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Historic Alonzo Ward Hotel In Aberdeen, SD Receiving $6 million Makeover; Includes Luxury
Condominiums, Restored Ballroom
By Elissa Grossell, American News, Aberdeen, S.D.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Sep. 30, 2002 - A downtown landmark has come full circle. 

Aberdeen's Blackstone development company hopes to restore the Alonzo Ward Hotel to the splendid social hub it once was, and it plans to do so by mid-2004. 

Past hotel owners and current staff think it's enough to make Alonzo himself proud. 

Blackstone is a privately-funded public/private partnership formed in 1999 that is dedicated to improving the downtown. Its $7 million new downtown headquarters for Aman Collection Service is already under way, and a special tax district has been created to assist with that and the more than $6 million Ward project. 

Plans to restore the Milwaukee Road Depot for $3 million are set to be completed in late 2004. 

Blackstone's vision for the Ward is to bring it back to its original historic glory with a modern twist -- including luxury condominiums, a restored ballroom open to the hotel lobby below and a parking ramp. 

Restored luxury: Blackstone spokesman Norg Sanderson said there will be around 20 two- to five-bedroom condominiums on the hotel's third through sixth floors. Some may also go on the second floor east of the ballroom. 

The costs of purchasing a condo will range from $175,000 to $275,000, depending on its size and location, he said. 

Each will be customized to the resident's liking by Barbour/LaDouceur Architects of Minneapolis, the firm designing the project. Occupants will be offered certain amenities, including dry-cleaning pickup and delivery, housekeeping, room service, catering, bike rentals, fitness training, florist services, restaurant reservations, a conference room, grocery delivery and secure storage rooms. 

The hotel's main level will include a coffee shop, retail space, restaurant and lounge as well as the hotel lobby, front desk and office. 

Currently, the Ward is home to Good Nature, Main St. Cafe, Alonzo's Restaurant and Lounge, and Reflections hair salon. 

And "we hope they all will (stay)," Sanderson said. 

The lower level will include a workshop, reading room, fitness room, computer room, laundry room and storage. 

On the second floor, the Ward's popular ballroom will be fully restored. The large two-story window on the north side will also be returned to its previous prominence, and the mezzanine area will be opened up to overlook the hotel lobby area below, as it did originally. 

Plans also include a multi-story parking ramp on the building's west side, which will include above and below ground-level parking. Each condo will have secure parking spaces. 

Two more downtown ramps are also part of Blackstone's "future vision," Sanderson said -- one over the parking lot north of Student Loan Finance Corp. and one behind the Citizen's Building. The hope is that these will all eventually connect to the new ACS headquarters via skywalks. 

Sanderson said Blackstone hopes that the restored Ward will appeal to people who want "to own a part of the Alonzo Ward Hotel, the old history." That "old history" has sparked the interest of many people, including Ward Hotel employees, who have researched and written about Ward's life. 

A small start: It all started in 1884 when Alonzo Ward Sr. began serving coffee and meals out of a little food stand on Main Street. By 1888, Ward had a full-fledged eatery called the Railroad Restaurant. 

According to newspaper reports, the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull -- who defeated Col. George Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn -- ate there, the first in a long list of famous people who would eventually visit Ward's establishments. 

In 1894, the first Ward Hotel was built. President William Howard Taft stayed at the hotel during a 1911 visit to Aberdeen. 

But on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 24, 1926, the 90-room structure was destroyed by a fire that started in the building's basement. It gutted the hotel, severely damaging the restaurant, barbershop and other stores for a loss of $300,000. 

But Ward bounced back, and in 1927 he announced that a new hotel would be built on the site. The six-story, 120-room structure opened on May 15, 1928. And it was nothing less than luxurious. Guest rooms each had partial or complete baths and walls painted a beautiful combination of colors. 

On the second floor was the ballroom, complete with crystal chandeliers and a mezzanine overlooking the lobby. An early newspaper article said the ballroom has "a loveliness and color that will afford a pleasing background for pretty dance frocks and prettier women" at the social functions that would certainly be held there. This ballroom -- the only one of its kind left in the area -- was one of the main reasons the hotel was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1982. 

Ward died unexpectedly in 1929. The top two floors were not yet completed, so he never got to see his hotel fully finished. 

Over the years, the Ward Hotel has housed many famous guests, including Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, then-California Gov. Earl Warren and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy. The Ward has hosted famous entertainers like Lawrence Welk, Duke Ellington and Jack Benny, who once broadcast his traveling radio show from the hotel. 

The Ward was also home to one of Aberdeen's first radio stations. 

And over the years, several types of eateries and stores -- from pharmacies to shoe shines -- were housed at the hotel in different locations, said past hotel owner Sue Tonner. 

The hotel has passed through various owners -- like Tonner -- all of whom kept Ward's name in some form. 

Tonner was part of a group that purchased the Ward in 1981. She, her husband Tom, and Velna and Dr. Harvey Hart owned the hotel for 21 years before selling it to Blackstone in June. 

And after two decades, Tonner and other staff members have some tales to tell that didn't make it into the history books. 

History lesson: When Tonner first bought the hotel, Alonzo "Bud" Ward Jr. and his wife Vivian were still in the community, and she said he shared some fascinating anecdotes with her. 

If you asked him for historical information, he would just give you dates, she said. But if you sat down for dinner with him, Tonner said he'd get a twinkle in his eye and a sly grin, and the stories would flow. 

"Bud" told Tonner that years ago there was an underground tunnel between the Ward Hotel and the hotel that used to be where Sherman Apartments now stands. At the time the Sherman building was run by Ward Jr.'s cousin. 

"Bud" said if the chef or other food staff at one hotel didn't show up for work, they'd often cook the food at the other hotel and cart it over through the tunnel on a Queen Mary -- a huge three-tiered cart. The tunnel has since been sealed off, but Tonner said the door to the tunnel is still in the Ward's basement. Tonner also found what she thinks is the original cart in the cellar. 

And back in Aberdeen's early days, hangings were a big social event that would bring people into town. According to "Bud," the hotel's upper floor rooms would always get rented during these occasions because the courthouse gallows could be seen from them. People could get a look even during bad weather, Tonner said. 

Alonzo's ghost: One story that persists is that Alonzo Ward Sr. still roams his hotel. 

Velna Hart, who runs Good Nature, said the hotel is a huge dark and shadowy place that "all our staff (is) convinced" has a supernatural presence. 

"I think it definitely is (haunted)," said Marianne Stenvig, who owns Alonzo's Restaurant and Lounge and also runs Good Nature with Hart. 

Stenvig said strange things sometimes happen at the Ward. 

There is a buzzer in the kitchen to let the bar know when food is ready, she said. And there have been times when the kitchen is dark and completely locked up, and the buzzer goes off. 

"It's like Alonzo's hungry," Stenvig said, smiling. 

Stenvig also said one man who lives in an apartment at the Ward will hear the door across the hall open and shut late every night. No one lives there. And when he goes out to check, the door is locked. 

This same resident, who Stenvig said lives alone, also keeps a box of tapes inside one of his closets. Once when he went to the closet, he found the tapes all spilled on the floor, but the box was sitting upright. 

Stories of supernatural events at the Ward date back for years, especially occurrences in which doors mysteriously swing open and/or slam shut. This has scared a number of hotel guests into changing rooms. 

A server once had a spooky experience as well. She was alone in the ballroom when suddenly the lights flickered on and off four times. She called to another employee who was in the ballroom's holding kitchen. 

The co-worker came out to see what was going on, but nothing happened. 

When she went back into the kitchen, however, the lights flickered another four times. The server thought her co-worker might be the culprit, but it wasn't possible -- the light switches are not in the holding kitchen; they are in the ballroom itself. 

Tonner said it's a "good excuse" when things are missing to say "Alonzo took it!" "For (the past) 20 years, that's who was to blame," she said, laughing. 

Though Tonner doesn't really believe in things like spirits, she said if they do exist, "Alonzo Sr. is there" at the Ward. 

She pointed out that he died shortly after the hotel was rebuilt and never got to see it fully developed. 

"I think he had big visions," she said, and he might have been "kind of angry he didn't have a longer part in it." But real or not, Stenvig said Alonzo's ghost is nothing to be afraid of. 

"It's just kind of a fun thing," she said. 

Time for renewal: After 21 years, Tonner said she was ready to sell the hotel, and Blackstone's project provided the perfect opportunity. 

She's excited about their plans. 

"Until they came along, I didn't see much future for downtown Aberdeen," Tonner said. "With them you knew (the Ward) was going to be restored and be done the right way and be an asset to all of downtown." And in turn, "downtown will be an asset to the community." Blackstone, which consists of Northwestern Public Service, Student Loan Finance Corp., Kyburz-Carlson Construction, Aman Family Trust and Aberdeen Development Corp., expects the Ward project to be done in early to mid-2004, Sanderson said. 

Tonner said current Ward residents are allowed to stay in their apartments until the project is under way. 

Sanderson said Blackstone hopes that the restoration will attract a variety of people to the Ward. Although incentives will be offered to hunters -- including transportation from Minneapolis directly to the depot on a private train -- the restoration project "is going to be (for) everybody," he said. 

Stenvig is also excited. Her businesses will definitely stay, she said, though currently Main St. Cafe is closed until the restoration plans are finalized. 

Stenvig said the new Ward will almost be like an all-inclusive resort, where people can eat and have drinks, get their hair cut and buy gifts without having to leave the building. 

"I think it's just fabulous," she said. "I can't wait for the look of the building to begin to shine again." And Stenvig thinks Blackstone's plans would also win the approval of Alonzo Ward Sr. 

"I think he'd be very happy," she said. 

-----To see more of the American News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.aberdeennews.com 

(c) 2002, American News, Aberdeen, S.D. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.