The Grand Hotel
One Grand Blvd., Point Clear, AL
The Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa is among the most luxurious places to visit along the Gulf Coast with a rich and storied history.
It was founded as a modest hotel by F.H. Chamberlin in 1847. The original hotel structure that Chamberlin built was a disjointed two-story hotel that extended for some 100-feet along the coastline of Point Clear. Both floors only featured 40 guestrooms and a shaded gallery that offered brilliant views of Mobile Bay. Two additional structures sat next to the main building, as well. The first building housed a rustic dining space, while the second—called the “Texas”—served as the home to a bar.
By all accounts, the Texas was among the most exclusive venues in the greater Mobile area. High-stakes poker games occurred frequently inside the bar among the area’s wealthy merchants and planters, who traded tales of gossip and intrigue regularly. The business was so successful that Chamberlin acquired a fourth building to act as overflow housing. That structure was called the “Gunnison House,” which had previously functioned as a summer retreat for a local affluent family.
Chamberlin’s nascent resort abruptly experienced a sharp decline in business when Alabama seceded from the Union in early 1861. The state had become one of the founding members of the Southern Confederacy, with Mobile emerging as one of its most important commercial centers. When the two sides formally began fighting one another later that summer, the city quickly found itself the target of a massive blockade by the United States Navy. Over time, local sailors began running blockade runners past the northern ships in an attempt to ferry goods to foreign markets across the Gulf to Havana, Cuba.
The continuous economic threat that the blockade runners posed eventually inspired Union Admiral David Farragut to directly target Mobile for an attack in August of 1864. As the fighting raged all along the coastline, a few cannon shells landed in the vicinity of Chamberlin’s resort. One piece of ordnance actually crashed through the Gunnison House, although the building was largely left intact.
After the battle, local Confederate officers used the destination as a hospital for soldiers wounded during the recent campaign. In fact, some 300 rebel soldiers died while receiving care onsite and are buried at the nearby Confederate Rest Cemetery.
Chamberlin resumed operations as soon as the fighting had stopped. His business grew in popularity yet again, transforming the community of Point Clear into one of Alabama’s most prestigious vacation hotspots. Streamliners began providing direct service to the hamlet, dropping off countless people on Chamberlin’s docks seemingly every day.
Soon enough, interested guests from New Orleans and other cities throughout the Gulf region were making the trek to Chamberlin’s resort. But tragedy struck in 1871, when a steamship known as the Ocean Wave exploded just beyond the resort’s pier, killing and injuring some passengers. The injured received care inside the Texas Bar, which Chamberlin turned into a makeshift medical facility.
Shortly thereafter, Captain H.C. Baldwin purchased the location and immediately began revitalizing the entire site. Debuting as the “Grand Hotel” in 1875, it contained 60 suites that offered the best amenities of the age. Winter rates were set at two dollars a day, rising to a total of 40 dollars for a whole month.
When Baldwin died a few years later, his son-in-law, George Johnson took over. By the 1890s, guests from throughout the Deep South knew of the Grand Hotel. Many in the region even took to calling the destination as “The Queen of Southern Resorts.”
In 1901, George Johnson decided to sell the Grand Hotel—including the 250 acres—to James Ketchum Glennon. But Glennon’s tenure was marked by adversity, including two hurricanes that greatly damaged the resort in 1906 and 1916.
The hotel managed to briefly resume its status as Alabama’s premier beachside retreat during the Roaring Twenties. But then the Great Depression sapped whatever economic momentum it had managed to create.
Glennon died in 1928 and his family sold the Grand Hotel to Edward A. Roberts, chairman of the Waterman Steamship Corporation, in 1939. The resort had become so badly run down that Roberts had most of the structures demolished. What remained was thoroughly restored. Roberts also constructed a new magnificent structure that served as the main building of the resort and still exists today.
This Grand Hotel originally debuted with 90 splendid guest accommodations and modern air-conditioning. Roberts also commissioned the creation of several cottages, which functioned as exclusive bungalows for the resort’s upscale clientele. Yet, the country’s entrance into World War II largely put a stop to Roberts’ renovations. The War Department petitioned the hotelier to lease the facility for use by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Roberts agreed, leasing the entire resort with the sole stipulation that the soldiers garrisoned onsite would not walk through the facility while wearing their combat boots. The Grand Hotel subsequently helped the military train servicemen to operate mobile air depots throughout the Pacific Theater.
After the war, Roberts continued improving the new iteration of the Grand Hotel, installing the resort’s famed Azalea and Dogwood golf courses and 10 luxurious cottages. But in 1955, a massive corporate conglomerate purchased the location, eventually turning it over to a North Carolina businessman named Malcom McLean a decade later. He, in turn, sold it to his brother, James K. McLean.
Recognizing that Roberts’ golf courses were now drawing ever increasing numbers of guests to the Grand Hotel, McLean subsequently developed a 50-guestroom extension onto the main building. McLean also created the spectacular South Bay House and a 9-hole golf course to deal with overcrowding on the other two 18-hole facilities.
Hurricane Frederick damaged the grounds in 1979 and in 1981 Marriott International purchased the hotel. They added nearly 200 more accommodations, as well as the North Bay House and the Marina Building. The company also made the difficult decision to demolish the devastated Gunnison House, constructing a new Grand Ballroom in its place.
The ownership changed once again in 1999, when it became a subsidiary of Retirement Systems of Alabama, or RSA, in 1999, though it continues to be a Marriot franchise. In the early 2000s, it underwent another series of renovations with the opening of the Spa Building along with an indoor pool, presidential suites and honeymoon suites overlooking the Marina.
In 2018, Marriott completed a $35 million renovation, which included upgrades to its 405 guest rooms, meeting and conference spaces, spa, golf course, pool, pier grounds and restaurants.
The Grand Hotel is a now member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, which are high-end and independent properties. Since 2009, it has been a member of the Historic Hotels of America. Despite its many changes over the years, this spectacular seaside destination still reigns as the “Queen of Southern Resorts.”
You can catch a special tribute to the history of the Grand Hotel called “Grandeur, Grit and Glory,” daily at 3:45 pm. Honoring its ties to American freedom, the Grand’s unique history is celebrated with a procession that commences at the Main Lobby fireplace. It culminates with a Civil War-replica cannon firing on the edge of Mobile Bay at Cannon Park.