It’s been a dream for years, and now the preservation and transformation of the former Alexander Inn is nearly complete.
The two-year, $8 million construction and renovation project is almost finished, and Alexander Guest House could open as an assisted living facility in about two weeks, said Rick Dover of Dover Development of East Tennessee.
Sixty percent of the 64 apartments are already reserved, Executive Director Jody Daugherty said during a media tour Wednesday. Among those who will live there are Jean Stone of Oak Ridge and Dean Ford of Oliver Springs. They participated in the media tour on Wednesday.
“I think they’ve done a remarkable job of restoring it to its grandeur,” said Stone, a longtime Oak Ridge resident who has “many fine memories” of parties, weddings, wedding receptions, and club meetings, among other events, at the historic two-story hotel. “Once I saw what they’re doing here, I wanted to come here. I think it will be a lovely place to live. It’s absolutely tremendous.”
The historic two-story hotel was built as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II, and top scientists and dignitaries once stayed there.
But it hadn’t been used since the 1990s, and it had fallen into disrepair. The long-vacant hotel, which has been known as both the Guest House and Alexander Inn, was dilapidated enough that Dover fell through a floor the first time he toured the property, and woodchucks and bees lived inside. It became the victim of vandals, varmints, and weather, and city code enforcement efforts against the property started in 2005.
Historic preservationists including the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association lobbied to save the property for years. And Dover had looked at it a few times over a decade. But he couldn’t make the numbers work.
But a $500,000 grant announced by the U.S. Department of Energy three years ago changed the math. The grant went to the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance, which used it to buy the Alexander Inn and stabilize it until the hotel could be transferred to a private developer.
Dover Development, which was formerly Family Pride Corporation, announced its proposal to convert the hotel into an assisted living center in September 2012, and bought the property in May 2013.
The company received a 90 percent, 10-year tax break, or payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, used to build a new road for cars that once drove through the three-acre site, move a storm sewer under the two-story building, and help remove asbestos, among other things.
On Wednesday, Dover said workers saved and restored as much of the Alexander Inn as possible, including the original floors and structure. The hotel’s poplar paneling was re-milled, Dover said.
There is a soda-fountain bar where the old lunch counter used to be, lounges and seating areas upstairs and down, and outdoor courtyards. Services will include laundry, entertainment, transportation, and a beauty salon. Also planned are a herb garden for the kitchen and putting green for residents.
“It’s like living in a country club or a great old hotel,” Dover said.
Dover said prospective residents are welcome to visit for a tour.
He said the Alexander Guest House will have an 18-unit first-floor memory care wing for residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
He said he’s never see a building so beloved by the community in his 30 years in the business. Officials had a yard sale a few years ago for some of the items that remained in the Alexander Inn, and the line to get into the building went around the block.
“This changed the course of our history,” Dover said of the hotel, which contributed to the end of World War II and to the science and technology that followed.
The Alexander Inn was built during the war, when Oak Ridge raced to help build the world’s first atomic weapons as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Guests who once stayed at the two-story hotel included General Leslie Groves, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi.
Once known as the Guest House, the Alexander Inn was one of the first Manhattan Project buildings, and it opened in August 1943.
“Now it’s back to life, like a phoenix rising from its own ashes,” Tennessee Senator Randy McNally said Wednesday. The senator, who stayed at the hotel in 1948, won praise from Dover for helping resolve state issues related to the project.
Officials said the three-acre site has a preservation easement on it.
“This is like a dream come true for us,” said Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage. “This building will be protected forever.”
The building renovation included the demolition of the ballroom, which was added to the hotel in the 1950s. It couldn’t be salvaged, Dover said. It was replaced with a kitchen and new ballroom and dining area.
In March 2014, the building was removed from an annual list of endangered places in East Tennessee published by the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance.
Dover and his company received a historic preservation award from the ORHPA in September 2014.
“We’re going to faithfully restore this building to its original look, from the soda-fountain bar in the lobby to the beautiful wide porch out front,” Dover said at that time.
Now, the Alexander Guest House could become part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park approved by Congress in December. The property is listed on the National Historic Register as part of the Oak Ridge historic district.
The DOE grant to the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance was part of a 10-year effort to preserve the North End of the former 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 DOE in August 2012 cleared the way for the entire building to be demolished. The agreement also provided, among other things, the $500,000 grant to the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said the Alexander Inn was the only historic building to be preserved as part of that K-25 mitigation.
Oak Ridge Today has previously reported that the renovation is benefiting from a 20 percent federal tax credit, and the rehabilitation is adhering to U.S. Department of Interior standards.
Ford, a veteran who worked entry-level construction jobs in Oak Ridge before he joined the Army in World War II and worked at Y-12 for more than 40 years after the war, said he had looked at a few places, but he was willing and able to wait for a room at Alexander Guest House.
His daughter’s wedding rehearsal was there, Ford said, and the staff is welcoming.
“It’s part of the history of Oak Ridge,” he said. “It’s just amazing to see it come back today.”
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