Lost Jacksonville: The George Washington Hotel

January 18, 2013 22 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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.

Hotel The George Washington during its early years. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/118037

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. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/52306

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.

A postcard illustrating the Rainbow Cocktail Lounge & Bar.

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. Courtesy of http://www.imperialclub.com/Yr/1960/1960News/03-reg.jpg

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. Courtesy of http://www.imperialclub.com/Yr/1960/1960News/02a-reg.jpg

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.

The first move against the S & G came out of Tallahassee. Fuller Warren, a good ol' boy from Florida's Panhandle, had been elected governor in 1948. Bill Johnston, a Jacksonville dog track owner who was tied in with the Capone Gang, illegally contributed $155,000 to Warren's campaign. The governor appointed W.O. Crosby, a Jacksonville private eye with a criminal record, to investigate Miami's gambling syndicates.  Crosby teamed with Duval County sheriff Jimmy Sullivan in a series of raids. Interestingly enough, only S & G parlors were hit.

Virtually every member of the Capone syndicate has frequented the Miami area and in many instances have engaged in racketeering activities there. During the heyday of Al Capone, the Capone syndicate was in control of dog tracks in virtually every part of the country, including Florida. The Capone syndicate czar of dog racing during that period was Edward J. O'Hare, who was killed in gang warfare in Chicago on November 9, 1939. Just prior to the time O'Hare left his office in Sportsman's Park, Cicero, Ill., he had been holding a conference with William H. Johnston and John Patton in their offices at Sportsman Park. Johnston was then described as a publicity man and Patton was one of the owners of the track along with O'Hare. These individuals were also interested at that time in dog-track operations in Florida. William H. Johnston, 1090 Arbor Lane, Jacksonville, Fla., is presently listed as the president of the Miami Beach Kennel Club, Inc.7 president of the Associated Outdoor Clubs, Inc., Tampa, Fla., president of the Jacksonville Kennel Club, Inc., president of the Orange Park Kennel Club, Inc., all of which are Florida dog tracks. James Patton, the son of John Patton, is listed as the vice president of the Miami Beach Kennel Club, Inc. and the Jacksonville Kennel Club, and is assistant treasurer of the Orange Park Kennel Club, Inc., Jacksonville, Fla. With reference to the Miami Beach Kennel Club, John Patton appeared as one of the owners of this track. Until 1941, John Patton 's name appeared as a stockholder in the Miami Beach Kennel Club. Since that date the stock was transferred to his son, James. John Patton has long been associated with members of the Capone gang. Many years ago he was known as the Boy Mayor of Burnham, a suburb of Chicago, which was the center of vice, gambling, and booze for the Capone syndicate. On April 7, 1925, the press in Chicago reported a raid on the Capone gang headquarters. Arrested in the raid were John Patton, Robert Larry McCullough, Joe Fusco, Frank Nitti and others who were considered then important members of the syndicate.

Hotel George Washington stairs and tile flooring in 1948. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/51535

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