News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 18, 2014

Old hotel faces uncertain future

Once the height of downtown luxury, former Hotel Deming soon to enter new use

TERRE HAUTE — If you could travel back in time 99 years and wanted to land in Terre Haute’s liveliest spot, you would almost certainly find yourself at Sixth and Cherry streets inside the Hotel Deming.

Opened in late 1914, the eight-story hotel was hailed as being 10 years ahead of its time. The Terre Haute Tribune, in a 13-page special section, quoted silent film actor Raymond Hitchcock, calling the hotel “the most modern hostelry I’ve struck outside of New York or Philadelphia.”

Hitchcock went on: “When I sat in that easy leather chair in the lobby I quite forgot where I was; imagined myself in some quiet, elegant, exclusive home for wealthy citizens and properly introduced transients somewhere along Fifth Avenue in New York. I forgot I was in Terre Haute…I was so comfortable, so happy in my surrounding!”

An imaginary trip to the Hotel Deming, now known as Deming Center, a Terre Haute Housing Authority property, is not just a trip to another time. It’s a trip to another place: A city called Terre Haute that is hard to imagine today.

“Terre Haute’s downtown was a hustling, bustling city,” recalled Anne Andeen, whose father was Demas Waterman, an owner and manager of the hotel for many years. Andeen grew up living in the hotel, a fact not always loved by its residents and guests, she admits.

“I was terrible,” Andeen said. She remembers roller-skating in the hotel’s mail room, riding her bike in the hallways and – once – pouring water down the mail chute between the elevator shafts. “I caused a lot of trouble,” she said laughing.

Uncertain future

The future of the former hotel is currently hanging in the balance. The Housing Authority is constructing a new facility for the building’s more than 100 residents on the east side of town and plans to move everyone out of the Deming Center by the end of the year.

In November, the authority asked for bids from anyone interested in the old Deming building. The Housing Authority board of directors is now considering the bids they received, said Housing Authority Executive Director Jeff Stewart.

“What we have are some attractive proposals that we’re going to consider, and we hope to have a decision made in the coming couple of months,” Stewart said. The authority’s board, whose members are appointed by the mayor, will likely discuss the bids in closed, executive session sometime this month or next, he said. It will then make a formal decision in an open meeting. The result will either be another round of bidding or a decision to work with one of the bidders, he said.

“That’s about where it stands right now,” Stewart said.

The identity of the bidders is currently not being released, but Mayor Duke Bennett and others hope the structure winds up with a new owner willing to invest in the old building and make it a lively part of downtown, not a vacant structure. The ideal new owner, from the city’s point of view, would also be a private (property tax-paying) owner, Bennett said.

“We want to put that building back into good use for the downtown area,” Bennett said. “Something that fits the development downtown; something that would promote more housing downtown. Obviously, you want to get the best price on the building, but you also want to find the right partner who will invest in it what it will take to bring it up to what it needs to be,” he said.

Tommy Kleckner, director of the western regional office of Indiana Landmarks, also hopes the new ownership of the building will promote the best interest of all of downtown Terre Haute. The “Hotel Deming is one of the last substantial historic structures in downtown,” he said. It is also the last of the historic downtown hotels still in existence.

A wonderful place

Allen W. Weaver is among the dozens of residents currently living in the Deming Center. Remarkably, he was employed at the Hotel Deming in the 1950s as a bellhop and still recalls with great detail what the hotel was like and how it was as a place to work.

“The money” was the best part of working in the hotel, Weaver said smiling. He recalls a Californian staying in the hotel who was in Terre Haute for the Indianapolis 500. The man handed Weaver, who had carried his luggage upstairs for him, a $50 bill.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t make change for that,” Weaver recalled telling the gentleman. “He looked at me and said, ‘Did I say I wanted anything back?’” That was the first time Weaver ever saw a $50 bill, he said.

The hotel was really a world in itself, said Rocky Smith, who manages the Deming Center and knows nearly every inch of the building. Smith has determined where the massive laundry machines were located in the basement. He is also familiar with the former Ball Room, the former Copper Penny Bar, the former dining room and rooms once used for church services in the hotel.

“Anything you wanted or needed was right here,” Smith said.

John Hochhalter, who has cut hair across Sixth Street from the hotel for decades, said the Hotel Deming was a “fantastic place,” with an elegant Gourmet Room for fancier dining, a coffee shop and snack bar. “It was a neat deal altogether,” Hochhalter recalled.

Hochhalter’s customer, Don Lowder, also remembers the hotel well. A downtown financial professional, Lowder ate there in the smaller restaurant nearly everyday, he recalled. In fact, at age 10, Lowder learned proper table etiquette in the larger, fancier Gourmet Room, he said.

The hotel also featured an eight-chair barber shop, a billiard room, a cigar/news stand and more.

Anne Andeen recalls copper kick plates on the hotel’s front doors.

“My father made sure they were always shined,” Andeen said. She also recalls going into the hotel’s barber shop and visiting with “Shady,” a shoe-shine man.

“I loved to go down there and get my shoes shined,” Andeen recalled. Shady told her he added elephant sweat to the polish to make her shoes especially shiny, she said. A pastry chef at the hotel also made little pies for Andeen, she recalled. “Jimmy Hunter was the [main] chef,” Andeen said. “He was an excellent chef.” Andeen’s father also was very particular about the hotel’s coffee, she recalled. That was very important to him.

If the “money” was the best part of working at the hotel, what was the worst part? Weaver was asked.

“Nothing,” he answered after giving it some thought. “There were so many people working here, each doing different things, it was a wonderful place to be.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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