A Story to Tell: Hotel Chester Closes in on a Century in Starkville

Written by Ryan Phillips; Photos by Logan Kirkland

Nestled on the corner of Jackson Street and Main is a piece of history that, despite being three stories tall, can easily go unnoticed in bustling downtown Starkville. Built in the 1920s, Hotel Chester has been a stopping place for countless travelers passing through “Mississippi’s College Town,” and special attention to detail, along with a little bit of luck, has ensured the Starkville mainstay stays true to its historic appeal. David Mollendor purchased the hotel in 1999, and along with his wife Sukie, has maintained the historic building and weathered bumps in the road along the way. “It’s a brick structure building, so it’s three layers of brick thick, two layers are structure and the outside are decorative and you don’t see that anymore,” Mollendor said, sitting in a rocking chair with his dog Sam on the hotel’s patio. “It only occurs in old buildings and I don’t know if there are people capable of duplicating that today or not, but I really like that.” Despite always functioning as a hotel, Hotel Chester has also been the setting for many high-class events through the years. Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Tony Rook and his wife Lisa had their wedding reception at the hotel nearly 23 years ago. “Back then, it was called the Statehouse Hotel,” Tony Rook said. “It was in a great location and had a very elegant atmosphere. It was known as a popular place to have wedding receptions and to host other social events.”

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THE BIRTH OF AN ICON

Construction work on Hotel Chester began in August 1924 and the hotel officially opened in April 1925. “The layout of the building is maintained because the corridors are fixed in place,” David Mollendor said. “There is a variety of different size rooms. Which is part of the preservation effort really.” The Starkville News – the precursor of the Starkville Daily News – published an entire Hotel Chester Edition on April 10, 1925, that delved into the offerings at the region’s finest place of lodging. Hotel Chester’s original amenities included: a “spacious and well equipped lobby,” a cigar and news stand, a telegraph service, pay phones and a dining and coffee room. “There’s not much history left here in Starkville, and it’s kind of unfortunate,” David Mollendor said. “There’s not but a few cities in this country that have preserved their history well. That’s the thing we want to accomplish with being here, to have enough business to be profitable and at the same time continue to preserve the building.” The initial cost to build the hotel was $80,000, while the furnishings and equipment carried a price tag of $15,000. N.W. Overstreet, a MSU alum and Jackson native, served as the architect on the original structure. Named for Chester Alvin, a local figure in economic development, the hotel’s first lessee was a Jackson man named A.H. Alvis, who then hired longtime associate J. Hammer to manage the business. Hammer was described as “an old traveling man of ten years service throughout this territory.” Although the hotel carried different names throughout the years, the Mollendors chose to revive the Hotel Chester moniker in an effort to keep the history of the establishment alive. Funded in part by taxpayer dollars, newspapers of the day praised the opening of the establishment and what it meant for Starkville. “Altogether, Hotel Chester is a modern and thoroughly equipped and thoroughly run institution,” a writer for the Starkville News commented. “One that is justly appreciated by home people, who take pride in having sponsored its establishment with their energy and money, and by the traveling public who are so freely taking advantage of its conformist and convenience.” Mollendor said the hotel would remain a place of lodging throughout its history, never serving another purpose aside from its original. While it fell into disrepair at times between its opening and its most recent ownership, the building has always maintained its iconic location in downtown. He then said when he bought the building, water penetration became a problem that took years to overcome. “That’s a big part of preserving the history of it, keeping it dry and in good condition that way,” David Mollendor said. “We don’t use water restrictors in our shower heads, so when you get in the shower you are going to get a good one. Those kinds of things are important for the traveling public, comfortable beds, clean rooms, friendly staff, all of the mechanicals working, and we have good control of that now.”

INTO THE FUTURE

The hotel’s most recent recognition came when Gordon Ramsay made the Mollendors and Hotel Chester the subject of his show “Hotel Hell” in 2014. Ramsey helped the couple modernize the rooms of the establishment, while working to raise the profile of Starkville’s oldest hotel through the revitalization effort. Ramsay would go on to design the hotel’s Beer Garden and Menu, which includes his Gordon Burger and English Fish and Chips. In the present day, David Mollendor said business is steady, but restricted primarily to those drawn to the university. “I think we don’t want people to feel like it’s an old building outside and something totally unrecognizably new on the inside,” he said. “It’s on the historic register and we are trying to preserve the history of it.” Despite David Mollendor’s humble approach when describing the hotel, Hotel Chester was voted the Best Hotel in Mississippi by Mississippi Magazine every year from 2012 to 2017. Sukie Mollendor said her favorite amenity at the hotel is the Ramsay-designed Beer Garden, which had previously been an outdoor dining space and garden. “The beer garden was just a garden, then I liked it, so it’s really pretty and was just a gazebo and there was a water fountain, so maybe people have done some ceremonies out there,” Sukie Mollendor said. “It has always had a catering and banquet feature from beginning.” She then mentioned the library as another feature guests should take advantage of at the hotel. “I like the library, it’s a small room that can be used for private dining or sometimes we use it for a small restaurant, it has its own bar and I like that,” Sukie Mollendor said. David Mollendor then bragged on the hotel’s breakfast offerings, such as eggs Benedict and French toast, that are popular among guests. Above all else, though, Mollendor said the hospitality is what makes a stay at Hotel Chester worth the cost. “Cleanliness, friendliness of the staff, we take good care of them,” he said. “We try to be as accommodative as possible for people with reasonable expectations.”

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