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The Fredonia Hotel

60 years later, historic hotel plays role in civic life

Proms, weddings, brunches and even haircuts—it seems that everyone who has lived in Nacogdoches for any length of time has a story about the Fredonia Hotel of old.

Ryan Russell, director of special events for the newly reopened Fredonia Hotel, gave his father a tour of the place shortly before it was open to the public.

“It was right here,” Russell recalls his dad saying, as they stood in what is now the hotel bar. Russell paused, waiting for an explanation. “This is where I used to get my hair cut,” his dad said triumphantly. The new bar is located where a barber- shop stood when his father was a kid.

Russell was born and raised in Nacogdoches, just like nine generations before him, and the Fredonia was a backdrop for some of the most memorable moments of their lives.

“My grandmother recalls being in the 1956 Miss Farm Bureau pageant here,” he says, standing in the elegant ballroom, just as the local Rotary Club’s weekly meeting at the hotel was ending.

Now, like it did more than 60 years ago, the Fredonia plays a central role in everyday civic life. It has been described as “Nacogdoches’ living room”—a place where you can hang out and see people you know.

Richard DeWitt has memories of the old Fredonia Hotel, too. He grew up in Nacogdoches in a restaurant family—at one time, under the helm of his father, the DeWitt family owned more than 70 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. DeWitt and his wife, Barbara, now own Clear Springs restaurants in New Braunfels, Nacogdoches, Midland and Tyler, and Auntie Pasta’s in their hometown. The DeWitts always have given back to the community that helped to create their business, and Richard DeWitt wanted to revive this part of Nacogdoches history. But the Fredonia was a big enterprise, even for them.

It wasn’t just the money, although it took around $17 million to restore—$8 million more than originally anticipated.

It wasn’t even the time—projects of this scope almost always take longer than expected.

It was the fact that it took an act of Congress, or at the very least, a legislative maneuver on the part of Travis Clardy, state representative for Texas House District 11, which includes Cherokee, Nacogdoches and Rusk counties.

“I was asked to see if we could move legislation concerning the hotel occupancy tax statute,” Clardy says. “The legislation provides for some economic advantages for new construction projects in cities around Texas for hotels and convention centers. It was a perfect fit for the Fredonia, which was in disrepair and had been closed for a brief period.”

The bill was successful in Texas’ 84th legislative session in 2015 and picked up some Senate amendments that increased the scope of the tax incentives. Nacogdoches rejoiced when Governor Greg Abbott signed the measure.

To see the hotel today, it is hard to imagine it as anything other than resplendent. Memories of the years it spent in disrepair or closed quickly fade. On a cool spring day, the kidney-shaped pool, iconic in its heyday, sparkles brightly in the sharp sun. The shrieks of three children pierce the air. Their mother trails behind them, towels in hand. Servers bustle to poolside tables for 1st City Café, one of two restaurants on the premises, in addition to a bar. Inside 1st City, the lunchtime crowd, an eclectic mix of professionals in business attire and guests clad in more casual clothing, fills the dining room. Tables are dotted with enticing Southern-inspired appetizers such as fried green tomatoes with pork belly and bacon jam and house specials such as fried pork chops smothered in gravy.

The food is at once comfortable and familiar, yet inviting and exciting, just like the Fredonia Hotel.

When locals speak of the hotel then and now, they sound as though it belongs to them. That is perhaps because at one time, it literally did. The Fredonia was built as a community hotel. Stock was sold in $100 increments to residents and business leaders to finance it. More than 1,100 businessmen bought shares.

The hotel opened April 1, 1955, and for the better part of a decade, the hotel was a jewel in the state’s oldest city. But by the mid-1960s, occupancy was declining, in many ways a victim of the success the hotel brought to the city that birthed it.

The Fredonia was built to attract conventions, tourists and travelers from Houston, Dallas and Shreveport. Once it was built, the people came in droves—but so did other hoteliers in Nacogdoches and Lufkin. In the late 1960s, the hotel was sold at a loss to a businessman in Diboll. It changed hands several more times before the DeWitts stepped in with their grand vision to restore it to its former glory.

And glorious it is. When you walk into the lobby, your heels click on the original floors, buffed to a gleaming shine. The exposed brick wall across from the check-in desk lends grandeur to the space now. Years of paint were removed by hand, and the impact is striking. To the right of the desk, a floating staircase draws your eye upward, just as it did in 1955. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was encased and hidden, but now guests can pass breezily underneath it. Beautiful flowers and majestic trees dot the lush green space surrounding the hotel, and floor-to-ceiling windows allow for an unobstructed view of the landscape. Sitting on the midcentury modern furniture in the sun-drenched lobby is transportive—not back in time but to a refined present.

Merging the past with the present works well in Nacogdoches, where history plays a paramount role.

“This is the birthplace of Texas,” Clardy says. “Before any of us got here, 300 years ago in 1716, the city of Nacogdoches was established. There is a lot [of] historic tourism here, a lot of regional tourism. We have a big arts community and a major university, Stephen F. Austin University.

“If you look at a map, between Dallas, Shreveport, New Orleans and Houston, it is the only hotel convention center in this whole big area. Not only that, it’s also the coolest,” Clardy says with a knowing wink.

“Cool” is the perfect way to describe this beautiful boutique hotel. There has always been good reason to visit Nacogdoches, and now guests can enjoy luxe accommodations at the Fredonia when they come.

“People don’t realize how much there is to do in Nacogdoches,” Russell says. “The Fredonia Hotel acts as a gateway to downtown and the city as a whole.”