Hotel Lafayette

I know I made at least a dozen phone calls before I finally got to speak to the property manager of the Lafayette hotel—he works for some big company in Pittsburgh who has plans to blow it up, cart off the rubble then, (you guessed it) put in a parking deck. There’d be shops he told me, at most of the street level pads—a Starbucks, a Pizza place, hair stylist, sandwich shop etc.

When I told him I wanted to shoot the interiors before the place was leveled he almost sneered. He gave me the number of the demolition company and said if they were OK with it he could care less and dropped the phone like something you wouldn’t want to step in.

About a month later I met with Carl Maynard—chief implosion engineer for Richmond Demolition and Debris Removal—on the sidewalk in front of the old hotel. Turns out, though the company Carl works for is out of Richmond VA, he grew up in Easton, PA. Carl unlocked the hotel lobby doors and we went in.

Carl’s in his 60s—and remembers the hotel very well from when he was a kid. His father managed the bar there back in the late 40s and 50s. His dad & mom split up when he was 3 or 4 and his dad raised him.

We walked across the art-deco-styled lobby, the paint on the walls was peeling off in long strips, plaster had fallen from the ceiling—chunks and dust littering the still rich maroon wall-to-wall carpeting.

“Dad used to take me to work with him nights I didn’t have school the next day,” Carl said. “He’d save the cost of a baby sitter plus he wanted me to see what it was like to hold down a job. I guess it was here I learned about work and how to make a buck—make a living.  Hah!—I remember now,”  he said glancing around with a smile, “he used to say that as he was leaving for work sometimes—‘Gotta make a buck kid—gotta go to work and make a living.’ That’s how I remember the mid-fifties,” he said still smiling.

Built in the 20s, the Lafayette Hotel was not named so much for the French Revolutionary War hero as for the part of town it was in. That whole part of Easton is sometimes referred to as Lafayette Park though technically Lafayette Park is just the Lafayette College campus and the streets surrounding it on college hill.

We walked from the lobby into the bar. The long, polished mahogany bar reflected empty light from the big windows fronting 4th street as it had for over 80 years. Dirty, tattered lace curtains hung tentatively from the  brass rail spanning the window casings. In crackling black and gold paint the words “Lafayette Bar & Grill” patiently faced indifferent car and foot-traffic passing by. In this unremembered place, the last echoes of 1959 could still be faintly heard blending with the smell of mildew, old varnish and amazingly enough, you could still smell stale beer.

Carl walked over to the upright piano—the finish had turned into a puckered black rind. Two beer glasses still sat on top.

“Jelly Roll Morton played at this keyboard,” Carl announced with obvious pride.

“’Hiney’ Heintz’s 1971 biography says Jelly Roll was stabbed at the Blue Note in D.C in 1951,” Carl explained, “but that’s an error. The stabbing actually took place here during a brawl that broke out on St. Paddy’s day of that year—some Irish asshole drunk called him a “Nigger whorehouse piano player” and all hell broke loose.  My dad drove him to the hospital. On the way Jelly Roll told him he didn’t mind the “whorehouse” part—because it was true–he had worked in whorehouses.  It was the “N” word that bothered him. He was Creole and took pride in that—not really black.  Though as everybody knows, most of the guys Jelly Roll played with were black and American society considered him black.”

“A few years later—53 or 54—Jelly Roll was going through some hard times,” Carl continued.  ”His contract with Victor wasn’t renewed. He called my dad—asking if he could use him for a few days while he was in the area.  Dad had to turn him down—he’d already booked Arty Shaw who was having his own problems. The recording industry was in the toilet that year. Jelly Roll showed up anyway and played 4-hand duets with Arty. Right here—on this keyboard. That was an incredible night—those guys played until 9 or 10 the next day. A recording of that evening would be priceless today.”

Wandering around the barroom I framed dozens of shots of the tables and chairs, tarnished metal art-deco wall sconces, floor-standing ashtrays, brass spittoons and foot rails—most of which were still perfectly good. I got some incredible shots of the front window lettering and passers-by reflected in the mirrors above the bar. The glass shelves the liquor bottles sat on were gone—shards of shattered glass littered the sideboard and floor behind the bar.

As I was getting my shots I asked Carl, who was watching street traffic through the big front window, if it wasn’t hard for him to see this place go down—into the proverbial dustbin of history.

“Not really. Nah—that’s a lie—yeah, some,” he said as he watched trucks with his company’s logo on the doors slowing and turning into a vacant lot across the street—their diesel engines barely audible on this side of the dusty glass. It was like watching the 21st century from 1959.

“It needs to go—everything goes,” he said–I thought I could see his eyes watering a bit. “My dad’s time came. My time will come—I suppose it’s time for this place,” he said turning his back to me. I think he didn’t want me to see him tearing up. Across the street men were unloading crates and various sorts of equipment.

“My dad died in this room,” he said–his words finishing on a hollow note. “God knows I loved that man—my God I loved him,” I could hear his throat tightening up. Carl glanced around the room.  “He broke his ass helping me through college—5 minutes walk from here at Lafayette. And grad school.”  I realized he wasn’t talking to me—he was talking to all the years that had passed since his father last smiled at his son, to that aching emptiness between what had once been and would never be again

“His obituary was just 6 lines in the paper, ” he said.  “No big deal, really—to the world—I guess. Just another blue-collar jamoke checking out. A waitress found him on the floor next to a table with paperwork on it—he’d been going through the receipts from the night before. There was a big turn-out for his funeral. Benny Goodman came…”

In the next room—the lobby—the front doors opened with a soft bang. Men from the 21st century in dusty boots and battered hard-hats began carrying in crates of explosives and piling up equipment on the still rich maroon carpeting. Carl took a deep breath, pulled out a bandanna and blew his nose.  He excused himself and walked briskly toward the lobby doors. As he left he glanced back at me and absent-mindedly threw a smile my way.

“Got to go make a buck,” he said, “got to make a living.”

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