In less than 50 years, Owensboro’s iconic Gabe’s Tower Inn has gone from proud symbol of Kentucky’s third largest city to coming dangerously close to the wrecking ball. Rich in history and fondly remembered by the thousands of people that stayed there, Gabe Fiorella’s vision remains a fine example of a mid-century modern skyscraper that carefully mixes kitsch with the streamlined sensibilities of the 1960s.
Restaurant owner and businessman Gabe Fiorella Sr. had grand visions for the Triplett Street Plaza that first housed his namesake restaurant and became home to his beloved “silo”. When the tower was finished in the winter of 1963 (at a cost of over $1.4 million) its quirky cylindrical shape with multi-colored pastel panels was an immediate hit or miss with the city’s residents. Either way, it became a landmark and an instantly recognizable symbol of the city. Rotating on a pedestal nearby, a larger-than-life concrete statue of Gabe himself beckoned people to come and see the tower and spend the night in Owensboro’s finest hotel. Standing a full 125 feet tall, upon completion it was the tallest building west of Louisville in the state. The views from the 13th Floor rooftop garden were truly stunning. Just inside was a heated indoor pool and one floor below was a full-service restaurant. The remaining floors housed 120 rooms. The hotel’s future was bright and would remain so for the next decade.
The city changed drastically in the mid to late 70s. While the population remained stable, growth expanded southward and the immediate area surrounding Gabe’s Tower fell into a steady decline. The once proud hotel struggled to stay afloat and vacancy rates where high. The death knell came quickly when the cross-town rival The Executive Inn (demolished in 2009) opened in 1977 and siphoned hotel guests with its musical entertainment, better facilities and river views. Gabe’s Tower no longer even held the title of Tallest Building in Owensboro having lost that accolade to the Roosevelt House, which topped out at 195 feet when construction finished in 1973. The hotel building was sold to Owensboro Business College the next year, but it would be a short-lived relationship.
The college unloaded the tower in 1983 to some out of state investors who succeeded in re-opening it as a Best Western. Business was never strong and other options were considered. Rumors of converting the hotel into a retirement home never came to fruition and in 1988 it was shuttered again. Still, the building lured investors. In 1991, it opened once more as a hotel. Called simply Tower Motor Inn it offered cheaper rooms and became a popular place for prom parties, teams of screaming Little Leaguers, transient workers and the occasional traveler who still remembered the glory days of the 1960s. This is how it survived for most of the decade, but the upkeep on the property was minimal and age was taking its toll.
It could get no worse than 1999 when a man attacked two boys in the hotel. Beating them with a toilet tank lid and a chair leg, one died and the other was seriously injured. This was not the kind of press the building needed. Mismanagement led to the Tower Motor Inn being re-christened the Knights and later the Sun Hotel. No matter the name, the results were the same: a business struggling daily to survive in a part of town that most “respectable” people didn’t go to. It was closed for the last time around 2001.
Can Gabe’s Tower rise again? The pastel panels have long been painted a drab color. The once grand concrete-buttressed entryway stands boarded up. A new millennium lured a new investor. Sherajul Hoque purchased the building at a public auction for just over $250,000 in 2006 and immediately announced plans for a renovation and, yes, a re-opening. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Hoque and the city of Owensboro have battled each other over the dilapidated appearance with Hoque being fined over $4000 in the process. Broken windows, peeling paint, and a garbage-strewn lot were all that greeted visitors to the landmark in recent years. More promises and plans were filed in 2009. City officials began discussing condemnation and ultimately demolition. Finally, in February of 2011 Hoque has squared his fines, but the city has a $4000 lien on the property and Hoque has remained tight-lipped with future plans.
Gabe’s statue may stand longer than his beloved hotel. It is safely secured at a mini-storage in the 1400 block of Burlew Blvd. His cardinal red jacket has now been painted an odd blue, but his smile, string tie and perpetually waving arm greets the city 24 hours a day just as he has for nearly the last 50 years.
Property Type: Commercial
Year Built: 1963
Sq. Footage: 65,000+