from the war.

The hotel’s upper floors are a series of wide hallways separating rooms. On the second floor is a ballroom where Ed Clement’s parents, Alice and Donald, taught ballroom dancing in the 1920s. Clement is Salisbury’s best-known preservationist and has been in the hotel plenty of times. He didn’t bother to keep up with his tour group while he stood in the dim light on the second floor and scrolled through his smartphone.

Other people used their phone to take pictures of the hotel — with its peeling wall paper, broken boards, old sinks and bathtubs, and nostalgic atmosphere.

Temporary housing

After World War II there was a housing shortage and the ballroom was converted into temporary housing. The rooms are small and cramped. The hotel, which technically has four floors, closed in 1963 after 104 years of operation. Volunteers have been working to tear down the walls of the bedrooms in the ballroom.

“Don’t lose anybody. The ghost might get you,” Paula Bohland, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., said. There are some who swear the hotel is haunted.

Downtown Salisbury Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to promoting downtown, purchased the 107,000 square-foot building in 2007.

Christina Helm was making her way down one of the hotel’s stairways. “Love it,” she said. “The architecture is just gorgeous.”

Helm was in the oldest part of the hotel, the Boyden House section. It’s Brian Davis’ favorite part of the hotel.

Davis, executive director of Historic Salisbury, said the stairway connecting the second and third floors still has the original railing from 160 years ago.

Back in time

Corey Blevins and his wife, Angela, were standing on the sidewalk outside after taking the tour.

“It was great,” Corey said, “Really enjoyed it.”

Corey said he has always wanted to see the inside of the hotel. Angela said she was thinking about all the people who stayed a night or two at the hotel.

“Like stepping back in time,” she said.

There is much debate about a tunnel — a tunnel that has yet to be found— that connected the hotel and the theater across Main Street so patrons and actors, such as Charlie Chaplin, could avoid inclement weather.

After their tour, the Corrihers were leaning up against the building’s brick facade, drinking cold beer that was being served in the alley adjacent to the hotel.

“The ballroom was impressive,” Graham said, “The potential this place has is incredible.”

The next History on Tap is July 23 at the N.C. Transportation Museum and while feature classic cars. On Aug. 27, the Meroney Theater will be featured. Contact the Historic Salisbury Foundation for tickets and more information.

Contact Reporter David Purtell at 704-797-4264.

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