The green trim adorning the magnificent, two-story house on Gorrell Street in Southside provides a hint of its past: You will find the Magnolia Hotel listed in six mid-’50s to early-’60s editions of “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” the travel guide essential to black families looking for safe spaces to lay their heads in the Jim Crow South.
Since the 2018 release of Peter Farrelly’s “The Green Book,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture in February, places like the Magnolia have become hot destinations.
“It’s given us quite a bit of visibility,” Natalie Pass Miller says of the film. She’s the daughter of Sam Pass, who bought the 130-year-old Magnolia in 1995 with his then-wife Kimberly. It took nearly two decades for Pass to rally neighborhood residents and city leaders, complete restoration of the structure and reopen it in 2014 as the Historic Magnolia House.
“Nobody had the foresight to preserve these historic structures until the ’90s,” Pass says. “Then, all of a sudden, people started becoming aware of the significance of old buildings and architecture.”
Pass, 68, had a personal stake in the project. He was just 13 when his brother took him to the Magnolia Hotel to catch a glimpse of R&B great Joe Tex in 1963. The singer was staying there while on a tour that brought him through Greensboro.
“It was exciting to meet him,” Pass remembers.
Today, Pass lives on Martin Street, just around the corner from the Magnolia. Back then, his family lived a couple of miles away on Willow Court.
“When I was growing up, kids walked everywhere, you know; so on the way to the movies, we’d walk up Gorrell Street and pass the Magnolia to get downtown,” Pass says. “And we’d see the marquee at the Magnolia House announcing who was staying there.”
‘Green Book’ golden age
From 1949 to well into the 1960s, a who’s who of African-American notables stayed at the Magnolia. Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson passed through the hotel, as did the writer James Baldwin, the historian Carter G. Woodson and numerous top musicians, from Ruth Brown to Ray Charles to Ike and Tina Turner. The hotel was popular lodging for parents and other family members of students attending the nearby historically black Bennett College and North Carolina A&T State University. Couples honeymooned at the Magnolia and families stayed there on vacations.
The 5,000-square-foot Victorian house was built in 1889 as a lavish private home with a wraparound porch, bay windows, five towering granite chimneys, granite steps and columns, and sides made from both wood and granite. The Gorrell Street area was a white neighborhood back then.
“It was the Irving Park of its time,” Pass says. “It was where all the rich folks lived.” Ironically, he adds, “Jefferson Davis had his last cabinet meetings in that community.”
By 1949, Gorrell Street had transitioned into a black neighborhood. That’s when Arthur and Louise Gist bought the house with the huge magnolia tree in front and turned it into a hotel. They put plush Oriental carpets and a chandelier in the dining and sitting areas of the ground floor, and used the six bedrooms upstairs to accommodate guests. The Magnolia Hotel became such a hot spot that in issues of the “Green Book” from 1956 to 1961, it was the top listing under Greensboro, and the only listing in all capital letters with a star next to it.
But after the civil rights movement made traveling and lodging easier for black families, the Magnolia became less of a destination, and by the 1970s the Gists had converted it into a boarding house. The family finally closed the Magnolia in the early ’80s, and for nearly two decades it fell into disrepair. By the ’90s, its windows were boarded up and homeless people were using it to seek shelter.
One day in 1995, Pass, who was then a Fed Ex worker, drove by the old house and saw a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn. He had an epiphany. He would buy the Magnolia and restore it to its former glory.
Pass had no idea what he was getting into.
“I knew its significance, I knew how important this house was to the community, and I wanted to bring it back to life,” he says. “But it wasn’t an easy sell. It took me a long time to convince the city and the public to help me restore this historic landmark.”
It takes a village
Pass spent his own money on the down payment and then set out to raise more for the restoration.
“The city gave us $138,000 to stabilize the house, and I brought in an architect to re-create the blueprint of the house,” he says. “Then we boarded it up and wrapped it to keep what we’d done preserved.”
That took about a year, but it was just the beginning. After about 10 additional years of touting the importance of the project, Pass started to lose heart.
“I became disenchanted with not getting enough funding, and I knew it was going to take every bit of $400,000 to get this thing done,” he says.
So he borrowed more money. And then magic started happening: Local companies began chipping in. Beard Hardwoods donated cypress wood to restore the siding. Clarence “Duck” Evans, owner of C&N Evans Trucking Company and president of Tobacco Pines in Reidsville, gave Pass a good deal on a batch of 1,000-year-old lumber from its warehouse for the flooring and decking.
“He had these huge, 15-foot pieces. We got enough of that very old pine lumber to lay the inside floor of the whole 5,000-square-foot house — enough to do all the baseboard, molding, rails, windows, doors. We even had enough to make all the interior doors out of that same lumber.”
The North Carolina Granite Corporation in Mount Airy supplied the rock for a retaining wall and other repairs.
“Most of the granite rocks you find in a lot of the really old buildings around here came out of that same quarry,” Pass says. “So we wanted that granite. I put a package together to get enough granite to repair the wall, but not only did they give us enough for that — they gave us 160 tons of granite rock, enough to build a 7-foot granite wall around the east property line.”
Those local companies saw that Sam Pass was determined to make his dream come true, and they began stepping up, one after the other, to help out. When vagrants broke into the house and stole the fireplace mantles, Architectural Salvage of Greensboro found Pass a period-perfect replacement.
“To be able to get those mantles and put them back in place? Man, that was a good feeling,” Pass says.
He also found two beautiful 19th-century chests made by Thomas Day.
“He was a free cabinetmaker of color in the 1800s. I mean, this guy was awesome,” Pass enthuses. “Aristocrats commissioned him to make their furniture. He was the trendsetter of his time. He was so successful at making furniture in this area that people would come from all over the country for his pieces.”
A new beginning
By 2014, most of the work on the structure was done and furniture placed throughout the house. It was finally time to reopen the legendary Magnolia.
“When we opened the facility, it was mainly just for people to come and visit and see what we had done,” Pass says. “But it was my intention then — and it still is my intention — to create a bed and breakfast component. That’s the ultimate goal.”
For now, Pass rents out the Historic Magnolia House for parties and other functions, many of them associated with Bennett College and A&T State. What’s more, each Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Magnolia opens for a jazz brunch featuring students from UNC Greensboro’s music department.
As it turns out, one of Arthur and Louise Gist’s children, Buddy, was a jazz enthusiast and entrepreneur who left Greensboro after graduating from A&T in the late 1940s, made his way to New York City and became a mover and shaker on Harlem’s cultural scene. There, he started numerous businesses including an African import coffee company, Mt. Kilimanjaro, for which Gist’s good friend Miles Davis named his 1968 album, “Filles de Kilimanjaro.” The jazz great also gave Gist the trumpet he played on his landmark 1959 album, “Kind of Blue.” Decades later, Gist donated the horn to UNCG’s music school.
Alex Hames, a UNCG student saxophonist, performs at the Magnolia’s Sunday jazz brunches along with a trio that includes students Thomas Jackson on drums and Evan Campfield on upright bass.
“James Brown stayed at the Magnolia. Duke Ellington’s band stayed there,” Hames says. “It’s an honor to be part of that history and to be in the same room where all those influential people who affect how we look at society today spent time.”
Pass wasn’t thinking about all that peripheral history when he first began the process of restoring the Magnolia.
“At the time, I just got it because I saw its value as a place where people of color could stay when we couldn’t stay in other hotels, when he had to sleep in cars and use the bathroom on the side of the road. It was important to me that the Magnolia was in the ‘Green Book,’” he says. “But there’s so much more to this house. It was at the vortex of the Gorrell community along with Bennett College and Firehouse No. 4.”
For Black History Month in February, the Magnolia hosted a panel discussion around the “Green Book,” in which community members came in and talked about the significance of the guide, its impact in the Greensboro area, as well as the contributions of some of the city’s pioneering black residents. People like Walter McAdoo, who in the 1920s became the first African-American to own a truck business in Greensboro; John Montgomery and Pass’ uncle Sam Penn, the city’s first two black policeman; and the late, longtime NAACP president George Simpkins.
Pass’ daughter Natalie says she’s been most intrigued by what she hears from the everyday people who drop in for a visit.
“For me, the best part is that members of the community have brought their own stories to tell, whether it’s about a honeymoon they took or that they came here as a guest years ago,” she says. “We’re learning more about the history of this place every day through the stories we’re hearing.”