Although Dorothy Phelps' book opines the the Biltmore Hotel was built in 1923 by Dr. Clyde Donnell, it seems likely, based on the city directories, that the hotel was built in ~1929. Dr. Donnell's 1951 biography makes copious mention of his various endeavors, but no mention of the Biltmore - an unlikely omission. So the beginnings of the Biltmore are a bit unclear, but it was decidedly the pre-eminent hotel in Hayti, and in the segregated era, one of the pre-eminent hotels catering to African-Americans in the southeast.
Biltmore Hotel, likely 1930s.
(Courtesy John Schelp)
Another version of this postcard has writing on the right side of the card which reads:
"The Biltmore Hotel, Durham, NC. Half block from Union Station. America's Finest Colored Hotel. All out side [sic] rooms. Running hot and cold water in each room. The last word in comfort. 'Do It the Biltmore Way'. Atlas Barbee, Manager."
Ms. Phelps describes the typical scene at the Biltmore:
"Artists, educators, and just visitors who came to see the 'big name bands' and Hayti would stay at this 30 room hotel when they came to town. 'It was the only such facility opened to Negroes,' according to Amelia Thorpe. 'Children would gather near the Biltmore to gape at the buses and famous people.'"
The Biltmore featured a drugstore and grill/coffee shop on the ground floor (the drugstore to the left when facing the front of the building, and the grill/coffee shop to the right.)
Biltmore, Regal Theater, and the Donut Shop, 1940s.
In the 1940s, the hotel was managed by Lathrop 'Lath' Alston and James Baylor; in 1944, Lath Alston purchased the hotel with Pedro Ward, who ran the dining room. Alston described the hotel as:
"one of the largest institutions of its kind in the South, catering exclusively to Negro patrons. It has twenty rooms with ample baths, a dining room serving an unexcelled cuisine and is operated on the European plan. Mr. Alston is a well and favorably known promoter of musicals, bands, etc. He enjoys a reputation as one of the big-time dance promoters in the South."
(I tend to believe the 20 room description rather than the 30 room further above.)
Below, an excerpt from "Negro Durham Marches On" about the Biltmore - 1949.
And a brief bit of film on East Pettigrew, looking west towards the Biltmore ~1947.
York Garrett was running the Biltmore Drugstore by the 1940s, which was renamed "Garrett's Biltmore Drugstore."
Looking southwest, 1950s.
Hayti began to fade over the course of the 1950s; the progressive end of segregation meant less exclusive patronage of Hayti stores and businesses, and visitors to town could stay at hotels outside of Hayti. The general economic flight of the 1960s affected the African-American community as well as the white community. Those with means to do so began to move to suburban areas.
The language to describe Hayti in the 1950s is remarkably similar to the language used to describe structures in our historic neighborhoods today - 'blighted' 'obsolete' structures. The "What Is Urban Renewal?" public information pamphlet from ~1960 describes urban renewal as follows:
"1) The use of code enforcement and public improvements in order to prevent good areas from becoming blighted. 2) The removal of spots of blight and the rehabilitation of structures that can be saved. 3) The clearance and redevelopment of slum areas that cannot be saved."
Should sound familiar to those who follow the policies of our city administration.
Views of Hayti from the 1960s do not show a thriving area, but rather an area that was beginning to see economic difficulty - beautiful structures like the Biltmore looking more faded than fashionable.
Structures to the east of Ramsey Street were torn down by the late 1960s. The Biltmore and surrounding buildings survived into the 1970s.
Biltmore and surrounding structures, early 1970s.
The use of the Biltmore seems to have, um, declined a bit by the 1970s. To recount the story one local told me.
"In the early 1970s, I was working to erect the radio tower for WAFR radio in a building two doors down from the Biltmore [ed note: WAFR was in the Donut Shop building]. We got permission from Dr. Garrett to tie our tower guy wire to the roof of the Biltmore Hotel."
"We went into the hotel and went upstairs - and it became very clear that we were in a whorehouse. Prostitutes, all white, were on the beds of the rooms, wearing only negligées, and there were several very large Black men who were looking at us as if to say 'what the hell are you doing here?'"
"I was 23 years old, and had never encountered anything like this before. We had to go back every day for two weeks and go through the rooms to get to the roof ladder, which was in the closet of one of the rooms."
Soon the Regal and the Donut shop buildings had been demolished, and the Biltmore was one of a few survivors.
Mid-1970s view of the Biltmore. The drugstore remains open while the hotel is boarded up.
1977 (Photo by George Pyne via Milo Pyne)
January 1977 view of the Biltmore from across the railroad tracks. Joel Kostyu wrote, in a rather odd passage accompanying this picture
"Biltmore Hotel reflects the change in the integrated south. Separate black hotels are no longer needed, so the old Biltmore will be demolished. It is reported that it will be torn down brick by brick and that these bricks will be cleaned by unemployed youth and resold." (From "Durham: a Pictorial History" by J. Kostyu)
Great. Wonder how that worked out?
The Biltmore was torn down in 1977. The spot has been some form of parking lot since that time.
Looking south at the site of the Biltmore, 09.04.08. (G. Kueber) The building extended from approximately the middle of the driveway left to the fire hydrant (notice the fire hydrant in the historical photos.)