People who travel down 12th Street today cannot imagine that the Ralston Hotel was ever a Columbus landmark. But it was.
For most of 60 years it was the hotel that locals recommended to out-of-town guests. It was the place where fancy parties were held. High-level political meetings were conducted there and when the University of Georgia football team came to town to play Auburn at Memorial Stadium every year, the Bulldogs checked into the Ralston.
Hard to believe when you look at that dilapidated piece of real estate that stands at 211 12th Street today. Even then, it is hard to imagine the horrible conditions inside that are now being described. Residents are talking about bed bugs, roaches, elevators that don’t work and an unhealthy atmosphere that no human being should be expected to endure.
When Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan went there recently to check on a dead body that had been reported he said the horrendous odor of a decaying body hit him in the face when he walked in the front door on 12th Street.
John Ralston Cargill, an early real estate developer in Columbus, built the hotel in 1915 in partnership with businessman L.H. Chappell. Together they formed the Columbus Georgia Hotel Co. The hotel they opened was a local showplace and for years it was the tallest building in town.
The original Ralston was part of a local boom period. City Hospital opened about that same time and so did the Dillingham Street Bridge. The Rotary Club of Columbus held its first meeting in the Mirror Room in 1915 and on Thanksgiving that year the restaurant in the Ralston advertised a feast that included possum and sweet potatoes.
For the next half century, it was the most important hotel in Columbus. It was in the heart of the business district, located a short walk away from the train station and not far from the riverboat landing.
Its impressive guest list included political leaders, Hollywood stars and most of the famous generals of two world wars. During World War II hotel manager Oscar Betts became Fort Benning’s best friend. If a soldier’s boots needed polishing Betts kept the shoeshine stand open. If a GI and his bride wanted to get married, he helped them get a marriage license and arranged a wedding ceremony before the soldier shipped out with pretty flowers that he personally furnished.
The Ralston continued as a traditional hotel until 1975 when it was converted into a haven for senior citizens. It was added to the National Historic Registry in 1979. Along the way it morphed into a facility that serves the elderly, the disabled and people who qualify for subsidized federal rent assistance programs. Since May 2016, it has been managed by an out-of-town real estate company that has allowed the building to decay even more.
As the overall demand for downtown real estate increases the monetary value of the Ralston has declined. Interested parties have shied away from buying the property because new owners would have to relocate the residents. Current conditions might lead to a sale of the building though that also could mean the demolition of one of the city’s most familiar properties.
Whatever happens, this is certainly not what John Ralston Cargill envisioned and not what anyone imagined when the hotel was in its prime.