(WVUE) - One of Louisiana's grand hotels is on the verge of reopening after being shuttered for the past 12 years. When it opened, there was nothing in Central Louisiana that compared to the Hotel Bentley, which also played a crucial role in America's preparation for World War II.
When the doors of the Hotel Bentley first opened more than a century ago, it was the grandest and finest hotel in Central Louisiana. It was built in 1908 by lumber baron Joseph Bentley.
But starting in the late 1960s, the old hotel went through several ownership changes, along with closures and re-openings. It was shuttered the last time in 2004. That's when Alexandria businessman Michael Jenkins began purchasing and restoring a couple of historic downtown buildings.
"There was so much more available down here, and it just seemed like no one was really taking advantage or looking at what opportunities may be here," Jenkins said.
And Alexandria's location on the Red River is an added plus.
"We're lucky enough to have a city have a river right through downtown and we need to be taking advantage of it," Jenkins said.
The Bentley hosted some important guests when America was on the brink of World War II. The Army's top generals, including a future U.S. president, had their headquarters there.
As the Nazi war machine was rolling across Europe, the U.S. Army launched its largest-ever military training exercise – the Louisiana maneuvers. Nearly a half-million troops invaded the rolling hills and piney woods of central Louisiana. They devised new tactics for managing modern field armies. Generals George Patton, Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower were based in Alexandria at the Bentley.
"And supposedly we may not have won World War II if it would not have been some of the maneuvers here that were done right here out of this," Jenkins said. "This was the headquarters for the planning stages and everything back in World War II."
The newly remodeled hotel has an exhibit that tells visitors about Alexandria's important connection to the Second World War. And the current remodeling of the Bentley has come with major challenges.
"When you break into a wall and you know some of those have been up since 1908 and try to get back and get it finished like it should be, it's a tremendously hard task," Jenkins said.
And that included a broken waterline that flooded the basement and the ruined hotel's refurbished elevators.
The hotel is gradually coming back to life. The ballroom and meeting rooms are in operation. Overnight guests are here for special events. And all 93 guest rooms are about to reopen.
The new owner wants guests to have the same reaction today that the first visitors probably had in 1908.
"Just as they come up those stairs and walked into that lobby and have that experience of going, 'Wow, I can't believe there's something like this in Central Louisiana.'"
One step inside the Bentley's massive, columned lobby makes it clear why this old hotel deserves another chance. Jenkins said the hotel will reopen and start accepting guests May 5.