Thursday, May 22, 2003

Hall restorers confident they made right decision

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Using a mini-excavator, Dale Broxterman works at the Odd Fellows Hall site.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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COVINGTON - In the predawn hours, a fire caused by an electrical short gutted the interior of the historic Odd Fellows Hall at a prominent intersection. Firefighters narrowly escaped injury when the roof collapsed. After the blaze was extinguished hours later, the building's walls were the only thing left standing.

In a scene reminiscent of last May's devastating fire at the Covington Odd Fellows Hall, the town of Wakefield, Mass., saw its 19th century Odd Fellows Hall gutted by flames in January 1997. As in Covington, some questioned the feasibility of restoring the downtown landmark. But practicality and altruism prompted the owners of a Wakefield bank to rebuild the massive building that had occupied a prominent downtown intersection for more than a century.

"A local bank next door bought the shell (of the Odd Fellows Hall) and expanded its offices into it,'' said Don Dusenberry, a principal with the Boston firm that served as the structural engineer on the Wakefield project. "It probably would have been cheaper to knock the building down and try to build something new, or make it a parking lot. But it was an attractive, historic building in the center of Wakefield and there was some desire to preserve it.''

In Covington, the developers who had been poised to renovate the Odd Fellows Hall before the May 21, 2002, fire, spent three days debating restoring the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

[IMAGE] The May 21, 2002, fire destroyed most of the historic Odd Fellows Hall.
(Enquirer file photo)
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In the end, the support of Covington officials was a key part of their decision to rebuild the hall that had served as the center of the city's civic and political life for much of its 147 years.

"Development of that building in that location will help pull development from the riverfront through the downtown,'' said Kristi Nader, executive director of the Covington Business Council. "And it helps tie in our rich history with our tech corridor on Madison (Avenue). ...You can't buy that (history) today.''

During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers were held prisoner at Covington's Odd Fellows Hall. In 1900, the body of William Goebel, Kentucky's only governor to be assassinated, lay in state there. Through the years, the hall has housed an apothecary, a World War II-era dance hall, a boxing club and a roller rink. Its unique attic truss work supporting the ceilings and the floors below was thought to have been designed by John Roebling, whose Roebling Suspension Bridge served as the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge.

Owners Tony Milburn and Damian and Kelly Sells plan to restore the Odd Fellows' exterior to its mid-19th century appearance by fall, complete with exterior tuck pointing, windows with wooden arches, and a copper roof - all resembling the building's original look but more durable.

Covington Mayor Butch Callery described the Odd Fellows project as a cornerstone for downtown redevelopment, largely because of its historic significance and its prominent location at Fifth Street and Madison Avenue.

"Even though (the reconstruction's) been delayed, everything's starting to take off around it,'' Callery said.

As examples, Callery cited the newly renovated Madison Theater, the ongoing renovation of a vacant bank building in the 600 block of Madison into a banquet hall, and the conversion of a vacant building at Madison Avenue and Pike Street into loft apartments. To the south, developers recently purchased the building housing a former strip club and dress shop that they plan to turn into retail space and apartments.

Once the exterior work is done, the Odd Fellows developers plan to market the building in earnest, with the anchor tenant determining the layout of the five-story building. They plan to have the building ready to rent by next June - about a year later than their pre-fire schedule.

Four nearby businesses have sued the Odd Fellows developers, citing loss of income and/or damage to their businesses from last year's fire. While supportive of the project, other business owners have questioned the pace of the reconstruction.

The Odd Fellows owners plan to display historic artifacts from the building's past, including the huge wrenches used to adjust the trusses from which the upper floors were suspended, a piece of the charred truss, bottles from the apothecary and handmade nails.

"We will continue to talk with prospective tenants, but until the exterior of the building is complete, it's a tough sell,'' said leasing agent Craig Roberts of Capital Real Estate Partners. "I'm hopeful that within the next eight to nine months, we'll have something tangible that we can announce.

"When life deals you lemons, you make lemonade,'' Roberts said. "With the older facility, there were some restrictions in terms of the layout of this building. Now that we're building a new building, we can have a more efficient floor plan.''


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