The Mentone Springs Hotel burned down a few weeks ago. It is a place that I spent much of my childhood learning how to love. I wrote the following for my dad and mom as a way to remember the grand old hotel.
In the shadow of the old hotel
It’s an odd thing growing up in a rotting castle. Maybe it is the juxtaposition of being so young in such an old thing, or maybe it’s all of that space to ramble around and hide from the world. Whatever it is, there is no doubt that the Mentone Springs Hotel had an impact on me. Not the fascinating people I met or the childhood friends and my cousins I played hide-and-seek with. Not all the nature that surrounded it — Beauty Springs, DeSoto Falls, the brow. Not even all the oddities that I stumbled on that were abandoned by its previous owners. Absolutely all of those things changed my life and impacted me, but that is not what this is about. What I’m referring to here is something else —the space and place that was the old hotel.
I was not quite ten years old when I first crossed the threshold. My first memory of its inner being was the basement. That is where Norville Hall lived and eventually where my family stayed. There was little to no natural light — but the small amount that came through revealed two plastic sidelight windows next to the opening that led to the dungeon. We called it the dungeon— but it was a cellar that had a massive four foot wide wooden beam door. Between the eerie red lights and the bellowing sound of the dungeon door my imagination ran dark fairly quickly. The floors were slate black and the air was damp even on that late summer day. To say I was hesitant to enter would be to put it mildly and the goose bumps on my arms stood out as a testament to my fear.
But my parents and brother entered, so naturally I followed. It’s the plight of being the youngest (or maybe that’s a gift).
After that the old hotel and I began an understanding with each other. It had a captive audience of a ten year old girl and it cast a spell on in me. The sudden shadows, the creaks, the groans of old wood, the oddly placed doors and handrails, the angles, those fantastic turret rooms — all of them blended into a hodgepodge of fantasies. “What was that? Did you see that?” My skin would crawl with the unknown. Those abandoned rooms needed airing out. So that’s what we did. We lightened the load on the structure. We put a roof on. And painted and painted and painted again. And the place flowed with people—the curious passersby, friends, strangers, family. All those dark corners would ebb almost to nothing and the fireplace glowed doubt away.
But in the two years I lived in it with mom and Duncan, during the week it would go back to being a rotting castle. Some of the shadows would reclaim a room and fix their place in my mind again. A place I had previously walked with head held high would find me wide eyed and terrified all over again. My bravery wilted in the quiet of the Mentone Springs Hotel’s dusty halls and stairs. The building didn’t seem ready to change and no one else seemed to notice but me. Indeed, my dad would come up on the weekends straight from Atlanta and tackle this and tackle that. The flow of helping friends converged. Prez would make spaghetti and meatballs, Terri would pick guitar and sing, Sandy would lend one hand and drink with the other, dad directed traffic and made sure none of us were too idle for too long, mom laughed and talked, and everyone got covered in dirt. And that is the slow way to change a building.
And change it did—and we did with it. I stopped trying to escape to the outside so much. I even began staying upstairs and out of the dungeon. The windows seem to let more light in and the walls took on brighter and lighter colors. The rotten boards were replaced. Some of the groans subsided. The old lady began to feel herself again and remember who she was as more and more life poured through the doors. May we all be so lucky to let light in. Rest in peace MSH-I’m glad you found yourself before the end.