1930’s Tennessee Street in Florence, Alabama was a bustling boulevard — a straight shot to downtown, lined with store fronts and possibility. The Great Depression didn’t stop the two story brick building from housing Foote Auto Company, a car dealership stocked full of Cadillacs and Oldesmobiles, until the mid-seventies when the Gunrunner Pawn Shop took over, occupying the first floor and leaving the rugged wood floors, tall-beamed ceilings, and large freight elevator to sit empty upstairs collecting dust. Eventually the Gunrunner Pawn Shop also closed, leaving the entire building silent, a worn series of rooms filled with nothing but memories and misplaced trinkets left behind. And this is how 310 E. Tennessee remained for many years, until Billy Ray Casteel decided to bring it back to life.
Billy Ray’s personal dream and vision for the Gunrunner Boutique Hotel combined all the retro grit and glamour of the building’s history and transformed it into a stunning speak-easy style boutique hotel, complete with a grand floor-to-ceiling, wood-beamed bar lined with backlit onyx squares that greets guests as they round the corner up the wide herringbone patterned staircase. Large chandeliers drip from the ceiling, while sprawling oriental rugs in shades of deep red create pockets for patrons to sit, chat, and have a drink on one of the many eclectic couches or chairs. And while the public can enjoy this common area and the bar space from 3-9pm every day, the focus of this hidden gem is for those looking to stay in one of the 10 boutique hotel rooms, each with its own personality and nod to treasured Shoals legends, history, and culture.
Billy Ray and his talented team worked tirelessly to restore the historical space by exposing beams, putting up walls to create rooms, and refurbishing the original hardwood floors from the 30’s, where old cars were lifted in the freight elevator and rolled across the wide boards. The floors still maintain that character with grooves and worn edges— a beautiful addition and common theme throughout the hotel. However, the rugged exterior is complimented by the modern, edgy, alluring room decor handpicked by the talented Suzy Casteel, who poured countless hours scouring the Southeast and local shops for the perfect pieces to complete each unique room. Not one room is the same, yet they are each equally inviting, relaxing, and exquisitely decorated spaces.
Many guests request to stay in a new room each time, as if to collect a different Shoals experience for each of their travels. However, this was also a collective effort— with Billy Reid designing the Billy Reid room, an airy space full of momentos and relics lined up a tall, steep set of stairs and a floor-to-ceiling frame filled with oyster shells towering over the white-linen bed. In addition, family and friends of local legends collaborated along with Suzy Casteel, including Sam Phillips’ granddaughter, Hallee Phillips and friend Judy Hood, creating special spaces to honor the rich music history.
It was a concerted effort of local Shoals residents working together to make Billy Ray’s ode to Florence materialize into something that will continue to have both a cultural and financial impact on a blossoming downtown district. And in the coming months the hotel will be busier than ever with the Billy Reid Shindig 11 on the horizon and Shoals Fest taking over in October— guests and the public alike are welcome to enjoy the rooftop seating to socialize and sip drinks, or head down to the first floor to indulge in some self-care at the new Gallaher Spa. Whatever the reason to stop by, there is no shortage of memorable moments made from the second you step thru the hotel entrance. Just follow the vintage wallpaper thru the large wooden doors, past the red and white stain-glass, up the wide double staircase, and get ready to relax and remember.