Poinsett Hotel rose from Mansion House's rich past

buildings downtown historic

For exactly a hundred years, the Mansion House was a Greenville landmark.

From 1824, when William Toney welcomed his first guests to the gleaming new hostelry, until 1924, when, dilapidated and outdated, it was demolished to make way for the Poinsett Hotel, it was at the center of Greenville.

The three-story hotel enclosed an L-shaped portion of court square.

Its shape was determined by the design of the Court Square in Lemuel Alston's 1797 plat for Pleasantburg.

Its location at Main and Court streets was perfect. As a result, Colonel Toney paid the exceptionally high price of $5,000 (nearly $64,000 today) for two lots opposite the new (1823) courthouse.

He planned, he said, to build a hotel that would “excel any house in the upper part of the state in appearance and accommodation for the traveling public.”

And he did. The brick walls were 24 inches thick at the ground level; a wrought iron balcony extended across the second floor; nearly every bedroom had a fireplace.

The floors were heart pine, the roof was tin, and the circular staircase ascending to the third floor was considered a rare piece of workmanship.

The basement featured a popular bar (gentlemen only) and a card room opening on a courtyard. In later years a massive crystal chandelier, the first in Greenville, was installed in the bar. Even teetotalers peeked in to gaze at it.

The ground floor parlor extended the whole depth of the building and was so large that it required two fireplaces, one at either end. It boasted the only sofa in Greenville and had one of the village's two carpets.

According to James M. Richardson's 1931 history of Greenville, it was famous for its “commodious and artistic design and appointments and the excellent quality of the food and drink served from its tables, but more especially for the aristocracy and wealth of the guests who frequented it.”

They had to be rich. The Mansion House charged guests $1.50 a day (including meals); horses cost an additional 50 cents daily.

Every major village event was celebrated at the hotel. In September 1826, for example, it was the site of a dinner and ball honoring Vice President John C. Calhoun. Calhoun stayed at the Mansion House so regularly that years after his death his favorite room -- number 92 -- was still pointed out to visitors.

In 1831 residents and visitors alike celebrated the 55th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with a sumptuous dinner on the afternoon of July 4 and a National Anniversary Ball the following evening.

Although Colonel Toney sold the hotel for $10,000 in 1830, and it had several later owners, the Mansion House remained the pride of the town until 1860.

In 1842, for instance, the editor of the Orion, a monthly literary magazine, enthusiastically described the Mansion House as “the beau ideal of a perfect village hotel.” He went on to praise “the quiet, the neatness, the taste, the viands, and the courteous treatment” of the hotel.

After the Civil War, however, it struggled. The ballroom had been turned into an apothecary's shop; Charlestonians no longer lounged the summer days away in its bar room.

Yet the head of Greenville's Freedmen's Bureau, praised it as sincerely as had earlier visitors.

“The manner in which my host of the Mansion House kept up his hotel and supplied a praiseworthy table on a clientage of five permanent boarders and from five to 10 weekly transients was to me one of the greatest financial phenomena of the age.

“In a region of miserable hotels, where the publican seems to consider it a part of his contract to furnish his boarders with dyspepsia, I considered myself amazingly lucky in finding such fare as honored the Mansion House.”

It remained the place where visiting dignitaries (Governors Wade Hampton and Ben Tillman among them) automatically stayed.

In 1886, A.A. Gates, who leased it from the Swandale family, refurbished it. He installed Greenville's first running water and steam-heat, and added electricity and fire alarms in every bedroom. It was, he advertised, “Handsomely Refitted, Furnished Second to None in the South.”

During the Spanish-American War, the Mansion House became Division Headquarters for Camp Wetherill, housing its colonels and generals between 1897 and 1899. A.A. Gates flew a 30-foot American flag to celebrate.

With no other good hotel in town, it became one of the few places for banquets and meetings, the preferred place for Sunday dinner. A 1903 menu lists hearty All-American fare -- baked shad roe, roast turkey and dressing, roast beef, and desserts including mince and peach pie, cakes, ice cream and cream cheese.

By the end of the decade, though, it no longer had a monopoly on Greenville social life. The Ottaray Hotel opened in 1909. The Mansion House was doomed.

In 1910 it became the Mansion House Building, with offices and stores. By the early 1920s, though, Greenville needed a new hotel. There was serious talk of refurbishing the Mansion House.

It never happened. Instead, in May 1924, it was demolished at a cost of $2,000, and the Poinsett Hotel rose on its old footprint.

Its bricks were used for other buildings, its 100-year old tin roof was carefully dismantled and sold to farmers for barn roofs. Even its sturdy framing was reused.

The Mansion House is long gone. Yet the Poinsett, gleaming in its new Westin finery, remembers both its shape and its hospitality.

Judith Bainbridge