Top military leaders and scientists once stayed at this historic two-story hotel in the heart of Oak Ridge, and now it’s being converted into an assisted living center.
The $5.5 million renovation of the Alexander Inn at Jackson Square started in July, the culmination of a years-long preservation effort. It could be complete by mid-2014, said Rick Dover, manager of Family Pride Corp., the company converting the hotel.
The Guest House Senior Living at the Alexander Inn will have 62 rooms, including a 17-room memory care wing.
The hotel was built during the Manhattan Project, a top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic bombs during World War II. Guests who once stayed there included Gen. Leslie Groves, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi.
Local, state, and federal officials joined volunteers and nonprofit and business executives on Thursday morning to celebrate the conversion of the hotel, once known as the Guest House, with a groundbreaking and press conference.
“The Guest House-Alexander Inn is a significant building in the story of our country,” Dover said. “It occupies an important place, both physically and historically, in Oak Ridge.”
Dover said environmental hazards such as asbestos, lead paint, and mold have been removed from the 42,000-square-foot building. Structural issues caused by leaky roofs and rot have been corrected, and the building stabilized through new framing. The interior has been cleaned, a new roof and windows installed, and rotten siding replaced. The siding that could be saved has been sanded, painted, and sealed.
The hotel’s ballroom was a complete loss and had to be demolished. It will be replaced by a dining room.
Dover said exterior work could be complete in 10 days. It’s a standard construction project now.
It’s a vital part of the renovation of Jackson Square, the city’s original town center, Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan said.
“Today, we’re here to celebrate the rebirth of Alexander Inn,” Beehan said.
The Alexander Inn was one of the first Manhattan Project buildings, and it opened in August 1943. Residents today fondly recall having weddings there and drinking at the bar. But the hotel had been unused since the mid-1990s and fallen into disrepair.
It’s been listed on the state’s most endangered list, said Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission. It’s also listed on the National Historic Register as part of the Oak Ridge historic district.
The renovation is benefiting from a 20 percent federal tax credit, and the rehabilitation is adhering to U.S. Department of Interior standards.
“This is a true success story,” McIntrye said.
The renovation project also benefited from a 10-year effort to preserve the North End of the K-25 Building in west Oak Ridge. Concerns about the safety of that former uranium-enriching building, its deteriorated condition, and the cost made preservation impractical, but an agreement officially announced by the U.S. Department of Energy in August 2012 cleared the way for the entire building to be demolished. The agreement also provided, among other things, a $500,000 grant to the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance to buy the Alexander Inn and stabilize it until the hotel could be transferred to a private developer.
The three-acre property has been listed on ETPA’s annual East Tennessee’s Endangered Heritage list since 2010. It now includes an easement that will insure the building is preserved forever.
“This closing marks a significant milestone for ETPA and preservation efforts across the region,” an ETPA press release said.
But it’s not just important to preserve the Alexander Inn for historical reasons, officials said. It will have an economic benefit as well.
Dover said the assisted living center will buy roughly $500,000 worth of supplies each year and provide about 30 jobs.
Officials cited a long list of volunteers and organizations who helped save the property, including the city; DOE; ETPA; Family Pride; Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board; Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association, which lobbied to save it for more than a decade; and the Oak Ridge Revitalization Effort, which bought the hotel in December 2009, before the Family Pride sale in May of this year, and organized volunteer work days.
“All of those steps were critical to the final result,” said Ethiel Garlington, ETPA director of preservation field services. “(Some) might have seemed like false starts, but they were important pieces to solving this puzzle.”
Officials said the preservation of the inn, which will be open to the public, dovetails well with plans to designate certain Oak Ridge facilities as part of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. That legislation has passed the U.S. House of Representatives but has not been approved in the Senate.
The Alexander Guest House improvements were supported by a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, agreement recommended by the IDB and approved by the Oak Ridge City Council. The 10-year, $700,000 break on new property taxes will help reroute a storm water line under the hotel and add a driveway from East Madison Road to Broadway, rerouting traffic that currently drives around the back side of the hotel to exit onto Kentucky Avenue.
Those taxes will be deferred, and Family Pride will continue to pay the current property taxes, Dover said. He said the Guest House Senior Living at the Alexander Inn will help increase revenues in Oak Ridge and provide a home for elderly residents who need help with everyday tasks such as laundry, meals, and medicine.
“It’s a boost for the local economy,” Dover said. “It’s a great place for seniors to live. It’s a fantastic building to preserve and restore.”