|By Mark J. Price, The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jul. 18, 2005 - Business didn't go according to plan at the Executive House of Akron.
The 200-room motel, proposed in the late 1950s as part of a large complex to revitalize downtown, never seemed to meet the lofty expectations of its promoters.
It was the right place at the wrong time.
The 11-story inn was announced in 1957 as an anchor for a proposed civic auditorium between South Main and Water streets. Akron merchants Julius and Lawrence Siff, who operated D.M. Siff Shoe Co., owned a vacant lot at State and Water streets and hoped to develop it.
According to the proposal, "a modernistic motel" would be built at 50 W. State St. across the viaduct from O'Neil's department store. A civic auditorium would be constructed next door at West Buchtel Avenue and Water Street. Additional plans called for a retail plaza with a drugstore, clothing shops and restaurants.
After two years of discussion, the Siff brothers persuaded Chicago attorney Leonard M. Server to join the project. Server, who operated motels and shopping centers around the country, formed the Akron and Chicago Co. in 1959 with partners S.J. Baskin, David Fisher and Robert Greengoss. He signed a 99-year lease for the land.
The first thing to go was the civic auditorium. Akron officials determined the site lacked sufficient parking and was inaccessible to traffic. (In retrospect, that's pretty funny. Today, the block contains Canal Park, home of the Akron Aeros baseball team.)
The next thing to go was the ritzy name. The Executive House was redubbed the Executive Tower House. Then, as the project moved along, it became the Akron Tower Motor Inn.
The retail plaza never materialized, but developers still had high hopes.
Mortgage banking firm Salk, Ward & Salk Inc. financed construction of the $3 million motel. Architects Louis Solomon and J.D. Cordwell furnished the design. Lloyd Construction Co. served as general contractor. All were from Chicago.
Developers promised "full hotel features" in the "basic concept of the motor hotel." Guests would arrive by auto, park their vehicles on a three-level deck below State Street and carry their luggage to their rooms "if they wish." They could then take a refreshing dip in the swimming pool.
Ground was broken in August 1960 near the Ohio & Erie Canal. The tower -- the first inn to be built downtown in more than 30 years -- was proclaimed a modern marvel of steel, brick, concrete and glass.
"From an aesthetic sense alone, this building will fill Akron with progress and pride," Server told a gathering of 150 city officials at the groundbreaking luncheon.
Akron Chamber Vice President Willard Bear presented the Chicago businessman with a copy of The Akron Story, the history book taught in local classrooms. A giant cake designed like the motel was served at the luncheon.
In 1961, the Futterman Corp. of New York, which owned the Ohio Building downtown, was named motel operator. "We are delighted to become a further part of the Akron picture," Vice President C. Dewitt Coffman said at the time. "We shall do our utmost to make this vital and dynamic community proud of our hotel."
The inn opened for business Aug. 15, 1961, with more than 50 percent of its rooms occupied. Management said the number was "surprisingly high," given that some of the 200 rooms were still under construction.
The motel had three restaurants and two cocktail lounges on its first three floors. The Beefeater, an English-themed dining room for 150, specialized in steaks and roast beef. The Coffee House, with a seating capacity of 120, offered "an espresso cafe" surrounded by "Japanese gardens." The Club, an exclusive setting for men only, had room for 50.
The Bounty Bar -- named for the British naval ship in Mutiny on the Bounty -- featured a nautical theme with such decorations as sea murals, parrots and anchors. Cocktail waitresses wore pirate costumes while the head bartender dressed as a ship's officer. A smaller lounge, The Pub, featured Olde English decor.
Conventions were to be held in The Presidents Room, a ballroom for more than 300. It had sliding walls that could divide the hall into three smaller spaces: The Grant Room, The Taft Room and The McKinley Room, all named for Ohio presidents.
The motel threw open its doors and waited for vacationing families and traveling businessmen to fill up the rooms. It didn't work out as expected.
With the exception of the All-American Soap Box Derby, the World Series of Golf and an occasional convention or two, the motor inn rarely was booked to capacity. In fact, it barely broke even its first year of operation.
The motel was built just in time to witness the decline of downtown Akron. In the 1960s, many local businesses moved to the suburbs or closed completely. Travelers began to shy away from the business district.
Hotels all across downtown had vacancies. It wasn't a good time to open 200 more rooms.
Over the decade, the motor inn changed hands several times and saw a succession of managers. No one could turn around the building's financial troubles.
In 1970, a strange rumor circulated that the motel would be demolished. The city had taken out a classified ad in the Akron Beacon Journal to advertise for bids to raze the structure at 50 W. State St. As it turned out, the address was incorrect. The dilapidated building to be demolished was really at 50 West St.
Even so, the ad was prophetic.
In 1971, Attache Inns of America announced its intention to take control of the motel, signing a 10-year lease with an option to buy for $3 million.
"Akron Tower will then be the flagship of our planned national chain," President Ronald R. Brown noted. "The company is negotiating for inns in Dayton, Cleveland and Columbus."
The optimism didn't last. One year later, Attache relinquished control of the Akron inn.
In 1972, the Akron Tower Motor Inn went into receivership. Great-West Life Assurance Co. of Winnipeg, Manitoba, filed suit, claiming it lent $1.4 million in 1966 to the motel owners but monthly payments had stopped.
Great-West wanted the motel to be sold to pay off the debt.
"I can't say what the future will be but the motel has turned a corner and, financially, the future looks good," general manager Elmore C. Bacon Jr. assured the Beacon Journal in 1972.
The Akron Tower emerged from receivership in 1973 with Great-West as its new owner.
Business, already hurting, slowed to a trickle in 1974 with an ill-timed construction project on the 535-foot State Street viaduct. Traffic was diverted for five months as workers reinforced the 1923 bridge during the $1 million project.
Akron Tower general manager James H. Mullet announced a $140,000 renovation at the inn, including a repainted exterior, and new carpeting and drapes. The face-lift, he said, would give the motel "a chance to make it really successful."
The motel really never got that chance.
In 1975, the 14-year-old Akron Tower Motor Inn was converted into 195 one-room apartments for the elderly and disabled. The project, one of the country's first subsidized housing complexes, was financed with a $3 million loan through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The motel was renamed the Herbert Newman Senior Resource Center in honor of the executive director of the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. In the early 1980s, the name was shortened to the Akron Senior Resource Center.
By the end of the decade, it changed to Canal Park Tower.
The complex used to have nearly 200 tenants -- many with mental or physical disabilities -- but fewer than 50 live there today. The building is expected to close this month. All residents have been ordered to move, although litigation is pending.
The foundation of the old motel is crumbling and unsafe, city officials say. They would like to demolish the 44-year-old building for redevelopment.
The State Street property has become a lot more desirable since Canal Park opened in 1997. The tower is just beyond the center field wall.
Just like 50 years ago, the motel site could help revitalize downtown as part of a large complex. The next developers, no doubt, will have high hopes.
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Copyright (c) 2005, The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio
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