- Margaret D.
- Friday, June 24, 2022
For over 50 years, the Jefferson Hotel stood elegantly on the corner of Main and Laurel Streets in downtown Columbia.
The Jefferson opened its doors May 12, 1913 and instantly became the city’s premier hotel, hosting notable guests such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Robert F. Kennedy. It included a ballroom, dining room, cafeteria, numerous shops and stands in the lobby, a classy mezzanine level, elevators, and a basement rathskeller and billiards room.
Several images in the Walker Local and Family History Center's Local History Digital Collections allow us a peek into the spaces and faces once seen in the historic Jefferson Hotel.
The Jefferson was located in the center of the action in Columbia. When it opened it advertised being across from the post office and along all of the city's streetcar routes.
Looking south from one of its east windows, one would have gazed past the Tapp’s building over a bustling Main Street and down to the State House dome. Columbia’s City Hall and the United States Court House were just across Laurel Street. The Jefferson's nightclub The Chatter Box was one of Columbia's most popular night spots for the after-theatre crowd and was one of the first to have air conditioning.
Staff at the Jefferson were dedicated, many working their entire lives at the hotel. The Gayden Brothers operated a billiards room in the basement and a cigar booth in the lobby. And Head Bellman John “Georgetown” Bassard, a man who apparently never met a stranger, worked at the Jefferson from 1920 until it closed in 1966.
Not all memories of The Jefferson are rosy. The Jefferson was erected during an era of racial segregation and was no doubt a place where harmful racial stereotypes were perpetuated. This was true for the entire city, but as far as I know the Jefferson never had a Black guest. And, a notorious murder took place in the cafeteria, when a jealous Texas socialite May Burleson shot her ex-husband's new wife as they were dining. Check out The Downfall of Galveston’s May Walker Burleson by T. Felder Dorn to read that story.
Today’s hotels may have larger rooms, WiFi, parking, Starbuck’s coffee. But guests at the Jefferson would never have missed those things. However, the hotel was updated several times over the years, with the addition of central air conditioning in 1954.
As the 1960s progressed popular tastes changed and everything had to be new, modern, sleek, and for everyman. But the Jefferson Hotel had become outdated, echoing back to a time when elegance, service, and craftsmanship were valued. The Jefferson closed in 1966 and was demolished in 1968. It was replaced in 1970 with the sleek and modern Jefferson Square tower and parking complex.
Interested in viewing more historic images of The Jefferson hotel? Click here.