As I walked into the lobby I found myself standing at the original reception desk, Gothic columns behind me, original terrazzo tile under my feet, a telephone switchboard nearby. Then the phone rang. No, not the switchboard phone standing against the wall, but the modern phone next to the computer monitor. You see, The General Francis Marion Hotel has a century-old rustic charm, but it is a fully-equipped modern hotel.
The General Francis Marion Hotel was not the first hotel in Marion, but it is the oldest remaining. Although it has changed hands several times over the many years, today it remains a locally-owned hotel with just as much charm as it when it first opened. Sitting at the heart of a growing, booming tourism industry surrounded by state parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway, locally-owned restaurants and gift shops, and easy access to Interstate 81, this hotel is primed to be a great destination. Oh that’s right; it already is.
The hotel is named after Francis Marion, a military officer who served during the Revolutionary War. On June 21, 1775, Marion was commissioned as a Captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment under William Moultrie (the namesake of Fort Moultrie in Sullivan’s Island, SC). By the end of the Revolutionary War with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Marion had attained the rank of Brigadier General, the namesake of the hotel and town (Marion was originally called Royal Oaks).
In the early 1920’s, the Lee Highway was the only major route of travel between destinations like Charlottesville and Roanoke to the north and Bristol and Knoxville to the south. The route led straight through the heart of Marion along Main Street. Seeing this as an opportunity, two of Marion’s wealthiest residents decided to embark on an ambitious plan to build a magnificent hotel. Charles C. Lincoln, Sr., was considered the richest man in town and owned the largest industrial facility in town, the Virginia Table Company. His partner, Dr. William M. Sclater, owned two successful pharmacies: the Marion Drug Company and the D.M. Smith Drug Company.
Construction began in June of 1926 by Eubank and Caldwell, a company based in nearby Roanoke. The construction cost a whopping $175,000, or $2.25 million adjusted for inflation. The hotel opened on May 27, 1927. During the initial fire safety inspection by the Virginia State Board of Inspectors, the hotel was deemed fireproof and therefor fire escapes were not necessary. At the time, it was considered the most modern fireproof hotel between Roanoke and Knoxville, the vision which Lincoln and Sclater had since the beginning.
Less than a year after the opening of The General Francis Marion Hotel, a long-dormant hotel across the street was renovated and reopened under the name Hotel Marion. This being long before GPS navigation, the Internet, and cellphones, people would telegraph a hotel before arriving to make reservations, but would frequently telegraph the wrong hotel. Lincoln’s friends urged him to change the name of the hotel and he finally conceded just months before he died of pneumonia, renaming it Hotel Lincoln. This name would remain for nearly 70 years.
In 1947 the Lincoln family sold the hotel for what would become a long and turbulent ride for the landmark business. Over the next fifty years it would change hands multiple times, each time resulting in a move that took the building further from its roots as a hotel. The hotel finally closed on October 18, 1999, during a period in which the town of Marion saw very little tourism activity (the nearby Lincoln Theatre had already been closed for more than twenty years and was just beginning a major renovation project).
In 2000 local Marion residents Joseph and Susie Ellis bought the downtrodden property and began a long process to restore the glamor of the original hotel. A six-year multi-million dollar renovation and restoration process resulted in the hotel reopening on February 17, 2006, under the original name The General Francis Marion Hotel. Still locally-owned today, the beautiful boutique hotel provides 36 rooms for rent, a banquet facility, conference room, card room, a balcony looking out across Main Street, a restaurant and gift shop, and plenty of early 1920’s charm.
The hotel offers beautiful charm the moment you walk through the front door. The lobby sits atop a short climb up a French-style stone staircase with decorative iron rails. You stand at a bit of a crossroads, so don’t get overwhelmed the first time you visit: to the right is The Black Rooster Restaurant, to the left is the The Black Rooster Lounge & Gallery, and straight ahead is the original reception desk.
The hotel was originally built in the Colonial Revival Style and much of that has been restored today. Four large, beautiful Gothic columns support three Moroccan style arches leading up to the Mezzanine. The Mezzanine provides access to The Card Room, which at one point in time was only open to men as a cigar room. As you step into the Card Room you notice a black rooster engraved on the marble floor, yet another use of the theme at this hotel. During Prohibition in the late 20’s and early 30’s, a black rooster was an illustrative code that meant drinks were served there. It is only fitting, then, that the alcohol-serving restaurant and lounge bear that name today.
During the renovation and restoration process at the turn of the century, the owners decided to purchase a building space next to the hotel in order to build a Conference Center. The large, open space has enough room for several tables, a full kitchen and restroom facility in the back, and easy access from a staircase directly on Main Street (I had my 10 Year High School Reunion here a few years ago). Back in the original hotel building, the banquet room has been restored which includes the original wooden paneling and light fixtures. Beside the Card Room you can find the small Bowen Board Room set up with a flatscreen television, audio/visual presentation system, and strong lighting for carrying out any type of business meetings.
Each floor contains 12 luxurious bedrooms of various sizes. The hotel has two Handicap Accessible Queen Rooms, three each of the Traditional Full, Luxury Queen, Junior King, Executive Suit with King, and Two Full Beds Rooms, four Junior Queen Rooms, and fifteen Traditional Queen Rooms. Even the simple traditional rooms are a mark above what you find at most hotels for the same price, but the luxury and executive rooms are just about unmatched anywhere you go.
All the guest room doors have louvered wood panels near the top. Although the hotel is comfortably air conditioned today, when it was originally built the only “air conditioning” was to open slits on the room doors to allow a breeze to come in through the open windows. Although these louvered panels have been sealed, they remain to remind guests not only of the long and rich history of the hotel, but also to show these are the original doors. The owners even went so far as to carefully pick the furniture for each room so the style would match what a guest would have found in the early days of the hotel (sorry, but no IKEA furniture in this hotel).
Although the hallways were dark and narrow (the ends of the hallways had two doors at angles to each other), the rooms were spacious and cozy. Complete with modern services like telephones and Wifi internet, complimentary breakfast in the mornings as well as a small menu, and amenities like a gift shop and restaurant in the building, The General Francis Marion Hotel offers everything a traveler needs. Along with the booming rise in tourism in Marion with the reopening of the Lincoln Theatre, new restaurants like Wolfe’s BBQ Restaurant, and the first legal moonshine distillery across the street at Appalachian Mountain Spirits, this hotel does more than provide a comfortable place to lay your head; it gives you a base of operations for a long weekend of exciting fun in a small country town in the Appalachian Mountains.