LAURINBURG — When art collector John Goodwin saw Bizzell Street’s old Central Hotel, he did not see the ailing eyesore that most don’t give a second glance. He saw a thing of beauty.
That the building is in his hometown made it even more attractive.
Goodwin, who lives in Oregon and works for the Portland Trail Blazers as the organization’s premium service manager, said he is seriously considering retiring in the place where he grew and reviving the historic hotel as downtown destination.
Goodwin recently toured the building with an engineer, architect and officials from Preservation North Carolina.
“I was looking on the Preservation website and when I saw a building in Laurinburg and it just made great sense for me to try to do something here,” he said.“It is in really, really bad shape, but it could be worked on and made into a viable building.”
Built in 1893, the two-story brick building is the oldest building in downtown Laurinburg’s historic district. First known as the Central Hotel and later Hotel Dixie, its proximity to the railroad greeted passenger trains arriving from Wilmington or points further inland. It also served the African-American community as a hotel and boarding house through the first half of the 20th century and from 1959 until 1997 was the location of a series of popular restaurants.
“This particular place is important and we should respect it, love it and admire it as much as any other part of town,” he said. “It definitely has significance to me. It was the first building where African-Americans could rent a space.”
The entire building — on the National Register Historic District — rests on a stuccoed masonry foundation. Its features include a two-tiered wood porch, large ground floor windows that allow for a high level of natural lighting, and six-over-six wood sash windows on the second floor.
The interior includes a generous space on the first floor for dining and gathering, with smaller areas toward the back for kitchen activities and guest rooms.
Goodwin envisions having a restaurant on the first floor along with art gallery or museum that can double as a public space.
“Just having a place where people can gather … that’s also goal,” said Goodwin, who has loaned art to the Portland Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “Laurinburg does not have a lot of places where people can do that and I would like to be able to assist with that too.”
He said the rooms upstairs could serve as a bed-and-breakfast.
“I notice that a lot of the chain hotels are on the bypass rather than being in the downtown core,” said Goodwin, who spent 10 years in sales and customer service for the Benson Hotel. “Perhaps this will be another way to bring people back to downtown if you have inexpensive, well appointed rooms perhaps for students or parents visiting St Andrews.
“Some people prefer to stay in a place that has the feel of the area rather than a cookie-cutter kind of hotel. We want to offer a choice.”
Goodwin said he remembers as a kid eating in the building, which mostly recently housed Mildred’s Diner. The proprietor, Mildred DePugh, ran the restaurant for 22 years and was known by customers as “Mom.” The diner, which served Southern home cooking for breakfast and lunch, closed in January 1997.
“As kid and young adult, I’ve been in there as a diner and Miss Mildred was one of the warmest, kindest people that you would ever want to meet. She had politicians and doctors, lawyers and regular down-home folks there to get breakfast or lunch.
“Whether you could pay or not wasn’t the issue. Miss Mildred wanted to make sure everyone got fed and everyone was happy and so bringing back something that she had there would be a goal.”
Johnny McPhatter, owner of Veterans Barber Shop, welcomed the idea of another business next door to his shop on Bizzell Street.
“People still look for Mom’s diner,” McPhatter said. “You’re not going to get rich, but you can make a living and it would be nice to see that business running again.”
Jim Willis, president of the Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation, called reviving the hotel “a dream come true” for his vision of downtown resurgence.
“LDRC has spent the last four years and $200,000 on improvements,” Willis said. “But the intention was never to do that and that be it. The ultimate goal is to attract private investment.”
Willis, who has talked to Goodwin about the project, said he was impressed with what he wants to do.
“He has gone on to be very successful, yet he is looking to return to his hometown to invest,” Willis said. “Laurinburg has some warts, but at its heart are good people. John recognizes that and it speaks volumes for this community.”
Willis added that renovating the building would take a considerable effort, “but it would be wonderful to see that building come to life again.”
Goodwin, who is 55, said he hopes to retire in Laurinburg and thinks renovating the hotel would be a good project, though it might take as long as three years to complete.
“I can’t say for sure that I will do it, but it is definitely something I want to do.”
Fixing up the building will require a substantial investment of time and money. The 3,528 square-foot building is listed for sale at $19,000, but Goodwin apprehends costs in the neighborhood of $500,000 for renovations, including all new mechanical systems, paint, and cosmetic upgrades. A later side addition will probably need to be completely re-done.
“Some of the people I respect the most have told me that they don’t think it is good project,” he said. “That there are other things you could do with your money. I understand that, but if you don’t risk something in you life you are never going to gain anything either.”
“I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world,” said Goodwin, who has lived in Brussels, New York and London, and spent 10 years as associate director of a gallery in Hawaii. He moved to Portland in 1994.
“I’ve met some incredible people who admire me and think I’m a nice person, but I know that the people here love me and will genuinely take care of me. This is home.”
Reach editor Scott Witten at 910-506-3023