Former Hotel, Town Hall Building May Get A New Lease On Life

Former Hotel Gabriel Johnston , Old Smithfield Hall Building Under Contract

SMITHFIELD –  The former Smithfield Town Hall building at the corner of S. Fourth and Johnston Streets is under contract to be sold.

Perry Harris, a real estate agent with Caldwell Banker Advantage Commercial, said paperwork was signed Tuesday afternoon with a local business owner to purchase the property.  The asking price for the building was $450,000. Mr. Harris did not disclose the negotiated price. The business owner requested not to be named until the purchase was completed.

Harris said the buyer plans to renovate the 1930’s building into a mix of upscale residential apartments and office space.   One floor will be dedicated to upscale offices. Two other floors will consist of one and two bedroom apartments with a total of 10 to 12 apartment units, based on current plans.

A July 29, 2020 photo of the former Hotel Gabriel Johnston and old Smithfield Town Hall building at the corner of S. Fourth and Johnston Streets.

“We had multiple people look at the property. Four groups in fact looked at the property,” Harris said. “It has been sitting there for over 20 years.”

Mr. Harris said once the property is remodeled it will help the Downtown area.  “It is a much needed improvement to Downtown Smithfield and should improve things that go on in Downtown Smithfield, including helping local restaurants and other things. It is a step in the right direction to bring Smithfield up another level.”

Smithfield Town Manager Mike Scott agreed saying, “We are extremely excited about the potential for this building and its importance to our downtown district. I met with the contracted new owner (Tuesday) and welcome his vision for the building and it coming to fruition. I understand there will be significant due diligence taking place which will likely take several months to complete due to the age and condition of the structure. Hopefully the project will then move forward and we will have another gem in Smithfield to show off to all who visit here.”

Fourth Street Associates LLC purchased the property from the Town of Smithfield in April 1999 for $165,477.50.  Smithfield opened and dedicated their new town hall on June 14, 1998.

Fourth Street Associates is the current owner.  According to Mr. Harris, the LLC is owned by Lee Jackson and Charles Mast.  Reached by email Wednesday, Mr. Jackson said he could not comment on the pending transaction.

The parcel includes 27 dedicated parking spaces that can be used by tenants in the building.

History Of The Building
Construction on Hotel Gabriel Johnston began in 1936 when a group of men including W.N. Holt and J.E. Tharrington began talking about the need for a hotel and constructing it as “fire-proof” and “steam-heated.”

The front page headline of the Dec. 31, 1937 edition of The Smithfield Herald features the opening of Hotel Gabriel Johnston.

It was completed the following year and formally opened on Dec. 23, 1937 with 32 guests rooms, full bathrooms and telephones.  The hotel had a restaurant, dining room for parties and a coffee shop.  The hotel cost $75,000 and was funded by 99 stockholders.  It included $21,000 in capital stock, $20,000 in second mortgage bonds and a $32,500 loan from Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company.

The Smithfield Herald helped the owners with a promotion to suggest a name. Charles Batten of Micro, Mrs. T.J. Lassiter of Smithfield and T.R. Crocker of Chicago, formerly of Smithfield, all suggested the hotel be named in memory of Gabriel Johnston, the royal governor of North Carolina when Johnston County was formed in 1746.  The hotel was a popular destination for northern motorists headed south for the winter then north for the warmer months.

At the time it was completed in 1937, the population of the Town of Smithfield was about 3,500 residents.

According to the Dec. 31, 1937 edition of The Smithfield Herald, the Gabriel Johnston hosted a opening night gala banquet with 75 guests and a dance to the Big Band music of the Bill Joe Austin Orchestra.    It was one of three locally funded properties built in Smithfield during the Depression.  The others were the Smithfield Woman’s Club on N. Second Street and the Howell Theatre.   The old American Legion Hut on Front Street was also built during the era but it was a Works Progress Administration Project.

According to old newspaper articles, several wealthy bachelors made their homes in Hotel Gabriel Johnston, which was just off a new north-south route called US 301 (opened in 1935 in Smithfield) which was a block away on Third Street. Highway 301 later moved to the Truck Lane (Brightleaf Boulevard).

On February 15, 1962 the hotel was sold to the Town of Smithfield for the price of $108,500, financed over a period of 15 years.  The former hotel was converted into town offices.  It was also used at one time for chamber of commerce office space.