At the time which the house would eventually become "The Imperial Hotel", Canton did not exist yet. The area was a small mountain community called Pigeon Ford. "The Imperial" was just a house constructed by William H. Moore and his wife Rhoda in the year 1876. Many of the building materials and public documents indicate the house's "Queen Anne" style of architecture.
To put the time stamp of this building in historical perspective, consider the following; the time was 11 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, 13 years before construction started on the Biltmore House, 17 years before Canton was incorporated, and 27 years before Champion Paper and Fiber Company arrived from Ohio in 1903 to begin construction of the paper mill.
The construction of the mill triggered and dictated Canton and the buildings future; for it called in a need for an abundance of workers. Not only did local small town farmers from Western North Carolina come, but workers from throughout the Southeast, the North, and Europe all poured into the new "boom town." With the workers, came a need for stores, houses, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, preachers, and everything else needed for a thriving active community. From this, Canton became one of the most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse towns in North Carolina.
In 1916, Waynesville had a population of 4,000 while Canton boasted 6,000 within the town limits. Due to the new demands for living quarters, W.T. Sharpe purchased the house in 1910. He then added a 4-story tower to the west side of the building and opened it as a hotel. He then turned the hotel over to Edward and Mae Geir of New York who gave it the name, "The Imperial Hotel." Mr. Sharpe also decided to construct a three-story brick commercial building immediately adjacent to the west. The ground floor was originally used as the town's post office, and later as an A&P grocery store. The second floor was living quarters and the third floor became the meeting hall for "The Knights of the Pythias." Then to continue meeting "boom time" needs, Mr. Sharpe more than doubled the size of the hotel's size by adding guest rooms and a larger dining space, while also meeting the social areas consistent with the amenities of a true hotel.
"The Imperial" was known as "one of the state's best two dollar hotels." It was also one of the first hotels in the state to have electricity. In order to provide this for guests, Mr. Sharpe and the Geirs arranged a connection to Champion's generator. This enabled the hotel and its guests with the most modern of conveniences at that time: electricity and "water closets" or flushing toilets.
Canton's growth continued so much that another major transformation took place in the 1930's. Mr. Sharpe and the Geirs did two major things to the hotel. First, they increased the lobby and dining room, built an annex out the back expanding 40 guest rooms, and added commercial storefront mercantile spaces. Second, they removed or covered up the porches, turrets, and roof gables which gave the hotel its "Queen Anne" appearance. When the Great Depression hit, the mill never closed and Canton continued to grow. New commerial buildings were being built in straight up and down brick facade style, so the Imperial took on the same appearance.
In the year 1937, the hotel received new mangement, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver from Georgia. At some point the hotel's name changed to the Canton Hotel and was run under different management until it closed in the 1960s. A large part of the blame can be put on the coming of Interstate 40, which caused travelers to bypass the hotel. The hotel was dormant, other than a few boarders in the 1930s annex and rental of commercial retail and office spaces until 1983.
That was up until the current owner, Pat Smathers and five other investors purchased the property from the living heirs of W.T. Sharpe, renovated the hotel's guest rooms into 23 low income apartments. In the 1990s, Pat and his wife, Sherry, completed purchasing all ownership of the former Imperial Hotel property; recognizing that after several years of decline, Canton was beginning to change and grow again. Part of that change was downtown Canton being placed on the National Registry of Historic Places as an example of American architecture/engineering, early commercial 1875 and 1974.
Restoring the Imperial became a mission. Smathers understood the need and the benefits that the hotel's restoration would be to Canton. As a young boy he had heard the stories and knew it as "the place" for special events and civic meetings, a gathering spot for town leaders, ladies' socials and teas, and other special occasions. It was a place where mill workers, businessmen, and professionals could all gather, relax, and have a good time. Where young people met, had dances and often spent the first night after their wedding. And yes, at times its labyrinth basement served as a speakeasy during prohibition, a gambling spot and a location for other questionable behavior, all interspersed with ghost hauntings.
Restoration began by removing the brick facade and returning "The Imperial" to its appearance in 1920. After over a decade of effort the Imperial Hotel has welcomed Southern Porch Kitchen & Drink. The Imperial is a significant part of Canton and Haywood County's past. But more importantly, it's about what is happening now and what is come. Become one of the "jolly regulars" referenced in 1916 advertisements. Enjoy yourself!