Sunday, June 1, 2008

A symbol of the Old South, gone in a flash

Exactly fifty years, from dust to ashes.

The history of Panama City's Cove Hotel--from the pouring of its foundation in January 1926, to the fire that claimed its life on January 2, 1976--unfolded with tidy symmetry.

The hotel, located on Cherry Street in the heart of a sleepy, leafy area still known locally as "the Cove," had been Panama City's first great first-rate hostelry.

Fifty rooms--each with private bath, a rarity then--stretched along a quarter-mile of pristine bayfront. The interior--hardwood floors, deep-cushioned upholstery, and priceless antiques--was a collector's vision. Manicured grounds offered walkways, gardens and wading pools. Dinners were to die for: the first chef, in fact, was a Swiss native who had worked many of the great hotels of Europe.

Over the years, proprietor Ruby Harris played host to a bevy of celebrities. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor once stopped for dinner, en route to a fishing trip on the Dead Lakes. Movie star Clark Gable and baseball's Ted Williams were guests. In the early 1950s, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson gave a campaign speech on the hotel lawn. Even the Three Stooges spent the night.

During World War II, Mrs. Harris threw lavish parties in the dining room each time a ship was launched from Wainwright Shipyard: 99 ships, 99 parties. "The champagne flowed like water," Harris was quoted as saying.

In later years, the plantation-like grounds were the scene of countless Bay County weddings and receptions.

In 1974, however, Harris closed the Cove Hotel for good, then auctioned most of her precious furnishings. By the time of the fire, the once grand structure was vacant.

At least, it was supposed to be.

"There were constantly transients going in and out, looking for a place to spend the night," recalls Jack Alexander, 74, who was Panama City Fire Marshall in 1976. Indeed, investigators discovered liquor bottles and remnants of a small fire in the basement, indicating the inferno's origin.

Fifty years, dust to ashes.

It could be argued that the flames that January night, now a quarter-century distant, claimed not just the Cove Hotel, but one of Florida's last remaining symbols of the Old South as well.

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald, Jan.1, 2001

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