DANNY MOGLE //
The old Redlands Hotel
building in Palestine did not leave a good first impression
with Jean Mollard.
“There were bats and
pigeons everywhere. It had a terrible roof. The rooms were
stacked with junk … and the windows were falling into the
streets,” she recalls.
She wanted nothing to do
with the junked-out old building at 400 N. Queen. It was a
disaster waiting for a wrecking ball. If she would have had
her way, she and her husband, Norman, would have jumped in
the car and headed back to Houston as fast as they could.
End of story.
But Norman saw something
else. A contractor experienced with renovations, he realized
the five-story Classical Revival brick building was solid as
a rock. The steel beams and concrete flooring were in
perfect shape. Yes, the windows were piles of glass, but
windows could be replaced. Yes, the rooms were crammed with
old furniture and discarded lumber, but that could be hauled
away. And yes, there were a few pesky bats and pigeons to
contend with. No big deal.
Norman saw potential and
when Norman saw potential and made up his mind, Jean knew
that it was best to get out of his way because there was no
stopping him. Norman made up his mind that he was going to
save the Redlands.
Jean says the next thing
she knew, they had purchased the old hotel and moved to
Palestine. The year was 1976. Some people were convinced
that the Mollards had lost their minds.
PLACE OF LUXURY
In the early 1900s,
Palestine was booming; times were good. The fields around
the city were producing cotton and corn crops that were the
envy of farmers across the state. In the vast pine forest,
timber moguls were cutting down trees and selling wood to
eager buyers. But more than anything, Palestine was a
railroad town. Being a railroad town meant prosperity and
growth. The city of 25,000 had the good fortune of occupying
a prime spot on the main line of the International & Great
The one thing that
Palestine did not have was a first-class hotel and that
bothered some of the fine, hard-working folks in the Young
Men’s Business League. These influential leading citizens
“had been agitating for a suitable hotel for some time,”
notes a history of the hotel.
Many of these same men
became directors of the newly organized Palestine Hotel
Company, which in April 1914 began selling stock to raise
$100,000 to build a fine hotel on the edge of the business
district and just blocks away — a comfortable walking
distance for weary passengers — from the railroad depot.
Among stockholders were
political bigwig Thomas Mitchell Campbell, who had recently
served a term as governor, and Royall National Bank
President Tucker Royall, one of the wealthiest men in town
and a future regent of The University of Texas System.
Before the year was
over, construction was in full swing. According to one
account, the sand used to mix the concrete was hauled from
the Trinity River in carts pulled by teams of strong oxen. A
large group of skilled laborers from Italy who had been
brought in to build the recently completed Anderson County
Courthouse — being hailed as one of the most impressive
structures in the region — were hired to help supervise the
The Redlands was built
as an imposing brick veneer structure fortified with
concrete and steel beams. The exterior features limestone
window sills, bracketed tin cornice, decorative brick panels
and masonry blocks at the corners of the walls.
Special attention was
paid to the spacious and open lobby which was anchored by a
tile-surround fireplace and had a floor covered with
decorative white hexagon-shaped tiles. A skylight in the
roof of the mezzanine deck allowed natural light to pour in.
From the lobby, patrons
could access a fine restaurant and a barber shop tending to
the needs of gentlemen. A large ballroom with a shiny
hardwood dance floor dominated the second-floor mezzanine,
which also housed the hotel’s luxury suites that even had
their own bathrooms. The top three floors were devoted to
guest rooms — 86 in all.
The Redlands opened with
great fanfare on March 18, 1915.
In the program for the
grand opening, the proud directors boasted that their new
hotel is “serving notice on the world that the rustic and
uncouth town has gone forever, and in its place is
blossoming forth a modern city abreast of the times and
fully alive to all the niceties of twentieth century
The Redlands was the
toast of the town. “The hotel was used for the regular
meetings of the Palestine Rotary Club and was the frequent
choice for luncheons, soirees and receptions” attended by
members of high society, says a history of the building.
But the good times did
not last long. There were not enough guests to keep the
rooms filled. According to some accounts, the water pressure
was terrible. No one wanted to stay in a hotel that did not
even have enough water for a decent bath. Despite being
fancy and popular with the locals, the Redlands proved to be
less enticing to guests and ultimately became a financial
It closed in 1919 but
fate was smiling on Palestine. Within only months, the
International & Great Northern (I&GN) Railroad leased the
entire building to serve as its new headquarters, an
arrangement that continued for the next 37 years.
The railroad needed
office space not hotel space. It covered the beautiful tiled
floor in the lobby. It closed in the skylight on the
mezzanine. It knocked out walls in some places to create
large work areas and closed in other spaces to create small
offices. An entrance fronting Oak Street was closed as well
as the street entrance to the old barber shop.
During this period,
several hundred worked in the building processing the mounds
of paperwork needed to keep the railroad on track. Over the
years, as rail traffic declined, the I&GN was involved in
several mergers and name changes. By 1957, the I&GN had
become part of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. When the
railroad moved its administrative offices to St. Louis, Mo.,
the old Redlands building was vacated. The Palestine Hotel
Company desperately tried to find new tenants but nobody was
interested. Eventually bats, pigeons and vagrants moved in.
Once a proud symbol of Palestine’s railroad heritage, the
Redlands building became an eyesore and an embarrassment.
Deteriorating year after
year, the building had sat vacant for two decades when the
Mollards arrived and proposed an ambitious adaptive-use plan
to restore it as a hotel with retail shops. In 1976, America
was celebrating its bicentennial. Restoring historic
properties was considered a patriotic thing to do. Many in
Palestine were hopeful, yet skeptical, they really could
pull it off. Norman not only knew what it would take to get
the job done, he also knew what the building meant to the
Norman grew up in
Palestine at a time when everybody knew (or was) a railroad
employee who worked there. The building is on a main street
and one of the largest in the city. For a long time, it very
much was part of the heart and soul of Palestine.
After graduating from
high school, Norman enlisted in the Navy to fight in World
War II. He entered the pilot training program in 1942 and
was assigned to a squadron on the USS San Jacinto. Flying an
F6F Hellcat, he downed six Japanese fighters during
ferocious dogfights over the Pacific, according to newspaper
accounts. He was hailed as a “Flying Ace” war hero and
awarded numerous medals for extraordinary bravery and
service to his country during its greatest hour of need.
Norman served 27 years
in the Navy, retiring as a lieutenant commander in 1969.
He then launched a
successful real estate and construction business based in
Houston. He had retired from this venture when he and Jean,
and Jean’s brother, Robert Laughlin, took on the daunting
task of saving the Redlands.
Norman Mollard had come
Jean says they
immediately went to work cleaning up the huge mess. One of
the first things they had to do was repair the sagging and
leaking roof. They ordered truckloads of new windows to
replace the nearly 100 that had been smashed by vandals.
They knocked down some
of the interior walls, scraped off gobs of ugly paint and
stripped rooms down to the bare essentials. They removed
flooring and rediscovered the beautiful tiles in the lobby.
They removed a false ceiling on the mezzanine and
rediscovered the skylight. They slowly and carefully began
adding modern amenities while preserving as much of the
character of the building as possible. Jean filled the rooms
and public spaces with antiques from the early 1900s.
The Mollards converted
much of the top floor into a penthouse and moved in. Jean
operated her antique exporting business from the basement.
By spring of 1977, enough of the restoration had been
completed to reopen the lobby, which now housed Jean’s
retail antique shop.
Jean says nothing thrilled Norman
more than giving a historic building new life. He typically
acquired buildings in bad shape for next to nothing,
renovated them and sold them. He then used the money made on
one project to bankroll his next project. His restorations
in Palestine include the Texas Theater and buildings in the
popular Old Town district.
In 2002, Palestine
Chamber of Commerce honored the Mollards for their work in
the community. In 2007, Norman died from a heart attack. In
a story in the Palestine newspaper noting his death, he was
remembered for saving some of the town’s most treasured
“He strived to make his
community a better place in which to live. He loved the old
historic buildings and worked tirelessly to help beautify
downtown Palestine. Norman was a community leader, a good
neighbor and wonderful friend,” his longtime friend Bill
Jean told the paper that
she treasured the time she had with her beloved husband.
“Some people live a lifetime and never have the love and
respect I have had for my life of over 30 years with Norman.
It has been an adventurous trip. He saw no barriers;
anything was possible. And we lived it that way.”
Laura Westgate, manager
of Palestine’s Main Street program, shudders to think what
would have happened to the Redlands had the Mollards and
Laughlin not enter the picture.
“It really was a
rescue,” she says. “If they hadn’t come here it (the
building) would have been gone and there would have been
just a big giant gaping hole. … It needed someone to step in
with vision (of what it could be again) and he had that.”
The Redfire Grille
restaurant and gift shops occupy the inn’s first floor. The
upper floors house furnished extended-stay apartments with
housekeeping services as well as overnight rooms. The
Mollards’ old penthouse is receiving another update.
Largely good as new
(some work remains on the upper floors), the Redlands is now
listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a
preserved structure of historical significance. Jean is
determined to complete the renovations they started side by
side long ago.
“Norman would be proud
to see the work is continuing,” says Jean standing in the
lobby, a display paying tribute to her husband’s wartime
service behind her.
The original builders
somehow knew that against all odds the Redlands would stand
the test of time.