Some people view a derelict hotel and see what has been lost. Others possess a different kind of vision: They see beyond what was lost to what remains and what can be again. Stuart Hee and his partners in the nonprofit Pine Bluff Rising are in the latter camp.
On a sweltering day in June, Hee and architect Nate Drinkwine shepherded two photographers and two reporters through the magnificent monument to a city’s hopes that is the Hotel Pines in Pine Bluff. It is now being restored by Pine Bluff Rising, which bought the six-story, 105,000-SF hotel for $1 on Jan. 17, 2017. Although months have been spent clearing years of debris from the historic structure and bolstering its foundations, decay and neglect make it tricky to navigate.
Its marble-clad lobby, topped by a massive barrel-vaulted skylight that once featured gem-like stained glass panels, retains the power to inspire gasps, 105 years after the hotel opened at the northwest corner of Main Street and West Fifth Avenue downtown.
The renovators have about 95 percent of those stained glass panels, Hee said. “That’s one of the things that amazes me about this building,” he said. “That all of this stuff is still here.”
The Hotel Pines opened in 1913 in an effort to attract more business to the section of Main Street south of the city’s railroad tracks, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Since the area north of the tracks was a thriving commercial area, the city’s Main Street property owners believed that the presence of a modern hotel would lure business south of the tracks.”
More than a century later, Pine Bluff Rising hopes to achieve a similar goal with the $35 million renovation — really more of a restoration and rebuilding — of the hotel: attract visitors to downtown Pine Bluff. It’s part of a larger effort by Go Forward Pine Bluff to revitalize the once-thriving city along the Arkansas River.
“The basic idea of the hotel is as anchor tenant for the redevelopment of the downtown area,” said Caleb McMahon, economic development director for the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County and a member of the Pine Bluff Rising board. “It’s going to create foot traffic that will then spur growth and shopping areas and things like that.”
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‘Rebuilding a Community’
The Hotel Pines, near Union Station, was designed by renowned Arkansas architect George R. Mann, designer of the state Capitol, and was for many years the site of society functions and other community gatherings. The discontinuation of passenger rail service in 1968, however, sealed the hotel’s fate. It closed in 1970.
In the intervening years, the hotel, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, has been bought and sold several times and has faced the prospect of being razed at least once.
For Hee, the rebirth of the hotel is an “exercise in rebuilding a community.” Hee, a native of Hawaii, now lives in Brooklyn. His career background is in “operations and finance” and he’s lived around the world — Hong Kong, London. Hee spent more than eight years as a managing director at investment bank Bear Stearns and more than six years at Kalan Capital, a private equity company investing in shipping, mobile value-added services, real estate, renewable energy and financial services.
Hee was introduced to Pine Bluff by his friend Tom Reilley, founder and chairman of Highland Pellets, a $229 million wood pellet manufacturing plant that opened in Pine Bluff in late 2016. Hee and Reilley have known each other for more than 20 years and worked together at Bear Stearns and Kalan.
Hee has some experience in historic renovation, “but nothing quite like this.”
Hee wasn’t comfortable having his photo taken and he doesn’t easily volunteer personal details, such as his motivation for taking on a massive renovation project in a declining Southern city.
But Hee said that Reilley described for him the challenges facing Pine Bluff, relating Pine Bluff Rising’s $1 purchase of the Hotel Pines. “And when I came down here and I spent some time — really Mayor [Shirley] Washington,” Hee said. “Mayor Washington, she’s just this real dynamo. And she had this great platform: ‘One Pine Bluff. Stronger Together.’
“And I spent a few days kind of shadowing her and learning about the city, and she really was one of the driving forces that made me say, ‘Yeah, I’ll come down here.’ As I spent more time down here, I came to understand why Tom had really fallen in love with the city.”
Hee, the grandson of agricultural workers who came to Hawaii from China, said, “I’m a long way from home, but there are a lot of things that I recognize about this place that are very similar to Hawaii in terms of the aspects of the community. You know, it’s a relatively small community. Hawaii is a relatively small state.”
There are, however, strong elements of a community that are missing in Pine Bluff, he said. “And so this is not so much an exercise in rebuilding a hotel,” Hee said. “This is really an exercise in rebuilding a community.”
The tour of the Hotel Pines reveals elaborate mosaic ceramic tile floors in remarkably fine condition — Hee said inches of trash had actually served to protect the floors — and elegant marble cladding covering the lobby walls, most of which is intact. The quarry in Italy from which the original marble was obtained has been tracked down and will supply any new marble needed to restore the space.
Hee calls Drinkwine “our chief master builder.” Drinkwine, based in Denver, represents the owners in dealing with the contractor, East Harding Construction of Little Rock. WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock is the architect for the project, and Cromwell Architects Engineers is the engineering firm.
Hee puts the cost of the project at about $35 million, but added that hurricanes that pushed up construction prices and tariffs put into effect by the Trump administration could drive up the cost by 10 or 20 percent. Pine Bluff Rising plans to use historic tax credits to offset some of the cost.
The “bones” of the hotel — its underlying structure — are mostly sound, Drinkwine said, though there are some structural concerns that are being addressed.
The restored Hotel Pines will have 84 guest rooms and space for retailers, a bar and a restaurant, and Pine Bluff Rising is hoping to open it in 2020.
Hee understands the importance of narrative — stories — in engaging support for the massive project. To that end Pine Bluff Rising has reached out to Bobbie Morgan, the new director of the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library System, about perhaps setting up a recording booth so community members can share their stories and their memories of the hotel and the times in which the hotel originally flourished.
In addition, “We literally want to give them equity” in the hotel, Hee said, by using crowdfunding mechanisms to give them ownership — for an investment of possibly as little as $100 — in the project. “At some point, we do want to actually literally give ownership of this to the people of Pine Bluff, the people of Arkansas.”
The Hotel Pines was born early in the tumultuous 20th century — what’s been called “the American century” — a century that saw two world wars, the Cold War, the civil rights and women’s movements, the Vietnam War and unprecedented advancements in technology. It has seen a lot of history, and its new owners are convinced that the Hotel Pines still has stories to tell.