ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Visit the Elgin Hotel in Marion, and imagine what it was like to be a guest in the late 1880s and early 1900s-the hotel’s glory days.
Ladies in flowing evening gowns danced the night away in the grandeur of the ballroom, and an orchestra played on a balcony overlooking a dining room that seated 80 guests.
Those stately rooms are gone now-replaced by apartments built in 1976.
New owners Jacque and Jim Strawn of Hutchinson purchased the old structure in 1999, and they say they are ready to restore its original dignity.
They plan to update the 25-year old apartments and invite guests to stay in future bed-and-breakfast suites.
“Two of my favorite things are the limestone (exterior) and the tall windows with the arches at the top,” Jacque Strawn said.
“And I also like the veranda-the covered porch-that wraps around the north and east sides of the building.”
Located at 115 N. Third, at the intersection of brick-paved Third and Santa Fe streets, the three-story building was constructed in 1886 on land purchased for $25. With the help of investors, the hotel was built for $25,000.
“It was claimed to be one of the costliest hotels built at that time,” Strawn said. “They contracted for 200 cords of (magnesium limestone) from the quarry for the new hotel.”
From public records, old newspaper articles and local historians, Strawn has discovered the original hotel offered such amenities as 42 guest rooms, a bathroom, a double parlor, an open staircase in the front lobby, a barber shop, billiard and card rooms, and a reading room.
A smaller building, still hugging the southwest corner of the hotel, once housed a changing room for employees, a bakery and a boiler room in the basement.
The governor’s ball was held in the Elgin Hotel for several years.
“A railroad came through this area at the time, and that’s why this was a very popular hotel,” Strawn said.
In the late 1880s, Marion was experiencing a business boom. And by 1886, it was becoming a resort city that boasted two parks close to the Elgin and offered the medicinal powers of mineral springs nearby.
Salesmen were such frequent guests at the hotel that some rooms were equipped with desks and chairs so the men could do paperwork and plan their routes for the next day.
But the grand hotel’s demise is also a matter of public record.
“After the railroad shut down, there wasn’t as much business to keep it going,” Strawn said.
And by the 1950s, the popularity and anonymity found at new motels overshadowed the old building with no air conditioning and signaled the end of an era.
The hotel closed.
From the late 1950s to the 1970s, several owners purchased and sold the building that local historians described as an eyesore. At one point, a church almost demolished it to use the stones and arched windows for a new sanctuary.
In 1975, a civil engineer, Van Keith Anderson, enlisted the help of local investors and eventually converted the ailing landmark into 23 modern apartments that were available for tenants by 1977.
Anderson preserved the architectural integrity of the building by designing the apartments around existing doors and windows.
An old hotel register, reported by one of the past apartment managers to contain signatures of western legends Buffalo Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp, has mysteriously disappeared, Strawn said.
“Someone said they saw (the register) as late as the 1970s, but I don’t know after that. It would be interesting if anyone knew anything about it.”
Today, the Elgin building is listed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places-an honor it received in 1978.
And the memories of the past are being rekindled by the Strawns as they prepare to give it new life.
Jim saw an auction sale bill for the Elgin building in 1999. “He just decided he’d come down for the day and see what it was and ended up buying it,” Strawn said.
“He knew it was apartments, and he wanted to be able to go in and fix them and slowly renovate all of the apartments in the building.”
The couple has a son, Austin, 11, and Jim has two daughters from a previous marriage.
The Strawns own several companies that involve new-home construction, old-home remodeling, roofing, dry-wall and fencing. They also own a mini-storage facility and commercial properties.
The couple purchased and renovated the old Wells Fargo building in downtown Hutchinson.
“We’ve leased it out to a restaurant, and we’re doing the paperwork to get it on the historical register,” Strawn said.
“And we bought the old train depot. The train still stops there, and the Reno County Transit Department is in there.”
Jim’s a big supporter of revitalizing the downtown area, Strawn said.
“The purchase of the Elgin building started out as a business venture. Then as time has gone on-especially since we have a couple of old buildings in Hutch-we really appreciate the history behind it and don’t want to see the building decay.”
Strawn has taken over the rental end of the couple’s properties, and that even includes yard work at the Elgin building, she said, as she pulled a stray weed.
“My son is at the age he wants to earn money, so he’s been up here quite a bit this summer,” Strawn said. “He’s been mostly working on the yard, and he’s done some painting for me.”
The Strawns have also repaired the roof and plan to repaint all the wood moulding on the building’s exterior.
They are in the process of remodeling the Elgin’s 21 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
Some of the units are receiving new paint, carpet, linoleum, bathtubs, refrigerators and air-conditioning units. And they have dishwashers, stoves and garbage disposals.
Those apartments rent from $250 to $325 a month, which doesn’t include gas or electric.
The couple will also offer bed-and-breakfast suites in addition to the apartments.
Jim’s sister had a bed and breakfast in Lindsborg last winter, and he thought that might be an idea for some of the units here, Strawn said.
The couple have taken a first-floor apartment on the northeast corner of the building and converted it into a bed-and-breakfast suite that is scheduled for its first guest Sept. 27.
“It’s not really the traditional bed and breakfast that’s in a house, and you come down to a community kitchen,” Strawn said.
“They’re going to have a little kitchen area they can use themselves. It’s almost like an apartment by the night.”
The cost of the new bed-and-breakfast suite will be $70 a night and can be rented for a day, a week or up to one month.
“And we’re trying to work out a voucher set up with the cafes downtown so (guests) can go down there and have breakfast,” she said.
Future plans include remodeling more apartments for bed-and-breakfast suites, but only as they become available.
“And we’re hoping in the future to have a unit or two that will be just furnished-not decorated fancy-for fishermen or hunters who come to the lake or hunt around here and would want some lodging over the week end,” Strawn said.
The Elgin manager, Jan Isham, lives in an apartment on the third floor and would be available to help the bed-and-breakfast guests, too.
The Marion Chamber of Commerce occupies one of the first-floor apartments on the north side of the building.
“They’ve been so supportive and informative, and we’ve had good support from the town,” Strawn said.
“A lot of this has to do with the support of the community and hearing what they have said about the (hotel’s) past history-what they did and didn’t like about it definitely influences what we do.”
Strawn is developing brochures and putting information on a new Web site the couple are in the process of constructing.
She said in the future, she wants to put a brochure and a binder with the history of the building in each suite. And she will also offer brochures for visitors at Marion’s lake and reservoir, businesses in Hillsboro and Marion, and advertise in newspapers.
“What would really make me feel good is to have a nice group of tenants who respect the property and are happy living (in the apartments), have bed-and breakfast-suites being occupied, and have the satisfaction to know it’s someplace people would want to visit,” Strawn said.
“And if we’re not busy on the weekend, we can come up here and stay and enjoy the lake, too.”