– a few facts, some faint memories
Russell B. Guerin, for the Hancock County Historical Society
There is no more Clermont Harbor Hotel, except in the memories and affections of some older people. It stood for many years as a landmark for sailors and shrimpers, as a curiosity to the passers-by, and as something the locals just took for granted. But it was always certainly a presence, a stately white prominence overlooking the Sound and dominating the harbor beyond.
It was also a Jonah. I did not know the meaning of the word until the fire. That was when my father, one of the last owners, explained it to me.
None of the succession of owners was blessed with the art of timing, at least as far as the hotel was concerned. It was part of an ill-fated scheme to create a Riviera for New Orleans. It was nearly destroyed by a fierce hurricane in 1915, the first year of its existence. After an expensive attempt at restoration, it was wrecked financially by the great depression following the crash of 1929. When a similar attempt was made in 1946, an early morning fire totally razed the structure on June 2; the grand reopening had been on June 1.
Made almost entirely of virgin cypress, its 40 rooms and 20 baths had survived the schooner that the ’15 storm had hurled through its walls. It also made it through years of neglect and lack of occupancy, except for the occasional uninvited guests who may have let themselves in clandestinely. Reportedly, the building even weathered the ignominious usage by some World War II traitors who sent signals from its highest reaches to confederates who were refueling German U-boats from Clermont Harbor.
But, it was said by some, it could not survive the careless placement of a floundering flambeau in it basement on opening night.
We never knew for sure. We heard rumors. My father even received an anonymous letter accusing someone; he destroyed the letter, feeling it was not genuine and only intended to harm a political enemy.
One thing is certain. It was not for the insurance. The Sea Coast Echo reported $11,000 of insurance against a value of $40,000. My own recollection was that the insurance was in an amount of $9,000 or less. At any rate, it was all that my father was able to buy, as Clermont Harbor then had no fire hydrants and no fire department.
To know the story of the hotel, one may begin at the beginning of what we know of Hancock County history. For Clermont, this traces back to the time after Indian removal, more specifically to February 28, 1837, when the United States Land Office at Jackson sold 571.34 acres at $1.25 per acre to Peter Chambliss and Charles Lacoste of Natchez.
Lacoste evidently lost his interest for his half of the purchase by 1848, as he allowed part of it to be auctioned from the courthouse steps of Natchez for five cents per acre.
After a succession of owners, Joseph Lobrano sold to John Ioor and F.C. Bordage, Sr. for $1,000 in 1897. These gentlemen have been commemorated over the year by having two streets of Clermont named for them. The latter would appear to have been “Professor” Bordage, who had been principal of the Waveland public school and who served as county deputy court clerk and assessor.
These owners, in 1898, filed a new plat with the county, calling the area “Clermont City.” This was not simply short for the current name, because there was no harbor at the time, but only what must have been a low-lying marsh area.
The town evidently began to take shape in the next few years, for by 1910, there were fifteen resident property owners and five non-residents. It was in that year that a new entity appeared, by the name of Gulf Coast Development Corporation, which claimed to own 99% of Clermont City. This company filed a new plat with the county, renaming it to Clermont Harbor. In the process, plans were detailed to widen streets and “to make the low part of said lands into a magnificent lake….” It was claimed that the digging of the lake was contracted to cost over $25,000.
Sale of lots began to be promoted in a way never before envisioned for the little village of Clermont. GCD spared no expense in 1910, as it sponsored a special train from New Orleans, carrying 300 possible buyers to a gala that included a fish fry and ice cold watermelon while at the same time offering athletic events with cash prizes. In addition, reported the Sea Cast Echo, “Gulf steamers and westbound trains conveyed as many more from the Coast towns…. Lots were sold at high prices.” There were twenty-five company agents on the grounds, who looked after the visitors, showing them over the greatly improved property.
By the following year, the company had borrowed $30,000 on a bond issue, with the Whitney Bank of New Orleans as trustee. From the wording of the trust deed, it can be inferred that the purpose was to market lots. In this regard, this writer calls upon his early childhood memories when his father told him that at one time Clermont was being promoted to the people of New Orleans as their Riviera-to-be, and that lots were selling at high prices. Again by inference, the bond funds were probably used for the improvements such as a few sidewalks and structures that served as gateways to the town, and possibly a train depot and other beautifications. (The remains of the “gateways” are still in existence at Clermont Blvd. and the railroad.)
In June of 1913, Charles Hopkins, president of Gulf Coast Development, was given authority by the board of directors to act for the company in the sale of Clermont Harbor lots. In April of the next year, he purchased lots 6 to 18, Square 37, at a cost of $3,853.62. He paid $2,603 in cash, the balance being financed on a note. The parcel was to become the site of the Clermont Harbor Hotel.
The dates of construction of the hotel building have not yet become evident. It must have been in place, however, by July 3, 1915, the date on which Hopkins borrowed $4,500 on a 30-day note to one George Mitcheson. This transaction required Hopkins to maintain $5,000 insurance, apparently on the building itself. Presumably at the same time as the hotel building was constructed, the so-called “dancing pavilion” was built. It was a separate, one-story structure, also reflecting Greek design; consisting of a roof supported by a double row of columns, it was modeled after the Parthenon, of course on a smaller scale.
Meanwhile, the corporation must have been very busy. On May 14, 1915, GCD, in a Deed of Dedication, “conveys, warrants, assigns, transfers, sets over and dedicates to the said property owners of Clermont Harbor” the following: lots 1 to 12, Block 42 (the so-called “water lots” lying on the Gulf side of Front St.), the motor boat harbor, pier, bathhouse, dancing pavilion, and all sidewalks. A committee of three property owners was to be appointed to oversee the maintenance of the above listed items. Trustees of this dedication were to be Hopkins and F. S. Walmsley. Also mentioned were a “wharf and appurtenances thereto…projecting 900 feet toward the sound.” (My older brother, Wilfred, remembers that cars could drive onto a platform at the base of the pier.) Even today, remnants of the pier can be seen at very low tide, running parallel to the present little pier at the mouth of the inlet to the harbor.)
On September 29, 1915, a hurricane with winds measuring at least 140 mph visited the Gulf Coast. It was a serious storm, the path going through the Hancock County shore and the eye passing over New Orleans. Names were not given to storms in those days, and today it is referred to simply the ’15 storm. It demolished the pier and heavily damaged the hotel.
The aftermath is possibly reflected in county legal records probably illustrating the need for money for repairs. It is recorded that the next year, Hopkins borrowed an additional $2,400 on a 12-month note, pledging almost the entire hotel site, “with buildings and appurtenances thereon.” That note was not recorded as paid until May 29, 1925.
GCD also revisited the financial markets, borrowing in $16,000 in 1917 on a bond issue, with Whitney Bank as trustee. The trust deed pledged lots 1 to 5 and 19 to 22, Block 37, these being adjacent to the hotel site, and included the dancing pavilion. Other lots were also listed.
Two years later, in October 1919, the bondholders petitioned for a substitution of the Whitney as trustee. This was approved, and E.J. Gex was named trustee. At this time, Hopkins owned a majority of the bonds. In February of the following year, Gex sold on a foreclosure to Joseph Rhodes. It is recorded that this transaction took place on the courthouse steps “after sundry bids, J. L. Rhodes bid of $4,000 being the highest, last, and best.” It is interesting to note that Rhodes had been Secretary-Treasurer of GCD, and had been proxy for Hopkins in the substitution of trustee. Hopkins was then living in Newport News, Virginia.
In 1921, Rhodes sold his parcel to Clermont Harbor Land Co., which in turn sold the pavilion site to Hopkins in 1925.
Mr. Hopkins apparently was now ready to try again to make the hotel a success. This entrepreneur had been developing subdivisions in Virginia, and previously had developed areas of New Orleans and Waveland. In the Virginia enterprise, Hopkins had employed Mr. Hugh Turner Carr, a construction superintendant in whom Hopkins had a great deal of trust. Carr, in his fascinating little book entitled My First Eighty Years aboard the Planet Earth, narrates that in September 1925 Hopkins came to Carr’s home with train tickets to Clermont and a key to a house for which a year’s rent had been paid.
With these items, Hopkins made a request of Carr that he go and rebuild the hotel that had been nearly demolished by the 1915 hurricane. Carr’s book recounts one store, one post office, and millions of mosquitoes in Clermont Harbor, but he evidently fell in love with the area nonetheless. From 1925 on, Carr spent the rest of his life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Carr’s work began with letters of introduction to local banks and businesses, verifying that Hopkins would be responsible for purchases made by Carr. From the fall of 1925 through mid 1926, the reconstruction proceeded well. It was then time to attract the attention of investors. On July 4, 1926, “a special train from New Orleans, Louisiana, brought 500 people for the opening.” Carr wrote that there was standing room only in the hotel, but reports one sentence later that “this hotel was never a financial success.”
Hopkins’ investment would appear to have been heavy for the time, as he borrowed $15,000 on a one-year noted in June 1926. A year later, he signed another note to a different lender for $15,300 to be repaid in two years. The trust deed covering this loan mentioned “all furniture, tableware, linen and all equipment used in connection with the operation of said property as a hotel.” Hopkins also agreed to maintain $15,000 insurance on the buildings, apparently inclusive of the dancing pavilion.
It would appear that the above note remained unpaid until February 1931 when Hopkins and his wife sold to Harbor Inn, Inc. The buyer assumed 19 promissory notes totaling $15,300. The president of Harbor Inn was R. Bland Logan.
The next eleven years did not see an appreciation of Harbor Inn. On July 30, 1942, it passed to M. Bernhard, Sr. The price was $6,500 on the basis of $2,000 cash and the balance in notes to be paid by January 20, 1945.
Shortly after his purchase, Bernhard granted an option to my father, Wilfred L. Guerin, Sr. My father paid only one dollar for a three-month option, but had it been exercised the sale price would have been $8,000.
Guerin explored two possibilities before letting the option lapse. On November 9, he wrote to the U.S. Army Air Corps to inquire about the prospect of government housing for “personnel or workmen during, and perhaps after, construction of the field.” To put this communication in an historical perspective, it must be remembered that this was during the middle of World War II. There had been indications – perhaps rumors only – that an airfield was to be constructed along Highway 90 just north of Clermont Harbor.
The second possibility involved the demolition of the hotel building, and the subsequent dividing of the land into lots for sale. Judging from an undated circular which Guerin had printed, it may be assumed that he tested the interest of possible prospects by mail. It is further assumed that due to either a lack of interest or insufficient time, he let the option lapse.
On April 25, 1944, Bernhard entered into a complex agreement with Jeanette C. Carmichael, the express purpose of which was to effect a sale of the property. Again, the stipulated price was to be $8,000.
The exact date of the sale by Bernhard is not clear; nor is the selling price. It appears, however, that the buyer actually was the Clermont Harbor Hotel Corporation, of which my father was president. This occurred either in late 1945 or early 1946. I recall that my father owned 51% of the corporate stock. I also remember that he worked extremely hard in the months preceding the opening date, June 1. He commuted from our home in New Orleans to the hotel almost daily, according to my mother, who also said that his hair literally turned grey in that period. I am sure that he felt at the time that the investment in money and in the time necessary to supervise the reconstruction, were worthwhile. It was, after all, expected to be the realization of a longed-for dream: an ambition of my father for many years had been to own and restore the hotel.
My eldest bother, Wilfred Jr., has more vivid recall of some details. He remembers the arc-shaped drive leading up to the front steps beneath the Greek columns of the portico. He and I can both picture the oleander plants flanking the steps, and remember that they must have already been old, judging by their size. Wilfred Jr.’s memory also includes a restaurant that had been opened in advance of June 1; located on the eastern wing of the hotel, it was furnished with brand new kitchen equipment. He can still picture stacks of new mattresses which our father had made in New Orleans; they were stuffed with Spanish moss. One of my own vivid images is of the interior of the attic and the enormity of the cypress beams. It was probably the only time that my father had allowed me to climb the stairs to the attic, from which I remember the view, high up above the grounds.
Before the grand reopening date for the hotel, the so-called “dancing pavilion” had also received a total renovation. The corporation had leased the structure to an individual who had grand plans for making it into a beautiful entertainment facility. A new hardwood dance floor was installed, along with tables and chairs, a new bar, and all the requisites for an opening night party. People were invited from all around. They came not just to see the refinished hotel, but also to hear one of New Orleans’ major jazz bands.
It was a relatively formal affair, compared with the slow, informal way that Clermont Harbor was used to. My father wore a suit and tie, my mother a beautiful new dress with a corsage. We, the children, were not invited, but we were told later how proud my mother was when they made their entrance to the party: she overheard someone say, “Those are the Guerins.”
The hotel opened a few days later.
In those days, my family spent our summers joyously in Clermont from the day school ended until the day before school began again in New Orleans. But on the particular weekend of June 2, opening day for the refurbished Clermont Harbor Hotel, we were still in the city, because my brother Roland and I had just graduated from grammar school the previous day. We had a house guest for the night, a fellow graduate, who overheard my father’s response to an early morning long distance call.
What he heard was that the hotel was on fire.
It took only a little while for that dry, old cypress to burn. Within hours, all that remained were the foundations, a spacious veranda, and four stark Greek columns, still reaching, monument-like, toward the sky.
Extracts of title exam #898m made for Wilfred L. Guerin by E. S. Drake, November 7, 1945
The New Orleans States
The Sea Coast Echo
My First Eighty Years aboard Planet Earth, by Hugh Turner Carr
Along the Gulf, originally published by the L & N Railroad, 1895
Personal family papers, Wilfred L. and Carmela Cali Guerin
Hurricane – a Familiarization Booklet, by U.S. Department of Commerce & Atmospheric Administration