On Wednesday, April 3, 2019, the Shreveport Metropolitan Planning Commission voted unanimously to allow Larson Family, LP a Special Use permit for property at 700 Cotton Street, the old Arlington Hotel. The limited partnership plans to open the “Every Man a King” distillery in 2020 that will feature a large outdoor patio space, distillery operations, and the total rehab of the historic Arlington into space for gift shops, tasting rooms, and other commercial uses. Every Man a King refers to a movement started by then-US Senator Huey P. Long. His national organization called the ‘Share the Wealth Society’ used ‘Every Man a King’ as its motto. Long gave speeches with that theme multiple times in the early 1930s.
The Arlington has been the subject of concern for years. Vacant since 1990, the Arlington has been open to the elements and used by transients. It has caught fire multiple times, and most recently, a large part of the roof collapsed. The Downtown Development Authority worked for years with various potential developers, but until the Larsen Family LP, none were willing or able to acquire the property. The Arlington was a standard bearer for ‘demolition by neglect’ – a process under which a property deteriorates because no one maintains it. It was not always that way for the hotel.
THE ARLINGTON STORY
In 1897, the openings of the Union Train Station and Central Train Station changed the course of downtown. Union Station was one-half block away from the Arlington; Central, about a block. Trains were plentiful. For a period, some 45 passenger trains per day would stop in Shreveport and those travelers needed places to eat, shop, be entertained and sleep. One of those places was the Arlington. Built by John McLoyd Comegys in 1913 (accounts of when the building was constructed vary) and opened in 1914, it was called in a newspaper story, a ‘hell of a place’. We don’t know if this was a good thing or bad thing. What we do know is that the Arlington, though not a 5-star accommodation, was clean and neat. We were told by the Comegys family that the initial contractor ran off with the construction money and it appeared for a time that the hotel would not be completed. It was, but Mr. Comegys did not run it for long. In 1937, Mr. Baylor Culpepper of the Ruston area entered into a 99-year lease for the hotel that gave him rights to it until 2036! Mr. Culpepper was nothing if not BULLISH on Shreveport. So who was this man? Culpepper grew up on afarm near Athens, LA., in Claiborne Parish. In 1917, he enlisted in the Army but spent his military service in the U.S. After the war, he and his wife moved to Homer, La., where he worked as an oil rig builder. They saved their money and in 1921 he came to Shreveport and purchased his first hotel, saying “Shreveport was the best place in the world to live.”
So how much did his 99-year lease cost? $300,000…or about $3,000 per year. It’s important to remember that $300,000 in 1937 is the equivalent of $5.2 million now. Mr. Culpepper, in this ad that ran in the Times in 1937, talked about Shreveport as one of the ‘leading cities of the Southwest’ The hotel was in one of the ‘coolest’ spots in the city- not cool as in awesome, but cool as in airflow. The Arlington sits on a high spot. It had 44 comfortable, fire-proof rooms with oscillating fans, telephones and Spring-Air mattresses. Rates were $1-$2 dollars per night. Mr. Culpepper did not keep the hotel the entire 99 years…by 1978 it had turned into a lower price boarding house. During its heyday, though, the Arlington was active. Along the Louisiana Street side are 5 retail spaces that were in use from 1914 until the 1980s. There were bicycle and motorcycle sales, shoe repair, a tailor, a small grocer, a barber, jeweler, clothing cleaner, a confectioner, and a BBQ stand. Likely the most famous was a bar called the Gay Nineties that opened in Sept. of 1959. The Gay Nineties featured gas air conditioning and REAL Can-Can dancers, plus ‘Kenny Rasmussen at the piano.’ It also featured a Silver Dollar Bar that ran the length of the bar and was studded with real silver dollars. Hours of operation were high noon until midnight each day.
In researching the old newspaper articles, we found an interesting bit that relates to the Arlington’s new future as a distillery. In 1913, local police pulled off a sting on the hotel. After seeing a large amount of coming and going, police became suspicious and went in armed with a warrant. And discovered that proprietor Philip Kohlbrunner and his wife were running a bootlegging operation, selling illegal Budweiser out of a cask for the ‘unheard of’ price of .30 per quart! At the time, Shreveport was dry, meaning no liquor could be sold. Fast forward 100 years- wouldn’t Mr. Kohlbrunner be surprised?
We are thrilled that the Arlington has found a possible new life and new owners that want to return the building to use and usefulness. Though there are more decisions and challenges ahead for the Larson Family L.P., the old Arlington at least now has a chance at a future. Prior to their ownership, the historic building’s future -and its days- were numbered.