The Empire Hotel Restoration: Building a New Empire for Salisbury/Rowan
When Brett Krueger first visited Salisbury’s Empire Hotel, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It’s always been the most talked about building in town, but Brett is from Charlotte. Salisbury was not on his historic-development radar. A developer for 25 years, he was busy making buildings beautiful in Asheville and Charlotte.
But there it was – this bigger-than-life 166-year-old hotel occupying at least half of the 200 block of South Main Street. Dating from 1857, it was just waiting for a developer to fall in love with it and restore it to the splendor that its name suggests. Brett is that developer, chosen last month by the owner, Downtown Salisbury, Inc., and he is in a hurry. He’s figuring on a 16-month build-out.
It is by far the oldest building that Brett has restored, and he is in his element.
“I’ve always had respect for history,” he says. “I’m going to make sure that it is done right. It’s so important to Salisbury’s past and what the city is now. These generations now …. they don’t want to go to museums. We have to fast feed them history” in other ways.
He likes to talk about the past meeting modern convenience and creating a living representation of Salisbury’s past, present, and future. He says: “My thing, is:
“ #1, to design hotels/apartments that are sustainable and successful, and
“#2, to preserve what’s there. I’ll bring back the trim, the circular windows, the stairway. I want to get the architectural features of 1855.”
The Right Feel
“Anything that I bring in will be the 1855-1906 period. I will have to source materials. I’m not going to do anything that just looks old. I use the older stuff. It makes my job pretty tough, but when it’s done, it gives the right feel. Nobody else I know is doing anything like this with commercial buildings.
“In all the Carolinas, I don’t know of anything of this period, 1855-1960s. Not commercially. In the whole state of North Carolina, I don’t know of a historic ballroom built and designed before electricity. There’s nothing like this north of Charleston, SC, that I’ve seen.”
The Empire Hotel ballroom will become a convention center/events venue with a 250-person capacity. The luxury boutique that he envisions includes:
- 40 upscale 1- to 3-bedroom apartments
- 7,000 square feet of retail space — to support and directly benefit artists and artistic growth
- 6,000 square feet of restaurant space — “steak, with Italian flair,” Brett says.
- A historic hotel bar
- A full-service spa
- A gym and health club
To understand the picture of what is coming our way, here are restorations already under his belt:
- The 1923 S&W Cafeteria, Asheville. “It’s one of the most famous art deco buildings in the nation,” he says.
- The 1906 Windsor, Asheville
- The 1923 Ivey’s, Charlotte
- The 1939 Market Street condo project, Asheville
Meanwhile, back at The Empire, Brett is knee-deep in bathtubs that have lost their feet but show promise with the work of a metalsmith; large port windows, the circular ship-like windows of the 1700s that were installed before electricity and will let in natural light; original oak flooring; ornate ceilings; and of course, dirt and dust.
He is also in the investment stage of the project. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is eligible for historic tax credits, and is a designated federal Opportunity Zone area, which helps with financing.
The Missing Cupolas
Brett is in Salisbury every week and wants the community involved. He invites people to contact him by email to arrange a tour, talk about their memories of the building, and possibly offer historic artifacts for sale or loan. He is particularly interested in locating the two cupolas that were installed on top of the 3-and-a-half story building during the 1906 remodeling. He has heard that they are still around Salisbury.
He also wants a wall of old trade signs from Salisbury — department stores, shoe stores, locksmiths, etc. Realizing that these items are collectors’ treasures, he knows that they will be difficult to source. Still, he hopes that residents will consider loaning them for display.
He is also interested in hearing from craftsmen who have worked on the building in the past and hopes that they will reach out to him. He plans to hire local labor.
He realizes that his window for stories about the heyday of the hotel is closing. The Beaux Arts-style building operated as a hotel from 1859 to 1963. It was built by a local attorney, Nathaniel Boyden, and opened as the Boyden House about the time the railroad arrived in Salisbury, bringing fresh seafood for the hotel kitchen from Virginia. It closed during the Civil War.
The original Boyden House has gone through several ownerships and three names – The Central (during the Gay ’90s) and finally The Empire.
It was remodeled in 1907 by Frank P. Milburn, who designed the Spanish Mission-style Salisbury Depot (Historic Salisbury Station). He added the rooftop cupolas, a portico entrance (also gone), and Victorian details.
Still, there are stories. Salisbury is “a story” town. Local journalists have always been fascinated with the building, and the Historic Salisbury Foundation thrives on the kind of stories that Brett needs to find to know Salisbury and the building:
- As The Central, hotel management set up “a samples room” for drummers (traveling salesmen arriving by train) to display their wares.
- Around the turn-of-the-century, the all-black Eli’s Band made a name for itself in The Central ballroom.
- Prominent Salisburians, including Dan Nicholas, who donated the land for Dan Nicholas Park, sat in chairs on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and swapped stories.
- Lord Salisbury (George MacPoole), a painter for the railroad and considered the loudest dresser whoever strolled the streets of Salisbury, lived at the hotel. He offered his painting services for a place to stay.
- Gordon Foutz was the longest-serving manager, working at the hotel until 1959. His daughter grew up at the hotel, learning to skate on the portico, knowing all the bellmen, and trading lessons for a room for her music teacher.
Contact Brett Krueger at firstname.lastname@example.org about 1855-1960s Salisbury artifacts, information on The Empire Hotel, or interest in working on the restoration project.
“The Empire is a beast of a project but one that has the potential and capacity
to transform our downtown and the Rowan County experience for decades to come.”
- Whitney Wallace Williams, Chair, Downtown Salisbury, Inc. Task Force
“It has seen the poor and the rich, the eccentric and the normal. Once it was the center of informal gatherings of the town’s leaders, the site of the most fashionable balls. Today, it lives a rather hum-drum life as a small, mainly residential hotel with little of the flavor of its salad days.”
- Salisbury Post Editor George Raynor, writing in 1959 on The Empire Hotel’s 100th birthday