They were standing on chipped plaster sprinkled down from the deteriorating Gold Room ceiling, lit by temporary floodlights because there were no chandeliers.
The crowd gathered for the official Blackhawk Hotel restoration ribbon-cutting Thursday had its sights on the triumphant return of the grande dame of downtown Davenport.
Amrit and Amy Gill of Restoration St. Louis wowed the crowd with plans such as restoring the two-story lobby atrium with a massive skylight, replacing the crumbling concrete east-side addition with a new grand entrance on Pershing Avenue, terrace gardens, fitness centers and maybe a spa and a return to glory of the venerable Gold Room banquet and reception facility.
The Gills heaped praise on city staffers, elected officials and DavenportOne, and those groups responded with gushing thanks to the Gills for coming to the rescue of the once-landmark hotel that has sat empty since a meth-fueled fire three years ago.
“Thanks to the Gills, generations of families will once again be able to enjoy the fond memories of wedding receptions, galas and other such events at the Blackhawk and its famous Gold Room,” Mayor Bill Gluba said. “After seeing this building languish for years, this truly is a most welcome and long-awaited development.”
The company’s Missouri-based general contractor, BSI of St. Louis, has spent the past few months painstakingly dismantling and cataloging valuable and historic pieces, such as chandeliers, original light fixtures and decorative handrails. Now, they are preparing to demolish add-ons, ranging from drop ceilings in the old High Notes restaurant and the lobby to the entire east-side addition that includes a swimming pool and concrete work masking the old brick exterior.
Amy Gill said passers-by will soon see large hoists on the east side, huge trash bins to collect debris from the cleared floors and concrete removal work. At least 100 workers will be on site at the height of construction. The Gills are targeting a late 2010 opening of the massive $36 million restoration project.
It is being funded through a combination of traditional bank financing by Restoration St. Louis and the company’s cash reserves, economic incentives including Tax Increment Financing from the city and state historic tax credits.
She also took time to address naysayers and skeptics who have questioned the company’s ability to successfully complete the daunting undertaking.
“We’ve done too many of these to say there won’t be bumps along the road,” she said. “Buildings always save their best mysteries for the demolition phase. But I can promise you that you will be proud of this when it is finished. The big thing that hasn’t been done in the past is restoration. Sometimes what you started with is the best you end up with. We plan to end up with the best.”
The Gills promise to deliver a boutique hotel, banquet space and luxury apartment complex that will measure up against similar projects in large cities.
The Gills’ new hotel partner, CWE Hospitality Management — which operates the luxury five-star Chase Park Plaza hotel in downtown St. Louis and the upscale Lodge and Spa at Cordillera at the Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado — is excited about breaking into the Quad-City market.
“We offer a brand of hospitality we think is very welcoming and Midwestern,” said Marcia Smith Niedringhaus, executive vice president of CWE Hospitality. “We anticipate doing the same types of things we do in St. Louis, but maybe in a little smaller metropolitan area.”
The Blackhawk reminded company officials of the Park Plaza, which also dates to the 1920s. This is the first time the company has partnered with the Gills, but Smith Niedringhaus noted its offices are nearby in St. Louis and Restoration St. Louis’ preferred contractor, BSI, has also worked on CWE projects.
Tom Flaherty, DavenportOne’s senior vice president for community growth, is hopeful the enthusiasm and confidence of respected out-of-town developers and operators will help jump-start more commercial and residential development downtown. Already, market-rate rental unit occupancy is around 98 percent, and the next step is bringing in more business, he said.
“We’re hoping to see more local developers take an interest as these projects are successful,” he said, referring to the Blackhawk and nearby Forrest Block restorations. “They are starting to see the opportunities downtown.”
The Forrest Block Building, which dates to the 1890s at 4th and Brady streets, has sat empty for two decades and is being converted by Restoration St. Louis into 22 luxury apartments.
Davenport’s newest alderman, 2nd Ward’s Bill Edmond, said the mix of public and private funding on the project is the kind of economic development spending he can support.
“This is bringing an end to a deplorable era of ownership by the Isle of Capri,” he said. “I’ll sure be glad to see this renovated.”