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History of the Hotel Bentley and its
Builder, Joseph A. Bentley

 
 

Compiled and written by N.B. Carl Laurent

Construction of the Hotel Bentley

Joseph A. Bentley, builder of the historic Hotel Bentley in Alexandria Louisiana
Joseph A. Bentley

The Hotel Bentley, built in 1908, was the namesake of Joseph A. Bentley.  Bentley was a local lumber mogul who had moved from Pennsylvania, by way of Texas, to Rapides Parish in 1892.  James F. Litton was the first hotel manager.

At the time the Hotel Bentley was completed, Joseph Bentley was a corporate officer of the Zimmermann Lumber Company of Zimmermann, Louisiana, and the Enterprise Lumber Company of Alexandria. 

The Hotel Bentley was built by the F. B. Hull Construction Company of Jackson, Mississippi; the construction superintendent was D. H. Shenk. The company had moved temporarily to Alexandria in 1907 to construct several major buildings.  The Town Talk had heralded the hotel’s coming as follows:

The Bentley has 175 rooms, 125 of which are equipped with private bath.  The hotel itself is not only a model structure, built without regard to cost, “just make it the best.” That’s the instruction, but it is to be furnished in the same manner, and when, about June 15th, the doors are thrown open to the public, the public will have the pleasure of seeing the finest hotel, with the finest furnishing in the entire South.

Panorama of July 4th parade...click to enlarge
Panorama, July 4 parade, 1909, at the Hotel Bentley, Alexandria, Louisiana (click to enlarge)

The War Years

As the “flagship” hotel of central Louisiana, the Hotel Bentley was to experience visits during the 1941-1942 Louisiana maneuvers by several military notables.  These included Major General George Patton, Lieutenant Colonel Omar Bradley, and then not-so-well-known Colonel Dwight David Eisenhower.  Generals George C. Marshall and Matthew Ridgeway are said to have visited the Bentley also, as well as then-little-known Second Lieutenant Henry Kissinger.  Entertainers also stayed at the Bentley, many of whom performed for the troops.

The Bentley's role in the Louisiana Maneuvers of World War II (click to read the sign)
The Bentley's role in the Louisiana Maneuvers of World War II (click to read the sign)

The Bentley was to experience continued success for its first fifty-nine years, and in December of 1948, J.W. Beasley Sr., (who had taken over the presidency of the Guaranty Bank in 1933), announced that the stock holdings and interests of Hotel Bentley heirs had been acquired by himself, Miss Minnie Behl, Florence Behl,  A.V. Zimmermann of Alexandria, and Floyd G. Zimmermann of Largo, Florida.  Stock holdings were also acquired from 22 out-of-state Bentley heirs.  Mr. Beasley remained president of the Hotel Bentley Incorporated, and it was locally owned and operated. 

Closings and Openings

Local successes at operating the hotel, however, were not to last, and on December 13, 1967, National Western Life Insurance Co. of Austin, Texas, bought the hotel at sheriff’s sale for $400,000.  At that time, the appraised value of the hotel was $600,000.  The new owners announced plans to continue operating the hotel.  Apparently, this venture was unsuccessful, and the hotel closed in 1968.  It was reopened again in 1972 after extensive renovations, but only stayed open until 1976.

This reopening was announced August 30, 1972.  However, the renovated hotel only made 150 rooms available to the public, along with the dinning room, bar, and other public meeting and dinning rooms.  The hotel was 64 years old at the time, and was owned by Joe Fryer, an architect.  The 140 stockholders in Hotel Bentley, Incorporated, had invested $140,000 in the renovations; they leased the facility from Mr. Hardin.  Corporate officers included Harry Silver, president, Tom Hardin, treasurer, and Henry E. Blake, secretary.

Hotel Bentley lobby, circa 1960s

Hotel Bentley lobby, 1965

In 1984, Buddy Tudor of Tudor Construction company, began to realize his vision that the Bentley of old would live again.  Along with his father, he interested other men in forming a limited partnership. Then, Buddy bought the hotel from Fryer for $850,859, and became involved in its restoration.  He completed this work successfully, and in 1985, the hotel was reopened to the public. 

Soon it was designated a four star hotel; this made it the only four-star hotel in the state outside of New Orleans.  For his role in restoring the old hotel, he received the prestigious Historic Preservation Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 1997, after twelve years of successful operation, the hotel was sold.  As the managing partner of the Hotel Bentley partnership, he was instrumental in the sale in this to Richard Hartley and David Vey of Baton Rouge.  These men planned to spend $2 million on remodeling the property.

With the 1998 purchase of the hotel by Bob Dean, also of Baton Rouge, a $3 million remodeling program was announced.

Simultaneously, the hotel was affiliated with the Radisson chain, and briefly, it became the Radisson Hotel Bentley.

Hotel Bentley exterior, circa 1960s

Hotel Bentley during the 1960s

In 2002, Mr. Dean was ordered by a state judge in Baton Rouge to pay $222,000 to an interior finishing firm for work done on the Bentley; Dean put it up for sale in 2003 and closed its doors in 2004.

In 2005, the city had to block Mr. Dean from demolishing the hotel, and in 2006, rumors circulated that a buyer had been found.  Then closings were put off several times and the city eventually was told it would have to partner with a buyer for the deal to work. 

History Update: May 5, 2016

On August 1, 2012, plans were announced for a local developer to reopen the Bentley, with luxury condos, a 96-room hotel, meeting rooms, and restaurant. On October 11, 2012, the sale from Dean Bentley LLC, owned by Baton Rouge businessman Robert G. "Bob" Dean Jr., to Hotel Bentley of Alexandria LLC, headed by local entrepreneur and preservationist Michael Jenkins was completed. The sales price was $3.4 million.

The Mirror Room lounge was reopened to the public on May 1, 2015. The first section of 62 guest rooms was opened May 5, 2016. Work continues to reopen other sections of the hotel.

 

Joe Bentley's Place in the Rapides' Lumber Industry

Unfortunately, there are those who have branded Joe Bentley as the “Paul Bunyan” of the south, and the man who built his hotel because another, lesser hotel, refused him  when he applied for service.  This type of aggrandizement detracts from a creditable legend.  While local tradition puts some faith in the second claim, where he was probably looking too much like Paul Bunyon, the first is based primarily on someone’s fantasy.  Further, to say that Joseph Bentley and E.W. Zimmermann introduced Rapides Parish to the lumber industry is a gross misstatement, but their place in the history of the local lumber industry is well established.  Actually, they came on the scene late in the 19th century, around 1892.  It was William Waters, and Levi Wilson, on the other hand, who first cut in the pine forests, formed logs into rafts, and pushed those rafts down the Red and Mississippi Rivers to build a major part of 19th century New Orleans.  This was around 1815.

Joseph Bentley with his driver, 1910-15
Joseph Bentley with his driver, 1910-15

In post Civil War Rapides, the man to first enter the lumber business in a big way was Julius Levin.  He had moved directly from Prussia to Alexandria in 1853.  After several years as a merchant, Mr. Levin studied and became interested in the lumber and building materials businesses.  He manufactured and/or dealt with brick, cypress shingles, doors, lumber, and pine cisterns.  One of the earliest Levin ads in the Louisiana Democrat about his large lumber business appeared in 1879, about 15 years before Bentley and Zimmermann arrived.  By 1887, his Alexandria Mills had produced so much lumber, that 800,000 feet of the stuff was stocked on his large loading dock.  It was stocked there because available railroad cars couldn’t transport sufficient product to fill the demand. 

Levin was shipping lumber all over the country and into Mexico.  Unlike Bentley and Zimmermann, however, Levin’s material came mostly from independent sawmills, four Pineville-side mills in particular.  His own timber holdings were relatively modest.  His plant not only included a large sawmill, but the largest of the early planning mills in Rapides Parish, and he had transportation facilities by either rail or river that couldn’t be matched. 

Joe Bentley and E.W. Zimmermann, originally from Pennsylvania, arrived in Rapides Parish around 1892, directly from the saw mills of east Texas.  They had purchased a sawmill from Frank and Don Peak of Orange, Texas, in 1892.  Presumably, they left this mill.in operating condition.  Henry Wilson came with them;  he was the negotiator in the purchase of standing timber and timber land in Rapides Parish, as well as the surveyor.  Although he was offered a partnership he refused.

The first large plant was the J.A. Bentley Sawmill north of Boyce.  A company town was established named after E.W., and eventually the plant was widely known as the Zimmermann sawmill.  At its peak, the Zimmermann community included 118 houses and a population of 500 or 600 persons, half black, half white.  The community had its own fire department, utility system, post office, and railway express agency;   household goods and clothing could be purchased from the company commissary.  Also available was candy for the children and soda pop bottled by Joseph Baker's company in Boyce.  About fifteen miles from the mill and the mill pond was Zimmermann Camp, home to the loggers and their families.ii The company amassed 90,000 acres of virgin pine, (including the holdings of Frank and Don Petty near Cotile), stretching from Rapides into Vernon Parish.  It built a private thirty-mile tram railway for transporting the timber into the mill, originally on a narrow gauge 52” track.  However, the railway became inefficient by 1949, and it was replaced with trucks. 

The acreage was stripped bare by 1962.  It is approximated that over a billion board feet of timber went through the mill during its seventy years of operation.  At its production peak it was processing twenty-two million board feet annually, but over the years it averaged 15 million. This annual production was sufficient to build 1,000 to 1,500 three-bedroom houses. Upon the death of Bentley in 1933 and Zimmermann in 1938, the property was inherited by relatives. Operation of the mill continued into the 1960's when the supply of timber was exhausted. E. C. Johnson who joined the company in 1947, became general manager, an he was the man to close it down in 1962.   The T.L. James Company leased and reforested the entire 90,000 acres.iii

By July of 1903, J.A. Bentley, Paul Lisso, and D.F. Clark had  selected the site for the  Enterprise Lumber Company to locate its huge $300,000 sawmill in Alexandria.  It was located on Experiment Plantation, in the Enterprise addition, where Bayou Rapides was crossed by both the T & P and Iron Mountain railways.  It included a 20-acre tract of land that was used as a millpond.  In the previous month, the company had purchased 21,000 acres of prime pine timber land from Carpenter and Company of Michigan for $500,000.  Enterprise had an annual cutting capacity of 30,000,000 feet, or 82,000 feet per day.  It estimated its timber holdings sufficient to supply its demands for another twenty years.  Bentley was president of the company, and his partner at the Zimmerman sawmill, E.W. Zimmerman, was vice-president.  Paul Lisso served as secretary/treasurer; S.F. Sharpe was general sales agent; E. Beuhler was general superintendent; H.H. Turby was cashier, and R.A. Waitz was the stenographer.  It was projected that operations would begin December 15, 1903, with 125 employees.iv

The First National Bank of Alexandria 

Guaranty Bank and Trust Company. Alexandria Louisiana

Following Paul Lisso’s death in 1911, Joseph A. Bentley was elected president of the First National Bank.  At that time the banks resources were $1,228,944.  Expansion plans were being formed in 1918 for a ten story office building and the ground breaking was held on February 28, 1919.  The architect was Emile Weil, and T.S. Moudy and Company of Chattanooga, Tennessee was the contractor.  Other officers of the new bank included W.D. Hill, executive vice president; L.J. Hakenyos and Gus Gehr, vice presidents; T.P. Wheadon, cashier; and J.T. Powers Jr. and G.W. Crockett, assistant cashiers. 

The $750,000 structure provided 6,000 square feet of space for banking functions.  By 1920, bank resources had reached over $5,000,000.  Early in 1921, stockholders voted to change from a national bank charter to a state bank charter; this obviously called for a name change and Guaranty Bank and Trust Company was the name selected. 

The “City Savings Bank and Trust Company,” originally a sister institution to the “First National Bank,” was absorbed into the Guaranty Bank at the time the latter facility was reorganized under a state charter.  Shortly thereafter, the new Guaranty Bank Building was completed.

In January of 1929, J.W. Beasley was elected to the board of directors.  In September of 1930, he was elected vice president and assumed the responsibilities of the head of the institution. 

When Joe Bentley died, J.W. Beasley was elected the fourth president (including those of the old First National Bank) of the Guaranty Bank and Trust Company.  Under Beasley’s leadership, the bank began to grow faster than the population, and by 1940, resources reached $15,481,910.

SOURCES:

Alexandria Daily Town Talk: 7-14-03, 6-04-21, 5-20-28, 12-17-48, 11-10-62, 8-30-72, 10-27-85, 8-23-97,
10- 31- 98, 6-13-2003, 12-13-04, 12-10-05, 2-16-06, 5-16-2007.

Alexandria Daily Town Talk, Centennial Edition, 3-25-83, p. 28.

Alexandria Town Talk, Twentieth Century Chronicles, Pride & Prosperity, 1980-1999, 12-12-99p. 22.

Alexandria Weekly Town Talk, Souvenir of Alexandria, Louisiana, 1908, (pp. 5 & 6).

Barber, Patsy K.  Above the Falls: and Historic Cotile.  Lecompte, Louisiana: Bayou Boeuf Publishing,
1994,  (pp. 437-439).

Barber, Patsy K. Historic Cotile.  Alexandria, Louisiana: Baptist Message Press, 1967 (pp. 70-74).

Gunn, Norman L.  Alexandria Daily Town Talk, Sesquicentennial Edition.

Merkel, George C.  A Sketch of Alexandria & Rapides Parish in the Heart of Louisiana.
(Alexandria: Standard Printing Company, [ndg]).

i Town Talk, Souvenir of Alexandria, Louisiana.

ii Ibid. &  Barber, (Historic Cotile), pp. 70-74.

iii Barber, op. cit.

iv ADTT, 7-14-03.