In December of 2014, I wrote a proposal paper for a writing class about Gabe’s Tower. This month, the owners have failed to meet a city deadline for refurbishment planning and the city has moved to condemn the property. Is there an opportunity, on the verge of being torn down?
Owensboro’s Gabe’s Tower: Use it or Lose it
December 6, 2014
Our family has moved around the Midwest several times in the last 15 years. Most recently, we moved from a small rural town in Kentucky to the city of Owensboro, KY in 2008. We bought a house in town, not far from a tall, steel and glass cylindrical building named Gabe’s tower. We didn’t know it had a name at first. We had given it a sinister name of our own when referring to it amongst ourselves. I was talking to a friend at work about it one day and she told me it had a name and that not too many years ago it was a hotel and then an apartment building, before it was closed and fell into disrepair. Most people who have lived in and around Owensboro remember when it was open for business. For those residents, it is a familiar, sentimental landmark and one that may be overlooked as the building continues to deteriorate. As newcomers to the neighborhood, we noticed it often as we drove, walked, rode the bus or pedaled a bicycle by the building. My husband wondered why someone hadn’t torn it down already. Our oldest son wanted to buy it and turn it into a laser tag wonderland. Our other kids and I used it as a point of reference for directions, when telling friends and family how to get to our new house. Months stretched into a few years as the building continued to languish, unused and unattended. Once in a while a new board went up over a window or doorway. Weeds grew up through the concrete in the parking lot. Paint peeled and soffits fell. A few miles from this old “sentimental landmark”, the Owensboro riverfront was getting a complete makeover. Gabe’s Tower was now in the crosshairs.
Unattended property can become a problem very quickly in the middle of a city. My husband has a fear of rats because of a very large rat that showed up in the garage at his childhood home one day. The neighbors had demolished the backroom of their house that had been destroyed by a fire and the debris was left unattended for many months. So, vermin is one problem. Vandalism is another problem. Gabe’s Tower is considered an historical building and property owners naturally don’t want anyone breaking windows or tearing up interior rooms that are still in good repair. I saw an article online one day that contained photos of some of the tower’s interior rooms. There is one floor dedicated to a bar and lounge that still looks very nice, with polished natural wood walls and furnishings. The owners invested a lot of money into the purchase of the building and have had to answer to the city for their refurbishing plans. “Owners of historic property have a responsibility to conduct original research, a never-ending task, as clues continue to be found that add pieces to the puzzle of the past.” (Marian Page, 9)
The neighborhood immediately adjacent to the property will be the one most impacted by any plans for the building. The city at large could stand to benefit greatly if the plans are creative and profitable. “The fact that we still have to share places, whether we notice them or not, makes them more valuable and rare. In an age of burgeoning electronic fantasies, places continue to be stubbornly irreducible and real…any place here, fenced or paved or public or private, cannot avoid being part of the land of the free; it has to try to live up to the name, however badly it might fail.” (Block, 158) It’s hard to tell between the city and the investors, but someone is failing here. The most recent inspection has yet to be released to the public or even the city. The owners are said to be “digesting” the findings. Without knowing those details, any proposal would be making assumptions about the building, but there have been very few details shared with the public in the last few years about why there is so much foot-dragging regarding the fate of the building. Is there a creative deficit or dollar deficit? I imagine it is a combination of both. There are a lot of factors to consider as the community watches and waits. Are there any viable ideas on the table at this time that would serve the whole community?
There are many exciting, creative things that go on in this country as people attempt to reuse castaway material from an over-industrialized nation. Things can get even more exciting when those pursuing creative endeavors like these seek to help others and improve the communities in which they reside. In the spirit of those creators and innovators, I propose that the owners of Gabe’s Tower and the city of Owensboro consider something more than just reverting back to a hotel or apartment building. I got an idea one day after seeing a photo online of a cylindrical building in an Asian country with a giant sculpture of a serpent wrapped around the building. I thought instantly of the potential for an artistic solution to the building.
I am suggesting that Gabe’s Tower be refurbished as a city museum with architectural salvage/eco-friendly/community project theme. When our family lived in St. Louis for a few years, we visited the then brand new St. Louis City Museum. The museum is housed in an old warehouse in a run-down area of the city. It was still pretty sparsely furnished with a floor or two still under construction. The museum was in the process of collecting architectural salvage from the city, pieces of Americana and ideas for eccentric exhibits. I loved the work-in-progress feel. This museum has grown and changed and is now a very popular tourist attraction. (“About”)
This type of project would be excellent for the area of the city where Gabe’s Tower is located. It would be a benefit to the neighborhood similar to another example of this kind of project in a neighborhood that our family once visited in Nashville. Near a charter school with an arts emphasis, the residents of the diverse Nashville neighborhood have gone with the flow of the art theme. During a festival at the school, we had a chance to tour the streets nearby which featured brightly painted homes and yard sculpture.
I remember a similar spirit that revitalized an area of Chicago when I was a child. My family and I attended street art shows and garden tours there every year. This kind of neighborhood solidarity around creative living and ownership of one’s environment is the essence of culture. It could be a unifying project. “Everyone must live somewhere. However, when a family owns its home, there is a conspicuous increase in overall self-esteem of its members and general family well-being.” (Phillips)
As a creative person with many ideas, I personally see no drawbacks or problems with this proposal. However, the owner may have problems with this proposal. Seeing the profitability may be a challenge. There would need to be energetic research and a passion for the idea. A lot of money has already been put into the purchase and I’m sure investors want a sturdy idea for the property that would show a promising return. “The restoration of damaged or neglected detail is well within the capabilities of most home crafts persons; the basic ingredients are sensitivity, time and patience.” (Poore,8) Time is running out, however. Returning the building to a working hotel has been an idea I have heard more than once. Restoring the building to apartments to provide affordable housing in this area of town has been another idea that might be pursued in opposition to a museum. Also, the building may be beyond repair, or very costly to repair. I am not aware of its problems. Neighbors also may not welcome a lot of fuss in their neighborhood from a tourist attraction. However, I believe that with the direction that Owensboro has been heading with the revitalized riverfront, now is the perfect time to propose such a solution for Gabe’s Tower. The process would involve the community similar to the planning and building of the recently completed skate park, coincidentally not far from Gabe’s Tower. The whole region could be involved and interested in a project that would welcome their creativity. College art departments and local schools could get involved. Phoenix Commotion of Huntsville, TX has perfected the art of community in collaboration to building with apprenticed labor and salvaged materials. (Bates) Gabe’s Tower could make a great tourist attraction and field trip location. Funding could be sought through art grants, environmental grants or historical landmark funds. Investors, admission fees and other creative avenues could be pursued for a project like this one. (“NEA Awards”) I am excited about this proposal now and find the thought of turning the building back into a hotel very boring.
However, any creative plans for the building are always going to be subject to the reality of the condition of the property. On October 28th of this year, an environmental consultant company inspected the building for asbestos. It was the second inspection of its kind and encouraging to those wanting some movement toward a solution. The city is getting anxious. Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer newspaper reporter Stephen Vied writes “Gabe’s Tower is currently surrounded by a chain-link fence that was installed a year ago, when interior demolition began, only to be suspended after a few days. A recent check of the property shows grass and weeds growing tall inside the fenced-in area, with the exterior of the building looking increasingly tattered. Many missing windows have been boarded over, and many windows are open, exposing the interior to the elements.
The unkempt appearance of the building prompted the city to assess a series of property maintenance code violations against it last year for a wide range of problems.” (Vied)
So, will code violations accelerate a decision on the fate of the building just to be making a decision? If so, a whimsically creative, unconventionally economical, eco-friendly idea may have a difficult time getting a hearing with investors who are pressed for time and good PR. An idea like mine may appear to lack seriousness. Premature promotion without having even a cursory understanding of the problems with the building and the interests of the city would probably be dismissed. “Building with salvage and alternative materials puts you on the fringe of standard strategy, and one cannot expect an inspector, or a city engineer, to immediately process everything you have thought out well in advance.” (Phillips) This idea would have be brought to and through several people. An email to the mayor isn’t going to be effective.
In conclusion, the fate of Gabe’s Tower has been on the drawing board for a long time. Promises have been made but progress is slow. Rather than merely attempt to restore the structure, I am proposing a creative solution that bridges the old with the new and involves the whole community in the process.
“About.” City Museum: Saving the City by Any Means Necessary. St. Louis, Missouri. 4 July 2011. citymuseum.org. Web. 25 November 2014. http://citymuseum.org/site/?p=89
Bates, Don R., et al. Resurrecting Trash: Dan Phillips and the Phoenix Commotion. Texas: Texas Review Press. 2013. Print.
Block, Ira. Saving America’s Treasures. Washington D.C.: National Geographic. 2001. Print
“NEA Awards Grants to 4 Kentucky Projects.” The Associated Press, AP Regional State Report. Kentucky. 20 July 2014. Regional Business News. 25 November 2014.
Page, Marian. Historic Houses Restored and Preserved.New York: Watson-Guptill Publications. 1976. Print
Phillips, Dan. “Information.” Huntsville, TX. 2010. Phoenixcommotion.com. Web. 6 December 2014. http://www.phoenixcommotion.com/
Poore, Patricia. The Old-House Journal. New York, NY: Dutton. 1992. Print
Vied, Steve. “Tower Tested for Asbestos.” Messenger-Inquirer. Owensboro, Kentucky. 6 November 2014. Database: Newspaper Source. 25 November 2014.