A contracting crew was preparing to demolish the historic Kilby Hotel in High Point yesterday afternoon when the entire building collapsed by force of nature and gravity.
“It felt like an explosion,” said Jeron Hollis, a spokesman for the city, who watched the collapse with about 20 other witnesses, including firefighters, news crews, contractors and local bystanders. “What I remember was hearing popping of lines as electrical lines were going down. Panic, fear and all the other emotions that go along with being a few feet away from a collapsing building were at play. We couldn’t get away fast enough.”
Hollis said no one was injured in the collapse.
Today, what had been the historic building lay in a pile of bricks, spilling into Hobson Street. Only the east-facing wall remained standing, propped up against the adjacent Arcade building. Contractors were planning to remove the wall this afternoon.
The crew has cleared debris out of Washington Street, the main corridor of the neighborhood, and Hollis said he expected the street to reopen to through traffic later today.
Prior to the substantial collapse of the building, the west-facing wall partially collapsed early Wednesday morning, leaving bricks strewn on Hobson Street. Hollis said neighbors reported hearing lightning and went outside to discover that a portion of the wall was gone. City officials learned of the initial collapse when a firefighter called in with a report around 7 a.m.
The Kilby Hotel was built in the early 1910s by an African-American couple and stood as monument to black entrepreneurship in the early 20th century. The hotel was a fixture on Washington Street, a center of black commerce in High Point through the 1960s, when desegregation lifted restrictions on black merchants. Local lore has it that legendary performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington stayed at the hotel, but Glenn Chavis, the preeminent historian of black High Point, has said that there is no evidence to support that claim.
Burnie McElrath, a fourth-generation co-owner of the hotel, surveyed the scene of the collapse this afternoon, but declined to comment on the record to reporters.
The Kilby has been at the center of efforts to revive Washington Street, a walkable street that currently boasts a jazz club, art gallery, soul-food restaurant and park. Some revitalization proponents have envisioned Washington Street, which is adjacent to the furniture district, as a tourist and regional draw roughly equivalent to Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans with the Kilby Hotel as its anchor.
The hotel’s demise requires a “rethink” of that strategy, said Patrick Harman, executive director of the Hayden-Harman Foundation, which has been involved in efforts to revitalize the neighborhood over the past couple years.
Benjamin Speller, a preservationist who was involved in the successful effort to preserve what is now the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, said the Kilby Hotel was not the last remaining property with historic recognition on the street. Consequently, the hotel’s demise doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the district’s historic status. First Baptist Church has also been accorded historic recognition, but it is also in a state of decay. Speller said the Kilby’s demise should add urgency to save the remaining buildings on the street.
The High Point City Council had recently granted an extension on a demolition order for the Kilby Hotel after a delegation announced that a nonprofit developer, California-based Community Builders, was interested in renovating the building.
The delegation was led by Charity Belton, president of the Washington Street Business Association. Belton could not be reached for this story. But Belton said earlier that Community Builders had been interested in renovating additional buildings on the street.
The collapse of the Kilby Hotel and disruption to traffic will not stop Jazz in June, a cultural event scheduled for the last two Fridays of the month. Harman, Tammy McDowell, proprietor of the 512 Collection, Jackie Haizlip, owner of Jackie’s Place, and artist Beka Butts met Wednesday afternoon and decided to go forward with the event, a street festival showcasing art, music and food.
“The consensus is that it’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” McDowell said. “It’s not going to deter us from carrying out the music and art.”
McDowell said Just Free will perform at Jackie’s Place on June 20 and Greg Holsey & Friends will perform on June 27. She expects Radio the Artist to chalk the street and Brian Davis to be painting as a public performance. Si, a metalworker, will also be on hand.Jackie’s Place will have a cash beer open for wine, beer and liquor on both nights.
“I hope people see that these buildings have to be addressed right now,” McDowell said. “I don’t feel like it will stop revitalization, and if anything will speed it up. It’s a loss.”