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FLASHBACK: Paying homage to the Grande Old Lady - Odessa American: Celinda Hawkins

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FLASHBACK: Paying homage to the Grande Old Lady

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Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2014 9:00 am

Last week, my great grandfather, was honored in his hometown of Clinton, Okla., at the Route 66 Museum, when city leaders and those within my bloodline on my mother’s side, christened an exhibit dedicated to him and the Calmez Hotel.

On Thursday, relatives and many others gathered inside the Route 66 Museum as the newest exhibit – an exact replica of the lobby of the Calmez (Cowl-mez) Hotel – was unveiled. About 15 years ago, I was fortunate to see the lobby, albeit dilapidated, but I imagined that in 1929, when my great grandfather Claude Calmes (Cowl-mees) opened the hotel, that it was quite grand. With marble floors and ornate accoutrements – it must have been beautiful indeed.

While my passion for historic preservation began well before 1999, I was thrilled that the owner of the funeral home – who had the key to the boarded up six story hotel, let us in. There was no electricity, the sign that was once atop the building was gone, and there was evidence that the building had become a refuge for the homeless and the downtrodden.

The Calmez was a dream of Claude’s and was a particularly swanky place on the famed Route 66 also known as the Will Rogers Highway and was considered one of the first highways in the U.S. Originally, Route 66, was 2,448 miles long and stretched from Chicago and went through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before and ending in Santa Monica, Calif.

Claude apparently thought a lot of folks could get their kicks on his little stretch of Route 66 in downtown Clinton. Claude, who was my mother’s grandfather, was known as “prominent capitalist,” in Clinton after making his fortune as the owner of the local Dodge dealership. He and his partner Elmer Crabbe pushed to get approval from the city and the chamber to build a 6-story hotel and eventually got their blessing in 1928. The hotel, which cost $500,000 opened in 1929 only weeks after the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Claude’s vision was to open a hotel that could be a rest stop without too much extravagance to the booming community and to Route 66.

I don’t think I’d say the place was without extravagance. It had a palatial entrance with marble floors. There was a café and a bar downstairs and one on the main floor. There was also a mezzanine where folks could gather for coffee. Then upstairs, there was a lounge, where I could almost hear the echo of big band music playing as I squinted in the darkness to make out the room. There was apparently a stage and  bar stools attached to the floor surrounded the bar, upholstered in red. The hotel, was lovingly called the Grande Old Lady by Clinton’s historic preservation crowd.

Inspired by the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, Claude opened the Calmez, with much fanfare in 1929. The hotel was architecturally built like many of those built by Conrad Hilton who opened his first hotel in Cisco. Claude aimed to bring the hotel experience to the masses in rural communities and like Hilton – he achieved it with the Calmez. It was during the era that hotels like The Settles in Big Spring, The Wooten in Abilene and The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells were built. In the last decade, The Settles and The Wooten have been restored and The Baker is supposed to be renovated soon.  But unlike these gems, that have been lovingly restored or are in the process, the Calmez was not so lucky.

The Calmez, that officially closed in the 1980s was once known as a house of prostitution, according to an article published in the Oklahoman. It was a hotly debated issue and a source of endless debate among the citizens – some who viewed it in its dilapidated state as a downtown eyesore and others who valued the hotel as a cherished community relic.

When I visited the hotel, the inside was trashed and the man who opened it up said that previous owners had come in and taken out all of the fixtures like lights, furniture and even signs.

About eight months after I traveled there, someone from Clinton called to inform me that the date with the wrecking ball was near. Even city leaders had hope that someone with the funds and vision could step in and save the Grand Old Lady.

Laura and Danny Wohl were the last to hold the deed to the hotel and they tried to get the community involved.

Bill Galletly, then city manager of Clinton told the local newspaper "We would have loved to have had someone come in and restore it," City Manager Bill Galletly said, "but there was no viable proposal put forward."

While the reporter was in his office the phone rang and he took the call.

"Yes ma'am," he told a telephone caller. "That won't be a problem. Yes, I understand."

Galletly said he was moved by the sentiment of the person on the other end of the line.

"She wanted to know if I could save her a couple bricks from the old Calmez," Galletly said. "She wants to build a planter with them for her flower bed."

The person on the other end of the line was my mother, Judy Calmes Hawkins. And just the other day, I dug in the flower bed and low and behold, there were the bricks.

She had a particular interest in the hotel, since as a child, during World War II, she lived there with her mother and grandparents while my grandfather was serving as a pilot in the war.

A few days later after she spoke to the city manager on Oct. 23, 2000, the hotel date with the wrecking ball arrived.

"It's a sad day for Clinton, Oklahoma," said Danny Wohl, who held the deed to the abandoned hotel when it was condemned by the city. "We're going to lose a lot of history when that place goes. This hotel has been part of Clinton's history since 1929.”

I made a call to check and sure enough it had been torn down. It was a sad day indeed.

But as of Thursday, the lobby, which took a year to recreate and build, opened in the museum. It will give viewers a peak back in time.

I would like to personally thank Pat Smith, director of the Route 66 Museum on behalf of our family. I spoke to her a few weeks back and she said the whole community was excited about the event. 

“We look forward to a great unveiling,” Pat told me. “It is a wonderful exhibit.”

I bet it is, can’t wait to see it.

Odessa, TX

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