Long before The Ralston began sheltering some of Columbus’ most vulnerable residents, the Second Renaissance Revival-style tower was considered the city’s most upscale hotel.
Named after former Board of Trade President J. Ralston Cargill, the nine-story building at 211 W. 12th St. opened in 1914 with 100 modern rooms, “making it by far the tallest building in the city,” according to research conducted by local historian Virginia Causey for an upcoming book. “Expansions in 1919 and 1940 added 200 rooms. Its ballroom became the place for formal dinners and dances.
“The downtown power-brokers, calling themselves ‘Knights of the Round Table’ daily gathered for lunch (in the 1940s-1960s),” Causey writes, “‘a forum for the exchange of diverse points of view ... with a happy absence of restraint of expression. ...’”
In 1977 — well after its heyday — the building was converted into a retirement home for senior citizens and disabled persons. Two years later, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The statement of architectural and historical significance reads: “‘The Ralston,’ truly a Columbus landmark, served the city for 60 years, as the major hotel of prominence. Doubtless, it is the city’s best known 20th-century hotel. ... A good local example of the Second Renaissance Revival influence in Columbus.”
Such descriptions are a far cry from the building’s current status as a dilapidated structure, which the city declared unsafe in April due to fire hazards; and where a 60-year-old man recently died in a room topping 98 degrees.
After the July 6 death of Charles Hart, the city ordered the building’s New Jersey-based owner, PF Ralston LLC, to undertake temporary measures to protect residents from the heat or relocate affected occupants.
Since then, PF Ralston has brought in portable cooling equipment to operate in the lobby, while the company works to repair the air conditioning system. Portable units also have been placed in rooms considered non-compliant with the city’s directives. Columbus Fire and Safety is still in the process of rewiring the building’s fire alarm system.
Meanwhile, the historic significance of the 103-year-old building is not currently in jeopardy, said Inspection and Code Director John Hudginson.
“We’re just trying to take care of the residents and their living conditions, so there wouldn’t be anything that would alter the structure or anything like that,” he said. “Everything they’re doing currently is based on the repair of the existing system, so there would be no modifications done structurally to the property.”
Justin Krieg, of Historic Columbus, said the building’s listing on the national register doesn’t necessarily protect it from modifications or demolition. He said what protects the building from such changes is its local designation, which is monitored by the Board of Historical and Architectural Review.
“It’s a city-appointed board that reviews and approves or denies exterior modifications,” Krieg explained. “This building uniquely also falls within the Uptown Facade District, which has jurisdiction over the exterior modification of properties in the Uptown/Downtown area.”
In 1914, the Chamber of Commerce solicited subscriptions to fund the hotel, according to historical information provided by Causey.
“The committee had raised ninety percent of the $100,000 needed when they visited Claud Hatcher, inventor of RC Cola,” according to her notes. “He offered the remaining funds on one condition: They name the new hotel the Cherocola. ... That provoked dissension among committee members. A few wanted the money so badly they suggested lying by telling the public “Cherocola” was a female Cherokee. Most thought naming the hotel for a soft drink would be crass, and they turned down the offer. Hatcher’s demand had the effect of shaking loose the remaining funds needed, and the new hotel was named the Ralston after the Chamber president.”
From 1914 to 1962, the building was owned by the Charles Loridans family of Atlanta, Causey said. In 1962, it was purchased by Richard E. Steele and 18 Columbus business leaders. It was merged with the adjacent Ralston Center, also called the Georgia Power Tower, in 1970, with the majority of stock bought by James W. Woodruff, Jr.
Cargill envisioned The Ralston as a draw for Northern and Western tourists passing through Columbus on the Seminole Limited on their way to Florida for the winter, Causey writes. It was considered a great location for a hotel because of the proximity to the post office and downtown business district.
In 1924, Babe Ruth stayed at The Ralston when the Yankees were in town for an exhibition game at the Driving Park on the South Commons, she said. And the Muscogee Chapter of the Red Cross — organized in 1916 — gathered on the first floor of the building during World War I to make medical supplies.
Krieg believes The Ralston changed with population shifts in Columbus.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, downtown was vibrant and supportive of a lot of commerce, development and business,” he said. “And as downtown became more disinvested, and less of a center of economic commerce, there was less of a need to have large-scale hotels, because people weren’t traveling downtown, they weren’t staying downtown, they were staying in other parts of Columbus.”
Today there are 269 rooms in The Ralston. The building is under a Section 8 Project Based Rental Assistance contract with HUD. All units are covered under the contract, which helps low-income residents with their rent. The subsidy is administered for HUD by National Housing Compliance Inc.
Now that downtown Columbus has been revitalized, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the historic landmark, Krieg said.
“I think it’s somewhat in limbo, just depending on what this current owner does,” he said. “... Whether it’s low-income, subsidized people that live there, or whether it’s market rate, I think the building could probably be productive from a residential standpoint on either end. It just needs to serve whatever population that’s there in a reasonable way fit for occupancy.”