A Former Church is Now Pensacola's Newest Boutique Hotel, Featuring a Restaurant Run By a Chopped Champion
Rich Report provided tourists with the first look at what the newly renovated Lily Hall hotel has to offer.
An old Mount Olive Baptist Church has been renovated into a 15-room boutique hotel in Pensacola, Florida's historic Old East Hill neighborhood. Formerly the church, a 15-room boutique hotel using the restoration and renovation techniques of the church opened on February 16, 2023 in the historic area.
Having fought for its preservation for years, the community has been given a fresh lease of life. Hurricane Ivan's damage left Mount Olive Baptist Church uninhabitable and in danger of demolition. One of Pensacola's first Black state legislators, John Sunday, founded a nonprofit to preserve Pensacola's historic spaces and included the church in its "Seven-to-Save" list.
“We're so quick to rip down these important old structures that lend a sense of history and integrity to a community. The partners did a great job of maintaining the integrity of this building,” said Terry Raley, the chef and restaurateur behind Lily Hall's restaurants and bars. “It still feels like a church inside of this brand-new building — you can feel that history. You can't get that from something new.”
The Parlor is the hotel's heart and soul. Located on the first floor of the hotel, this library also serves as a meeting area where old friends can catch up or new ones can meet up. Two used bookstores in town provide the books that line the walls, bringing with them the stories of all who have turned the pages.
Kari Randle, Lily Hall's executive host, welcomed me at the hotel's stately doors and escorted me into the Parlor. I was immediately drawn to the navy typewriter perched atop a spindly table next to a comfy leather couch. There was a clean piece of stationary waiting for you. “Receiving letters in the mail is such a warm feeling. We hope guests will compose them here on this typewriter," Randle explained. “We would also love guests to compose their own story, like the framed letters found throughout the hotel, and leave it with us, a piece of their story to add to the larger story of Lily Hall.”
As I sat in an orange crushed velvet chair, I pulled Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" from the shelves. Vintage paper smelled and the pages were slightly yellowed, giving it a perfect vintage feel. This building seems to have been around forever - a historical touchpoint in Pensacola's history.
While we walked upstairs, Randle told me, “Lily throws the best parties, invites everybody over for snapper and cabbage, and loves to be a good steward of the community," adding that Lily Hall "doesn’t know a stranger, and wants everybody to feel like they belong.”
The sound of The Allman Brothers Band filled my room as I entered my room code. In my room, the record player was already spinning songs that I used to hear my dad play on his Martin 12-string guitar. As part of the nostalgic touches at Lily Hall, each room has a record player and vinyl selection.
A ceiling-to-floor curtain with tropical botanical patterns covers unusually tall windows. As a way to preserve the building's history, the team kept the original window frames. There was light streaming in through the large window that flanked the turquoise dresser topped with brass hardware, ice bucket, and frame enclosing a letter from historical outlaw Jesse James inviting actress Mae West downstairs to the speakeasy Sister Hen.
For guests to find and engage with surreptitiously, Adam Hill has crafted 18 different letters for the property. In these letters, famous literary and historical figures meet at Lily Hall in fictitious stories.
Despite leveraging the past, the hotel boasts a number of modern amenities, such as smart technology in each guest room, bike rentals, and a virtual concierge.
In honor of Mount Olive Baptist Church's first pastor, Brother Fox is the property's on-site restaurant. Its menu is inspired by backyard barbecues and Pensacola's Spanish heritage, created by executive chef Darian Hernandez.
During my meal at Brother Fox, guests passed plates of Spanish-style low country boil, zesty pan con tomate, and heads of cabbage around a communal table. Hernández compared the menu to Sunday suppers he grew up with in Pensacola, where Raley explained Brother Fox's concept.
Rather than serving traditional course meals, the menu emphasizes shareable plates. In addition to coal-roasted oysters, carne asada is marinated for 48 hours before cooking. Patatas bravas and a variety of local fish are also available over a live fire, along with traditional Spanish dishes like patatas bravas.
Sister Hen is also on site, which mimics the illicit culture of Prohibition-era drinking spots. You can get inside by picking up the phone that hangs outside the door. Diners at Brother Fox can sneak into the speakeasy ahead of the line to get a drink, just as in the parable of the fox in the henhouse.
It was reminiscent of a step back in time with its dark wood, red crushed velvet vintage couches, and flickering candlelight. Smoky Manhattans are A.J.'s specialty. One of the bar's signature drinks, the Figourous, is made with rosemary vanilla simple syrup, mission fig balsamic vinegar, and Irish whiskey.
"There is an element of exclusivity that goes along with this type of concept," Raley explained. "Three and a half to four hours of prep go into cocktails on a daily basis before the shift ever starts. And it doesn't end with doing our own juices. We're cutting our own shards of ice, making our own bitters, and brewing tinctures.”
As I headed up to my room, I spotted a matchbook on my side table as I was satiated with good food and inspiring cocktails. There was a message on the back from Carson McCullers: "We are most homesick for places we have never been."
The liminal space of Lily Hall inspires fernweh, the longing for places we've never been, but know we want to get lost in, just as Narnia's secret wardrobe world or Hogwarts' magical halls do.