On The Staying Power Of The Majestic Hotel

HAVE YOU ever found an old, torn-up book and hesitated before throwing it out? Have you ever found a two-dollar bill, but didn’t want to spend it? For some people, it’s easy to throw out the old, but for others, not so much. Why is it we want to hold on to things? Is it that your mother gave it to you on your tenth birthday? Is it because it reminds you where you first met your girlfriend? When I was young, I remember my mom saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” For some reason, that phrase has stuck with me.

As I was growing up in Oklahoma City, I had almost forgotten what my mom said. And I’m not going to lie, I was probably what you would have considered your average high school kid. I wasn’t particularly interested in anything and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. However, I would make amateur action movies with my friends because they were fun, and I was bored on most weekends. Looking back, some of them were slightly more graphic than I realized. That’s how you get the neighbors to call your parents. But that’s how I spent most of my time until one of my friends mentioned there was an abandoned circus in the middle of a neighborhood. She said it would be perfect for one of my little videos. I went to check the place out with my buddy, Alex, and we stayed for over five hours. This was beyond anything I have ever seen. There was an old bus, circus trailers, animal cages, and I even found a ticket for one of their shows dated 1963. To this day, I wish I would’ve kept that ticket because I never found it again. After that, I was hooked. I stayed up all night researching other abandoned places around where I lived because it fascinated me how people can leave behind these landmarks and traditions.

For instance, Townley’s Dairy, located on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, was the number one dairy provider for central Oklahoma beginning in the 1940s. After the last manager, Robert C. Townley, died, the family sold the company to another popular dairy provider, “Hiland Dairy,” located in the southern area of the state. As for Townley’s dairy, it now sits in complete darkness, abandoned, with no one seeming to care whether or not it even exists.

There was one special school which really caught my eye. The old Dunjee High School in Spencer, Oklahoma. When the school closed, everything was left behind. There were books, desks, and even assignments on the chalkboards. I traveled back to that school at least twenty times trying to figure out the story hidden in the walls of this school. Each time I was there, I walked through the empty halls feeling as if the school bell was going to ring and all the students would exit the classrooms. Yet, as I stood there, I knew school was out, but no one was ever coming back.

Buildings like this were left abandoned, broken down, and forgotten. There are schools, hospitals, houses, amusement parks, factories, and bowling alleys, just to name a few. I’ve been exploring old, abandoned buildings for about six years now and people often tell me they drive by these places and wonder: What’s inside? What happened there? So, what causes these buildings to end up like this? Is it just money? Are they not relevant anymore? Maybe aliens? Whatever it was, over the next few years, I made it my mission to explore and photograph every abandoned structure I could find before graduating high school. I ended up exploring around 300 places and found myself dragging lots of friends along to these adventures, and to this day I don’t know if they even really wanted to go.

Around the time I was ready to graduate, I decided to get a degree in digital filmmaking and was accepted into college in Arkansas. It was a five-hour drive from where I grew up, and this was my first time living on my own and not knowing anyone where I was headed. So, what did I do when I got there? Go out and socialize? Heck, no. I googled abandoned buildings in Arkansas. And weirdly enough, there weren’t many results. It took a little digging, but I found an old hospital in Little Rock. When I arrived, the building was undergoing demolition and I photographed as much of it as I could. As I was leaving, I noticed there was a large church with broken windows with a sign that read “Gloryland Family Fellowship Church.” The doors were open, and as I peeked inside, I found it was clearly abandoned. After photographing these places, I debated whether or not to upload them to my Facebook page. I thought people might be getting tired of seeing abandoned photos on their newsfeed. Instead, I decided to start a page entitled “Abandoned Arkansas.” Over the next year and a half, I met people on campus and others who messaged me through the page, and I found my group of exploring buddies. I made it into a website as well, and it seemed that we were finding new places to explore every week. Well, not really “new,” but you know what I mean. My mom’s saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” finally had meaning—I had truly discovered my treasures.

The page and website grew. We had 2,000 likes and were getting around fifty to sixty website views a day. I was surprised at how many people were taking an interest in these old buildings. We were getting comments every day from people who grew up in the area and had stories and memories they wanted to share.

These comments had me thinking: I wonder if any of these places ever get renovated. I mean, why not? They have a history and lots of people who care about them. So why not give them a second chance. I would love to see them renovated and would help in any way I could if the opportunity came up. That’s when I found my ultimate treasure—it was the chalice of all treasure that could be found. It was known as the Majestic Hotel. Closed, then abandoned in 2006, this building sat in the middle of a quiet little town called Hot Springs, Arkansas. Not only did this hotel have a fascinating history, but it turns out the city did as well. My life was about get very interesting.

Hot Springs had a population of about 40,000 people and about twenty abandoned buildings, primarily in the historic downtown. It was most famous for its healing thermal bathhouses. When the healing waters were discovered, Hot Springs started seeing tourists from all over America. Hotels were popping up left and right. The Arlington, the Eastman, the Baxter, and of course, the Majestic.

Hot Springs was thriving like no other city in the state until gangster activity in Hot Springs came to an end in the 1960s, due to a federal crackdown. The city started losing money and was slowly starting to wither.

Downtown Hot Springs saw the closure and demolition of many casinos, hotels, clubs, and the five famous and extravagant bathhouses which were so popular in past years. Many businesses tried keeping afloat by adding on and introducing new features and attractions. However, by the 1990s, downtown was dead. Unfortunately, the Majestic Hotel was one of the buildings that met that fate.

When I first stepped into the now abandoned Majestic Hotel, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It had already been abandoned for six years. Furniture, fixtures, dishes, and all the uniforms were still left in the building. I had never seen anything like it. It was a gigantic building in the middle of an historic district. How did it become abandoned? Why was it just left? Were there plans to renovate it? These are the questions I asked myself in 2012 as I walked down the hall, smelling mold and looking at the peeling paint and empty rooms.

I kept finding myself returning to this place and taking picture after picture. There was just something about this place, and I could feel it was dying.

That’s when I met Brenda Brandenburg, a nurse in Hot Springs Arkansas, who had a similar passion for this building, but for another reason. As a young girl, Brenda’s father played in a band at the Majestic and she would help him carry his drum set into the back entrance of the hotel. Because of her frequent visits, she knew the entire staff at the Majestic. In 2012, businesses in the Downtown area were doing well, buildings were being refurbished, and the downtown area was becoming popular again. So why was something once so grand, and visited by so many famous people including Al Capone and Babe Ruth (just to name a few), just being neglected?

Brenda and I talked for hours about the possibility of renovating this place and we decided right then and there to start looking for investors. I had never seen anyone as passionate about a building as Brenda, and I was glad to see that others were finally starting to care. On February 27, 2014, Brenda was talking with an investor from France who was very interested in purchasing the property for renovation. This was it—this was our chance to finally save the Majestic. And that’s when it happened. A fire was set in the oldest part of the Majestic.

That night, I drove down to Hot Springs in record time, and stood dumbfounded as I watched my favorite building turn into den of ash. How could this have happened just as the windows of opportunity were opening up for this beautiful building? It seemed like 1,000 people were gathered outside watching as the Majestic burned. Everyone stood in silence. It felt as if people were just waiting, waiting for the fire to be put out, and for the building to go back to the way it was. But in reality, we all knew that wasn’t going to happen.

The next morning, the fire was out, but the inside of the building looked like an overcooked marshmallow. That’s when the demolition crew was called. The oldest part of the Majestic Hotel was torn down, leaving behind a pile of rubble and a hole in the sky.

The next week of school was one of the longest of my life. I flunked two tests and didn’t do any homework. Four nights in a row, the Majestic Hotel flooded my dreams. The image that is still burned into my head is of me walking on a pile of rubble and seeing an old woman begging for help underneath a pile of bricks. I yell out for help and everyone passing by seemed to tell me, “She’s a goner,” “Just leave her,” and “Don’t waste your time.” It was obvious to me that the Majestic was the old woman. Many people around Hot Springs were ready to see the building demolished, even though many of them had their own connections to the building.

After the 1902 yellow brick building of the Majestic burned, there were still three sections of the building that remained. But unfortunately, they didn’t have long. It crushed me inside that all I could do was stand by and watch. Brenda and I attended many board meetings and even started a petition to try and save the rest of the dying building. In August 2016, they finally came. Demolition crews brought in all their fancy equipment to take apart and strip away something that once held the town together.

By November, it was all gone. If you go to the site today, you can find some bricks, some metal pieces and even some of the original flooring from the bathhouse and hotel lobby from the yellow brick building. But you’ll mostly find grass. As of right now, the city has no plans with the property, but Brenda is still fighting for something just as “majestic” to go in this place. In March 2018, a little over four years after the fire, she and her fiancé, Wally, opened a gluten-free bakery called the Majestic Bakery and Café. It sits right across the street from the now empty property.

To this day, I still don’t fully understand why I grew such an attachment to this building. I mean, I had no reason to. I think what I mostly noticed was the passion that other people had for this place. While seventy percent of the town didn’t give a second look to the “eyesore,” there were people that cared enough to stand up to the city, to the naysayers, and even to people that were close to them. After the demolition of the Majestic, I moved away from Arkansas. I moved out to California, to pursue my career in digital filmmaking. But not a day goes by that I don’t think about what happened in that town. I only can hope that some of the other historic abandoned buildings can be preserved or saved in some way.

So, why is it we hold onto things? Is it a feeling of nostalgia? Or is it more than that? Now that I’m in California, I have a whole new territory to explore. Maybe I will find a new Majestic that can be saved. One day, I will hopefully have the answer, but until then, I will keep exploring.

Originally published in Abandoned Arkansas: An Echo From The Past. Excerpt courtesy of America Through Time, an imprint of Fonthill Media.