By: John Lumea
It opened in November 1963 as Gabe's Motor Inn --- but everybody who knows this building calls it Gabe's Tower.
With its groovy cylindrical form, its pastel-paneled façade, its 12th-floor restaurant and cocktail lounge, and its heated roof garden with swimming pool and retractable glass roof, this Owensboro, Ky., hotel — designed by local architect R. Ben Johnson (1921-2009) for restaurateur and local legend Gabe Fiorella, Sr. (1900-1977) — was the hippest place in town in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Although Johnson always cited, as his design inspiration, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City in Chicago --- whose twin towers (1962/63) were going up and being completed at the same time --- many people see a stronger visual connection to the Capitol Records Tower (1956) in Los Angeles, the first commercial building to feature a circular plan.
Today, Gabe's Tower is one of the earliest-surviving commercial cylinders in the country. Although Gabe’s Tower is structurally sound, its future is not. In August 2012, after years of neglect that have left the building looking very poorly indeed, the city initiated condemnation proceedings against the tower, with a view to demolishing it.
Urbanist and writer John Lumea, who offers this photo essay, responded by launching an effort to explore the full range of options for the tower, in hopes of seeing it redeveloped and restored as an economically vital symbol and icon of Owensboro. Lumea, who now lives in San Francisco, was born in Owensboro in 1965, less than two years after Gabe's Tower opened. So he grew up with the tower's original pastels and sees what bringing them back in the right way could mean to the economic and cultural life of the tower's neighborhood and the city as a whole.
The “Save Gabe’s” effort has attracted support from both residents and former Owensboroans who are spread out across the country, as well as the support and assistance of leaders from the Recent Past Preservation Network, Preservation Kentucky, Kentucky Heritage Council, The Society for Commercial Archeology, The Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee, and the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on 20th Century Heritage.
This early rendering is from a special commemorative section of the Messenger-Inquirer, the Owensboro, Ky., newspaper, that was published on 16 November 1963 to mark the opening of Gabe's Motor Inn. The original caption: "Gabe's Tower, an impressive, ultramodern addition to the Owensboro scene in 1963. The towering cylinder of steel-reinforced concrete presents an imposing appearance to visitors approaching the city."
Very early on, the hotel began marketing itself simply as "Gabe's Inn." An undated official Gabe's Inn postcard from the 1960s provides a view of the tower as it looked when it opened in November 1963.
Image: Early View of Gabe's Inn.
Credit: Life Inc., Advertising of Owensboro KY.
An undated marketing sheet that Gabe's Inn used to attract convention and meeting business offers a view of the Palatine Room, the restaurant and cocktail lounge on the hotel's 12th floor. The Palatine Room was a "satellite" of the regionally famous Gabe's Restaurant, which was just across the parking lot from Gabe's Inn, on the same commercial block.
A postcard from 1967 shows Gabe's Inn's 13th-floor heated roof garden, which featured a swimming pool and a retractable glass roof. WEHT, the local ABC news affiliate, broadcast a weekday morning show, "Breakfast at Gabe's," from this space.
This aerial shot of Gabe's Inn, presumably taken in 1963 or 1964, captures an especially nice view of the tower's retractable glass roof. The photo appeared as part of an ad for the Chicago Title Insurance Company that ran in the November 1964 issue of the American Bar Association Journal.
When Gabe's Inn opened in late 1963, it completed a larger vision that included Gabe's Restaurant and Gabe's Shopping Center --- both of which opened on this block in 1959. This view, which shows the block as it is today, places Gabe's Tower in its contemporary urban context at the intersection of the commercial corridors of 18th (east-west) and Triplett (north-south) Streets.The restaurant, which originally was sited on the northeast corner of the block, closed in 1985 and has been replaced by a BP gas station. The original shopping center building, on the left, remains, although it no longer is the vibrant retail crossroads that was anchored by a W.T. Grant Co. store in the 1960s and early '70s and kept the parking lot full for many hours every day.
Image(left): Aerial View of Gabe's Tower.
Credit: Google Maps.
Gabe Fiorella, Sr., was recognized as a master of cross-promotional branding. This rendering of Gabe's Inn appeared on the back cover of a 1970s-era menu of Gabe's Restaurant. Notice that this rendering, like the earlier one, doesn't picture the retractable glass roof or the broadcast antenna that were part of the tower from the beginning.
This photo of the original Gabe's Inn sign appeared recently on eBay. The base, supports, and marquee structure still are in place at this location on Triplett Street — but the sign itself (replaced by a decidedly less fabulous sign for the tower's early 2000s incarnation as the Sun Hotel) was taken down years ago.
The phrase "Hi Neighbor!", along the top of the sign, is a reference to Gabe Fiorella, Sr.'s, trademark greeting, "Hi neighbor! It's a wonderful world!" This was printed, in full, around the base of a revolving 12-foot concrete statue of a waving Gabe --- dressed in his signature red jacket and black bolo tie --- that stood at the corner point of 18th and Triplett Streets, in front of Gabe's Restaurant, from 1966 to 1985. The date of this photo is unclear — but Gabe's Inn closed in 1977 or 1978.
Image (right): Original Gabe's Inn Sign.
Credit: Michiana Books of Rochester, Indiana
This undated official Gabe's Inn postcard from the early 1970s shows a new paint job with a noticeably toned-down attitude. Compare this with the original postcard, above, and you can see that --- to borrow from the J. Crew vernacular --- the change from the early 1960s to the early 1970s was the change from celery, carrot and sweetcorn to olive khaki, rust and beige. No doubt, the shift from sunny pastels to a more muted, "tasteful" palette reflected shifts both in fashion/style and in larger cultural values.
Image: A Repainted Gabe's Inn From The 1970s.
Credit: Thompson's Community Service Publishing
In the late 1970s, a 4-anchor indoor shopping mall opened 4 miles south of the Gabe's Inn neighborhood and --- 3 miles north --- a new riverfront convention hotel with a 900-seat "Showroom Lounge" that featured acts like Sammy Davis, Jr., and Johnny Cash. These heralded shifts in Owensboro consumer behavior from which the neighborhood --- which had been a major nexus of commercial, retail and entertainment activity in the 1960s and '70s --- has never recovered.
Responding to market pressures, the owners of Gabe's Inn sold the hotel in 1978 to the Owensboro Business College. In 1983, the college sold the tower to two Tennessee investors, who converted it back to a hotel --- a Best Western franchise known as the Tower Motor Inn --- and painted it gold.
Image: Gabe's Inn Converted to Tower Motor Inn.
Credit: Progress Printing Co., Inc.
Gabe's Tower is just a stone's throw from a major regional hospital. But, over the course of the last two decades, in particular, the cumulative effects of public and private disinvestment have transformed the area around the tower from a social and economic hub to symbol of neglect. The signs are evident, both on the street and in the tower itself, which has passed from buyer to buyer, none ever having enough money to do more than keep the building on life support as a hotel of declining quality and reputation.
Image: Gabe's Tower Looking South Along Triplett Street (the eastern border of the Gabe's commercial block).
Credit: Gary Adams
This is Gabe's Tower today. At a court-ordered auction held in 2006 to settle a mortgage dispute between a previous seller and buyer, the tower was sold to its current owner, who promised to restore it but never did. Instead, the tower has remained vacant while the owner has done very little but to accumulate nearly $19,000 in property maintenance fines, which, according to news reports, the City now is attempting to recover either by foreclosure or by condemnation. The Mayor, citing public restlessness over the tower's dilapidated appearance, has made it clear that the City's ultimate goal is to demolish it.
Despite looking more than a little "worked over," however, the City's own inspections of Gabe's Tower have found the building to be structurally sound. Meanwhile, organizations such as the Recent Past Preservation Network and Preservation Kentucky have called upon the City to consider a more measured approach: Mothball the tower, to protect the building from further deterioration; and to "buy time" to conduct both (1) a feasibility study to determine the full range of architectural and programmatic options for the tower; and, pending the study's results, (2) a vigorous search for the right developer.
Image: Current View of Gabe's Tower.
Credit: Gary Adams.
For these and other supporters, the pastel vision of Gabe Fiorella, Sr., remains strong. This vision inspires them to seek a future in which Gabe's Tower is once again an economically relevant symbol and icon of Owensboro, Ky.