On November 11, 1925, the same month Charles Ponzi's days of selling area swampland to real estate investors were coming to an end, Robert Kloeppel announced his intentions to construct the largest and most magnificent hotel in Jacksonville. Kloeppel, who owned the Flagler Hotel near the train station at the time, had arrived in Jacksonville from Germany two decades earlier broke and penniless.
As Jacksonville rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1901, so did Kloeppel's bank account and fortune. Blessed with good work ethic, he went from being a mechanic with the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, the first man in Florida to fly, and a real estate investor, before entering the hotel business with his purchase of the Flagler Hotel in 1920.
Kloeppel had also married Jacob Hilderbrant's daughter, Minny Lucy in 1913. Hilderbrant, a native of Germany, migrated to Jacksonville in 1856, originally ran a grocery and spirits store downtown. Eventually, Hilderbrant made huge sums of money in real estate. When he died in 1912, he left several parcels of downtown property for his three children. Kloeppel's hotel would rise on the land Hilderbrant had left his daugther. Across the street, William Hilderbrant, Jacob's son and Kloeppel's brother-in-law, constructed the six-story Hilderbrant Building the same year Kloeppel's hotel was being built.
The George Washington during its early years. Source: State Archives of Florida,Florida Memory.
Designed by local architectural firm Marsh & Saxelbye, Kloeppel's $1.5 million Hotel George Washington opened its doors on December 15, 1926 with Mayor John Alsop, Governor John W. Martin, and former Governor Cary Hardee in attendance. Standing 13 stories tall, it was one seven downtown highrises under construction in 1926. Others included the Lynch Building/11 East (17 stories), Riverside's Park Lane Apartments (17 stories), the Carling Hotel (13 stories), the Greenleaf & Crosby Building (12 stories), and the Atlantic Bank Annex (10 stories). In addition, Kloeppel's George Washington was the nation's first 100% air-conditioned hotel and each of its 350 rooms featured a radio loudspeaker and headphones.
The "Hotel George Washington" sign, built on the rooftop, was the first neon sign in the city. With its opening, Jacksonville had arrived on the scene as a rapidly growing cosmopolitan cities. Instantly, it became the city's hub for conventions and large meetings. Commercial uses in the massive structure included a steak house, cocktail lounge, a Rexall drugstore and a barber shop.
Dave Sholtz and friends at a banquet in the Hotel George Washington during the 1930s. Sholtz was Florida's Governor from 1933-1937. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
In 1927, at a George Washington Hotel dinner-dance party, Kloeppel announced a $1,000 prize for the first flier to conquer the Atlantic. His hope was that the winner would come to Jacksonville to collect. His wish came true, when Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat less than a month later, coming to the George Washington to collect the pot on May 16, 1927. In 1941, Kloeppel added an auditorium to the hotel that was large enough for concerts, balls, car and boat shows.
Over the years, the George Washington was the epicenter of activity in downtown. For example, on October 13, 1954, thousands of people filled downtown's streets to watch German aerialists walk a 175' high tightrope strung from the building. In 1960, thousands packed the hotel's auditorium for the Brook's Fashion Show. Sponsored by Levy's and Brook's Motors, Inc., the show featured fine clothes and cars on the catwalk.
The Brook's Fashion Show, sponsored by Levy's and Brook's Motors, Inc., featuring fine clothes and cars, packed the George Washington's auditorium in 1960. Source.
Unfortunately, like many downtown Jacksonville treasures, the George Washington's heydays would come to a quick, unfortunate, and abrupt end. Robert Kloeppel died in 1961 at the age of 72, leaving his son, Robert Kloeppel, Jr. in charge of the hotel empire he had established. In 1963, Robert Kloeppel, Jr. sold the Hotel George Washington to William H. (Big Bill) Johnston. Johnston, owner of Jacksonville's dog tracks and Chicagoland's Sportsman's Park, had ties with the Al Capone mob. Johnston had taken over the tracks after the former owner of the tracks, Edward J. O'Hare, was murdered in 1939.
During Johnston's tenure as the owner of the George Washington, it was downtown Jacksonville's only five star hotel. In September 1964 on the heals of Hurricane Dora, the Beatles appeared at the George Washington for a press conference. In town for perform at the Gator Bowl, they had refused to accept the Jacksonville booking until they received assurance that the audience would not be segregated by race.
Big Bill Johnston sold the hotel in 1969. After Johnston's departure, one by one, the businesses inside the ground floor went out of business. The hotel was closed in 1971 and torn down in 1973 for a surface parking lot. 40 years later, what was once "The Wonder Hotel of the South" still sits underutilized and virtually abandoned.
Watch the Beatles interview at the George Washington Hotel
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