Sensing something good at the Pere Marquette

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There is little question Gary Matthews has a fondness for the Hotel Pere Marquette. I mean, why else would he be doing what he's doing to rehabilitate the 85-year-old structure? Why would he have stuck with it through the recession, through the hassles he has endured?

A lot of the hotel's former employees have a special love for it, as well. Why else would Bill Carter, an award winning hotelier, stayed there for 30 years when he could probably have taken his talents to a bigger venue?

I know others who worked there for many years, for whom the Pere Marquette was more than just a paycheck. People like Bill Ciardini, Cheri Beever, Joel Green and many others who names were not as well known but were as integral a part of the hotel's life as anybody else.

When I got a close-up look at the Grand Old Lady on Wednesday and saw some of the conditions those employees had to endure, particularly those who had to spend any time in the basement, where employee locker rooms (if that's what you wanted to call them) were located, where the ancient mechanical systems kept chugging along (some seemingly on their last legs) I was stunned.

I knew the place was old, but wow. It was really sad.

The current owner, Innco Hospitality Inc. of Overland Park, Kan., could not afford the millions of dollars in repairs the building needed. Still, that company should be commended for keeping it going as long as they did. That showed the owners also had a special fondness for the Pere because they could have walked away from it instead of working with Matthews and his company, EM Properties Ltd., to make the sale happen.

But after taking that top-to-bottom tour of the Pere Marquette on Wednesday I sensed that the rehabilitation project has an excellent chance of succeeding exactly how Matthews envisions it. Why? Because of the people he has working on it with him and the love they have developed for it.(Photo by Paul Gordon) Mark Hoffman, director of design and construction project manager for EM Properties Ltd., refers to design plans while conducting a tour of the Hotel Pere Marquette. Renovations of the hotel are scheduled to start soon.

I would like now to introduce Mark Hoffman. He is director of design and construction for the project. He has lived and breathed the Pere Marquette probably as much as anybody, including Matthews, the last three years. He conducted Wednesday's tour and he knew every inch of the structure, every nook and cranny. He could answer any question about it, including even how the hotel rigged a rather awkward method to get salt to its large water softeners — through the old coal chute, no less.

Hoffman is young (in my book, anyway) yet could give you chapter and verse on the mechanical systems in the old building. He could show you exactly what pieces of equipment have kept it alive, where the asbestos is that must be abated immediately when construction starts, why things were done in certain ways.

And that was just in the basement. Head upstairs to the guest room areas and he could answer any questions there, as well. The same was true with the lobby, restaurant, and Presidential Suite.

I will acknowledge that I told Hoffman something about the hotel he didn't know — that being where the doors leading in from the garaged used to be located — but that's a minor point.

My point here is that because of people like Mark Hoffman and how he has become a student of the Grand Old Lady, the project is that much further ahead of schedule. I got the feeling that with him working alongside the general contractors, the "superhuman feat" it would take to have the Pere Marquette reopened by March 1, 2013 has a better chance of happening.

Remembering that Matthews first announced the project more than three years ago and that work would have started far, far sooner if not for the recession, I can't but think the delay enabled Hoffman to get to know the Grand Old Lady more intimately than he otherwise would have. That, too, should help the rehabilitation process.

Because of him and others not in the limelight of the project, people like Alicia Ruemelin, head of marketing and media relations for EM Properties, I could sense a building excitement that this is finally going to happen. They can't wait to get it going, to get it done, to show it off.

We'll keep close tabs on the progress of the project and let you know how it's going.

One of the more striking things I saw on the tour Wednesday was a sign penned to the new owners by a former employee asking that they consider hiring the former workers who lost their jobs when the hotel closed last Dec. 2.

That sign ended with, "do them proud with the renovation."

I'm thinking that part is covered.

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at 692-7880 or editor@thepeorian.com

 

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).