This Abandoned Church Is Now Pensacola, Florida's Newest Boutique Hotel — With a Parlor, Speakeasy, and a Restaurant Run by a 'Chopped' Winner

We got a first look at the newly transformed Lily Hall hotel.

Interior of the loft at Lily Hall in Pensacoala, FL

Courtesy of Lily Hall

There's a new boutique hotel in Pensacola, Florida's historic Old East Hill neighborhood: Lily Hall. Formerly home to the Mount Olive Baptist Church, the abandoned property was transformed into a 15-room hotel that opens on Feb. 16, 2023.

The space breathes new life into the community, which has been championing its preservation. Mount Olive Baptist Church was in danger of demolition after Hurricane Ivan's damage left it uninhabitable. The John Sunday Society — a nonprofit named in honor of one of Pensacola’s first Black state legislators — launched a program to preserve Pensacola's historic spaces and listed the church in its Seven-to-Save list of at-risk sites.

“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 Nashville chef and restaurateur behind the restaurant and bar concepts at Lily Hall. “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.”

Interior of the parlor at Lily Hall in Pensacoala, FL

Courtesy of Lily Hall

The heart and soul of the hotel is the Parlor. It's a library on the hotel's first floor that doubles as a gathering area where you can meet up with old friends or make new ones. The books lining the walls are sourced from two used bookstores in town, carrying with them the stories of all who have turned the pages before. 

I was ushered into the Parlor after being greeted by Kari Randle, Lily Hall's executive host, at the hotel's stately doors. The first thing that caught my eye was the navy typewriter perched atop a spindly table next to a comfy leather couch. A clean piece of stationary was cued up and waiting. “Receiving letters in the mail is such a warm feeling. We hope guests will compose them here on this typewriter," Randle said. “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.” 

I pulled Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass" from the shelves and opened it up as I cozied into an orange crushed velvet chair. The smell of old paper and the slight yellowing of the pages made it feel perfectly vintage. Like Lily Hall, it feels like it has been here forever — a historical touchpoint in Pensacola’s story.

As we made our way upstairs to my room, Randle told me that “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.”

Interior of a guest room at Lily Hall in Pensacoala, FL

Courtesy of Lily Hall

Interior of a guest room bathroom at Lily Hall in Pensacoala, FL

Courtesy of Lily Hall 

When I entered the door code to my room, I heard the sounds of The Allman Brothers Band. The record player in my room was already spinning songs that remind me of my dad, who used to play them on his Martin 12-string guitar. Every room is outfitted with record players and a selection of vinyl — another nostalgic touch curated by the team at Lily Hall. 

Ceiling-to-floor curtains in tropical botanical patterns open to windows of an unusual height. To honor the building’s history, the team kept the church’s original window frames. Light poured in on the turquoise dresser with opulent brass hardware, a brass ice bucket, and a brass frame holding a fictional letter from legendary outlaw Jesse James inviting American actress Mae West to join him for drinks at Sister Hen, the speakeasy downstairs. 

Eighteen different letters drafted by Nashville-based novelist Adam Hill hide throughout the property for guests to find and engage with surreptitiously. The letters share fictitious tales of famous literary and historical figures meeting up at Lily Hall.

While the hotel capitalizes on the past, there are still an abundance of modern amenities, including smart technology in each guest room, bike rentals, and a virtual concierge to check guests in.

Wallpaper with tigers at Lily Hall in Pensacoala, FL

Courtesy of Lily Hall

The property's on-site restaurant, Brother Fox, is named after the first pastor at Mount Olive Baptist Church. Its menu — created by executive chef Darian Hernandez, who recently won Chopped — is inspired by backyard barbecues and Pensacola’s Spanish roots.

When I dined at Brother Fox, conversations erupted around a communal table, as large platters of Spanish-style low country boil, boards of zesty pan con tomate, and heads of cabbage were passed from guest to guest. Raley explained the concept behind Brother Fox, and Hernandez shared how the menu was inspired by his own Sunday suppers growing up in Pensacola.

The menu favors shareable plates over traditionally coursed meals. There are coal-roasted oysters and carne asada, which marinates for 48 hours before it touches the flame. There are also traditional Spanish dishes like patatas bravas and a variety of local fish cooked with oil and fresh herbs over a live fire.  

Also on-site is Sister Hen, which mimics the illicit culture of secret Prohibition-era drinking spots. Picking up the phone that hangs outside the door gets you inside. And like the parable about the fox in the henhouse, diners at Brother Fox can sneak into the front of the line to grab a drink at the speakeasy. 

The bar’s moody dark wood, red crushed velvet vintage couches, and flickering candlelight felt like a step back in time. The bartender, A.J., is known for his smoky Manhattans. When I stepped up to the bar, he deftly crafted one of their signature drinks, the Figourous, 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 said. "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.”

Sated with good food and inspiring cocktails, I headed up to my room, where I spied a matchbook on my side table. On the back was a message from author Carson McCullers: “We are most homesick for the places we have never known.” 

Like Narnia’s secret wardrobe world or Hogwarts’ magical halls, Lily Hall is a liminal place that inspires fernweh — the longing for spaces we’ve never been, but know we want to get lost in.

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