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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

On the Brink

In 1872, before the McCurdy Hotel occupied its riverside location, entrepreneur David J. Mackey purchased the property at the corner of First and Locust streets in Downtown Evansville and commissioned Josse A. Vydragh to design a hotel in the French neo-Baroque style. The St. George Hotel opened its doors in February 1874.

The luxurious five-story hotel was equipped with first-class amenities for the time — an elevator in the lobby, gas, steam heat, running water, and a private bathroom and closet in each room. Rates for rooms ranged from $2-$3.50 per night. In 1915, 41 years after opening its doors, the St. George Hotel was razed to make way for a more modern structure.

On June 17, 1917, Frederick Harold Van Orman opened the McCurdy Hotel. St. Louis architect Henry Ziegler Dietz designed the Colonial Revival style that, at eight stories, was certainly an improvement in quantity, if not quality, over the St. George. Van Orman acted as manager for the McCurdy until 1926, when he became president of the Van Orman chain of luxury hotels throughout the Midwest. In 1969, after 52 years of service as a community landmark and venue of hospitality for celebrities such as actress Katharine Hepburn and President Richard Nixon, the McCurdy closed its doors due to bankruptcy.

One year later, the McCurdy reopened as a residential facility and retirement home. It continued in this function, under various ownership, until purchased by Carmel, Ind., real-estate firm City Centre Properties LLC in 2008.

City Centre was offered financial incentives from the city of Evansville to rehabilitate and repurpose the historic building as apartments, but amid the economic crash of 2008 and subsequent recession, securing loans became a challenge. The McCurdy has remained vacant since 2010, and City Centre’s financing dissolved in late 2011, forcing the organization to abandon the project and leave an uncertain future for a building with such a charming past.

Failing Facade
A balmy night in late October 2011 found me on a walk through a quiet Downtown Evansville; this walk brought me to the McCurdy. I peered through the glass doors that face the river — what was going on inside? I expected to be hindered from freely entering the private property by some measure of security. There was no such restraint in place. I opened the door and walked into the hulking brick cave that sits on the banks of our great tributary river.

The building that was once a grand hotel retains only a whisper of its former opulence. With open windows and unlocked doors, the invitation for guests is far from exclusive. Years of negligence are evident in the crumbling plaster and tattered awnings of the building’s riverside entrance. Standing water, bird droppings, and refuse scar the formerly magnificent lobby. The dining room to the west of the lobby is barren, save for a layer of dust and dirt. The mosaic tile floor is dingy and cracked in places. It is a reminder of why this building is important — nearly 100 years later, that tile floor remains, imperfect, but beautiful still. If our community can embrace it once again, it could be around for another 100 years or more. But for now it’s vacant, unsecured — a looming insurance claim.

Return to Splendor
After years of false starts from City Centre, finally it looks as if the dream of rehabilitating the McCurdy will become a reality. Early this year, the Evansville Redevelopment Commission (ERC) was unable to obtain a majority vote to approve the plan tabled by local real estate development and construction firm Kunkel Group in partnership with Bloomington, Ind., real estate developer Randy Lloyd, but that hasn’t stopped the project from moving forward. With a $2 million loan from Fifth Third Bank in their arsenal, Kunkel and Lloyd plan to purchase the mortgage from City Centre and begin converting the McCurdy into 96 market-rate apartments as soon as possible.

“It’s wonderful that the private sector is going to carry that project forward,” says ERC President Ed Hafer, Jr., despite the earlier impasse. “Let’s hope they do have something worked out.” The arrival of 96 apartments Downtown could mean the presence of a grocery store closer to Main Street, as well as the return of a pharmacy, he adds. Current and former members of the ERC express relief and happiness that a local, private company is taking the project on. ERC President Emeritus Bob Goldman typified the attitude of many onlookers when he said he’d be happy “as long as it’s being used and back on the tax roll.”

Idealism has been dealt a blow with Kunkel’s plan to repurpose the McCurdy into luxury apartments. Why not restore it to its original purpose as a grand hotel? However, the location’s history may provide hints about the future viability of the McCurdy as a hotel. With its relatively short lifespan and the brevity of the St. George before it, the time has come to evaluate long-term solutions that are both sustainable for proprietors and enriching for the community. Repurposing a structure is desirable when done conscientiously. When the needs of a community evolve, the facilities in place to meet those needs must follow suit.

Chuck Harper, vice president of Kunkel Group, points out that the design-build firm will go to great lengths to preserve the remaining historical features of the lobby and first floor. He also notes many of the original aspects of the interior have been gone for numerous years. “The apartments will feature finishes that are indicative of any Kunkel Group residential project,” he says. “Granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, custom-built showers, and solid-surface floors.”

Harper says Kunkel Group ideally would like to complete the McCurdy project as quickly as possible. Citing the success of pre-leasing the 46 units of Main Street’s Kunkel Square, he says, “We fully expect that we will be starting to reserve apartments in the McCurdy for people in the next 60 days.”

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