The Franklin Hotel
Backstory and Context
The movement to build a new hotel in Kent was started in the early 20th century and was initiated and carried out by the Kent Board of Trade, now known as the Kent Chamber of Commerce. While the village had two places of lodging, neither was very large. The previous hotel, the Revere Hotel, closed in 1899, and business leaders felt a larger, modern hotel was needed to meet the demands of growing industries, railroad travelers, and the emerging Kent State Normal College. The idea was that of Dudley Mason, the owner of Mason Tire and Rubber in Kent. The drive to fund the hotel through the selling of stock began March 24, 1919. During this time, the Board of Trade also sponsored a naming contest in the local Kent Courier newspaper, where the "Franklin Hotel" name ultimately came from, named after the previous name for Kent, Franklin Mills.
The first mortgage was bonded in August 1919 and the following month, the architect was chosen, and the Barnett property at the southwest corner of East Main and South DePeyster Streets was selected as the site. The old Barnett home was razed and excavation work started by September 11, 1919 with walls starting to rise by December 18. The hotel opened for tours to stockholders and their families on September 8 and 11, 1920, with a public opening September 12, 1920.
Despite good opening reviews, the Franklin Hotel struggled financially for most of its existence, changing owners and managers every few years. By 1934, it had been auctioned twice and many investors had lost all of their investments. Florence B. Adams of Kent Hotel Incorporated bought the building in 1934 and renovated it, re-opening in 1937 as the Hotel Kent. From 1937 into the mid 1950s, It was managed by Russell O'Conke and enjoyed what is regarded as its heyday. The hotel was stable financially and was marketed as "Ohio's Most Modern Hotel" and "Ohio's Finest Small Town Hotel".
Notable guests who stayed at the hotel during this period included Guy Lombardo, Amelia Earhart, and Glenn Miller. Eliot Ness frequented the hotel's bar in the 1940s and Kent native Martin L. Davey, who served as Governor of Ohio in the 1930s, had an office in the building.
In 1956, however, a new motel along what is now State Route 59 just east of the city limits opened, known as the Eastwood Motor Inn. It featured endorsement from AAA and other modern amenities like ample parking and air conditioning, which the Hotel Kent lacked. Other factors such as the decline in railroad travel and the emergence of the automobile led to a decrease in the need for regional hotels. In 1962, the hotel came under the management of Frank Ellis and was renamed Hotel Kent-Ellis. Financial fortunes continued to decline as two more modern motels opened in Kent: the nearby Motor Inn (later known as the Inn of Kent) in 1964 and the eight-story University Inn along South Water Street in 1970. In the 1970s, with the building in decline and the hotel operations no longer profitable, it was sold to Joseph Bujack and converted to student housing, known as the Towne House. Damage from a number of fires in the 1970s and the deteriorated state of the building led the city to condemn the upper floors in January 1979. Those floors remained vacant until 2013. The lower floors continued to be used until 2000 for a variety of small businesses such as a pizza shop, cafe, and nightclubs.
Following complaints about roof damage in early 1999, the city inspected the building and found that while the building itself was structurally sound, several areas of the brick facade were loose and posed a danger to pedestrians. City inspectors also found a number of health, fire, and building codes and filed for an injunction to close the entire structure. An agreement was reached in October 1999 to make repairs, though only a few minor repairs were carried out on the brick facade, roof, and windows to prevent more pigeons from entering the upper floors. In March 2000, the remaining businesses in the building closed and the city set an April 1 deadline for Bujack to decide if he was going to renovate or raze the building. Although Bujack eventually decided to demolish the building, no work was ever started.
In March 2002, Bujack was given a court order to raze the building by March 31 or face a fine of $1,000 per day it remained standing after that. Bujack offered to give the building to Family and Community Services of Portage County, who had plans to renovate the building for apartments and retail. The plan called for the city of Kent to take temporary possession of the building, but fell through when city leaders decided the liability involved in taking ownership was too high. Other groups expressed interest in the building or the site including proposals to renovate it for use as a hotel, gradual renovation for offices and retail, and demolishing it and building a new store on the site, though none of the plans ever progressed beyond planning stages.
In 2007, he was given a court order to make several repairs for health and safety issues. Repairs made included cleaning of the brick facade and re-grouting the bricks in several locations, removal of several windows, and painting the rear outer wall. Inside, most of the building was gutted to help make it more presentable to potential developers. During the interior work, however, concerns were raised over whether the renovation would jeopardize efforts to obtain any federal or state preservation grants. As a result, no further renovation work was carried out, and while it was reported a development group was interested in buying the building, no changes in ownership occurred. As the building continued to deteriorate, it was described as an "eyesore" and "decrepit" along with being a safety and health hazard with several calls for its demolition.
Kent City Council again approached the idea of foreclosing on the building and tearing it down in 2006. While the demolition measure was defeated, council did authorize the city to attempt to foreclose on the property. Disagreements between Vilk and the city continued for several years over the payment of the fines and liens on the building, the lack of any visible redevelopment efforts, and the increasing dilapidated state of the structure with Vilk maintaining that the city had promised to removed the liens. A 2007 court ruling ended any additional liens from being issued on the property, but did not remove the liens already in existence of $425,000.
In 2008, Vilk sued the city for $25,000 and the removal of the fines and in 2009, a judge ruled that the city had no authority to collect on the liens, instead ruling that the liens were under the jurisdiction of Portage County. Later in 2009, courts ruled that neither the city nor the county had any liens on the property, but the contempt of court fines still stood. Vilk contended that the fines were levied on the previous owner and were dormant. A settlement was reached in 2011 and the city bought the building for $735,000 before selling it to Ron Burbick a few days later for $400,000.
Prior to his purchase of the old hotel, Burbick had personally funded the Phoenix Project, which renovated and expanded two neighboring downtown buildings and tore down the house that was immediately adjacent to the west of old hotel, replacing it with a retail area known as "Acorn Alley". Acorn Alley quickly became a popular destination after opening in late 2009 and the office and retail space in the rest of the development was in high demand. The new development put increased exposure on the dilapidated state of the old hotel, which stood in contrast to the buildings around it. The Phoenix Project also helped spur additional development in the adjacent blocks of downtown Kent. Multiple development projects totaling nearly $100 million got underway in 2010, including a second phase of Acorn Alley, a new hotel and conference center, a 360-space parking deck, and additional retail and office space, all within a block of the old hotel.
Minor renovation work started in May 2012 with asbestos and lead paint removal followed by exterior masonry work on May 22, 2012, which cleaned and re-grouted the entire brick facade and more extensive interior work began in September. In October, construction started on a new elevator shaft and stairwell added to the rear of the building which was necessitated by the original shaft being too small for modern elevator equipment. Buffalo Wild Wings opened for business April 1, 2013 and additional tenants moved into the remaining building space later in April and May. The renovation and restoration of the old hotel to become Acorn Corner was hailed by the local Record-Courier as a "Kent miracle" that brought the building "back from the dead."