CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- By 2024, Cleveland City Hall will be moved into the historic 1928-era Cherokee Hotel, the longtime centerpiece of the city's downtown that will come with a price tag of at least $9 million for renovations to bring it back to its former glory.
The iconic hotel building at the corner of Inman and Ocoee streets in downtown Cleveland on Friday looked a bit forlorn under a cold blue January sky. Green moss was growing on the front steps that lead from the street up to the main lobby. But the original dark, wooden double entry doors still hang behind plywood installed outside to protect them. They bear the original heavy brass hardware they came with and, despite being age-worn, operated as they should.
Elevators in the building are only a few years old and seemed to work fine, but due to little maintenance, the ride up to the roof in one car was a little like a "Friday the 13th" scene with a flickering single bulb overhead as the only source of light on the five-floor ride.
During a tour of the building Friday, Cleveland City Manager Joe Fivas said the plan is the return the property to the hub of activity it was after it opened nearly a century ago. The building at its height of popularity had two red neon "Hotel" signs standing high atop the building that could be seen for miles. Likewise, a person on its roof can see for miles in all directions.
The renovation and redevelopment of the property -- and the adjacent former Roy's Alternator property -- will use $6.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, a $2 million bond, $1 million in potential tax credits and $700,000 from a property sale to pay for improvements to create a city hall, spaces for city services and space for use by the community.
In an early step toward having hard hats on the site, city leaders Monday selected in-house engineering department Assistant Director Bryan Turner as the project manager and approved a $2,850 agreement with Studio 323 for as-built plans of the Cherokee and a building on adjacent property, according to Fivas.
Groundbreaking on the renovation is tentatively set for Feb. 13.
Fivas said Thursday in a phone interview that the nonprofit group that owned the building in 2016 came to the city seeking a new facility for its senior residents. That effort resulted in the purchase of the Cherokee for a little more than $1 million and the decision to construct a new, 80-room facility south of town on Smith Drive for the residents. It took almost two years to build the new facility and move the residents from the old hotel building to the new facility, Fivas said.
With the hotel empty and ready for an investor, Fivas said officials sought an appropriate tenant or developer.
Fivas said city officials sought to generate interest from various developers and took those who visited on tours. He said officials probably conducted 40 tours of the hotel with potential developers.
"But the numbers didn't seem to be working for the hotel industry or the mixed-use industry," Fivas said, "and it seemed like the only interest we were getting was coming from housing-type projects, and we didn't really think that was really the central business hub that we wanted downtown."
That left city leaders looking for another answer.
"The City Council had two priorities that they wanted to accomplish with this building -- one was to bring it back to the prominence it had when it opened in 1928 and to make it the focal point of downtown like it once was and to restore it as a space for the history of Cleveland," Fivas said.
The second problem was that City Hall and city services were spread across five separate buildings, forcing some residents into multiple stops, he said. The city has four more employees than there are offices available, and some kind of expansion of existing facilities was going to be needed within a few years that was expected to cost $5-6 million, Fivas said.
"Right now, to come and do business in Cleveland, you may have to go to three separate buildings to get a permit and then pay for the permit somewhere and then to do something else," he said. "What we want to do is centralize that so whether you want to reserve a park or get a building permit, or whether you want to pay your taxes or pay a parking ticket, you can just go to one place."
Fivas said there were also discussions about the mistake made decades ago when the original Bradley County Courthouse was replaced in 1963 and 1964 with the existing Courthouse building.
"We lost that piece of history, and they didn't want to repeat that mistake," he said. "They wanted to have something that was high quality, a central place in downtown and historic."
During Friday's site tour, Sharon Marr, executive director of MainStreet Cleveland and one of the leading supporters of downtown redevelopment, said the project has generated a lot of excitement in the downtown community, which already has some improvements in the pipeline.
"This building is so iconic, and to have it as the hub of the city's center is just a great benefit for downtown," Marr said. "All the things that are transpiring along with this building -- the park changes, Inman Street's changes -- really are opening up the south side of downtown to new commerce opportunities we haven't had in a long time."
Bad idea for taxpayers?
Cleveland resident Joe Mason, a certified public accountant in Georgia, has lived in the city since 2013 and calls the plan for housing City Hall in the 95-year-old hotel building a "boondoggle," according to a letter he sent to the Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier this month.
"Cleveland taxpayers will pay to renovate and convert the Cherokee into City Hall at a cost likely to exceed $10 million," Mason said in his letter, pointing to previous unsuccessful attempts by the city to attract private investors.
Mason said a former First Tennessee Bank building on Raider Drive presently being eyed for Cleveland City Schools offices could be a better deal for taxpayers with a much lower cost. Mason said private investors didn't bite because the hotel needs too much work.
Dan Rawls, a former Bradley County commissioner and critic of the idea, said the city is stepping blindly into a costly project. He believes city leaders see the Rescue Act funds as free money.
"They want to be the hero with no understanding of how they're going to pay that in the long term," Rawls said in a phone conversation in December.
Fivas said city officials believe the investment in restoring the Cherokee as City Hall will provide longtime benefits. Cleveland's cramped Police Department will move into the former City Hall.
"We think our numbers for the redevelopment are in line," Fivas said, admitting old buildings often contain surprises. "We don't foresee any issues, but we've also built in a pretty healthy contingency."
Officials are prepared to solve problems as they arise, he said.
Visions of the past
"The entire lobby will be restored back to the way that it originally was," Fivas said Friday as he stood in the middle of the lobby as it was left a couple of years ago when the senior residents moved out. "A lot of the marble is there. We're looking for photographs as we try to redo that. I think the council wants to give that space back to the community as a place where you could have small events."
Fivas said the seven-story Cherokee -- it could actually be counted as eight, including the ground floor, as the entrance was one floor above the ground floor in the style of the day -- was the community's home for civic groups and similar events for decades.
The top five floors will house offices, and the spacious ground floor will house the one-stop-shop for city services in the space originally held by a jewelry store, he said. The city will also recruit a new deli or restaurant for the ground floor space for off-the-street customers and also for catered civic group meetings, Fivas said.
As officials prepare to get started, the project manager overseeing the work is collecting information on what the Cherokee originally looked like in its heyday.
Turner, the project manager, said the work now in the early stages is starting with an inventory of existing features.
"We're peeling some of the walls back to see what we can find, what layers are beneath," Turner said Friday during the tour of the main floors, balconies, top floor and roof.
Turner said the original plaster ceiling and terrazzo floors have been uncovered as well as some tongue-in-groove flooring. Many areas have floors built over floors as the building was remodeled into the Summit. The building was modified in some areas with added spaces, and a suspended acoustical ceiling covers up the ornate fixtures above.
"We're finding that everything we hoped would be there is there," Turner said Thursday by phone. "There are some balconies there that surround the whole thing, and it will be spaces where people can go to take their coffee or lemonade as they visit the historic spaces inside. We think it will be tremendously popular."
Plans include about 100 parking spaces for visitors, he said.
Officials are using old photographs and postcards to help restore the old building to its heyday finery. Anyone who has something that might help should send it to Turner at email@example.com, he said.
The city is advertising now for an architect to design the work, he said.
Jonathan Jobe, the city's director of development and engineering, said an initial structural analysis was done on the building prior to the city's purchase, and it is sound.
"We are in the process of doing our asbestos surveying, and we will then go into a demo plan and do some light demo to remove the asbestos to abate everything and get the all-clear from the (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation) on all that," Jobe said by phone Thursday.
As that work is completed, Jobe said an architect should be onboard by then to begin the design for renovations.
"More importantly, with updated energy efficiencies and having people more consolidated, we think that we will reduce our energy consumption by half, which we think will save us $150,000 a year," Fivas said.
Fivas noted the redevelopment of the hotel building will coincide with improvements of Johnston Park across the street and streetscaping along Inman Street, which will add trees and lampposts in a redesigned pedestrian thoroughfare.
The Cherokee Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017 as part of the Cleveland Commercial Historic District, still bears the signage naming it Cleveland Summit apartments, which housed low-income residents from 1972 until early 2021. The hotel building is an example of 20th century commercial architecture with classical influences, according to its register listing.
When it was opened March 20, 1928, then-Gov. Henry Horton addressed Clevelanders who turned out in droves to see and tour the city's new hotel, along with visitors from Chattanooga and Knoxville, according to a March 21, 1928, article in The Chattanooga Times.
The initial low-bidder, Asheville, North Carolina-based James Fanning Inc., submitted a price of $169,000 but was disqualified for failing to file a bond within the time required. The next lowest bidder was T.S. Moudy of Chattanooga with a price of $174,000, according to an article in the June 9, 1927 edition of The Chattanooga Times.
"The Cherokee will have 75 bedrooms, and every room has a bath. A spacious lobby, mezzanine floor, ladies' lounge and dining room are arranged in the plans. A coffee shop on the first floor and five shop rooms are also provided. The construction is to be reinforced concrete, faced with burlap texture brick and terracotta trim," the article states.
Apparently, the hotel had already quietly opened to guests, according to a March 20, 1928, blurb on local newlyweds stating, "Mr. and Mrs. Marion Shields have returned from their wedding trip to points east and are located for the present at the new Cherokee Hotel in Cleveland."
According to newspaper archives, the hotel project was backed by over 200 local subscribers, all the stock being owned by C.L. Hardwick, well-known manufacturer and president of the hotel company. Hardwick was noted to have given the hotel project his personal attention.
Hollywood comes to Cleveland
The Cherokee Hotel is probably most notable for its role in Oscar-winner Elia Kazan's 1960 film "Wild River," when it hosted stars Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick and others in 1959 while the movie was being filmed in locales across the county, according to Cleveland officials and The Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper archives. The movie -- which contained scenes shot along the Hiwassee River in Charleston, Cleveland and McMinn County's Calhoun -- featured more than 140 local residents and told a story of the Tennessee Valley Authority's beginnings in the 1930s.
Eager to further his career, ambitious TVA Administrator Chuck Glover, played by Montgomery Clift, journeys to a small town to oversee the clearing of the valley in preparation for the construction of a new dam, according to an entry on the movie on Rottentomatoes.com. Clift's character's plan meets with opposition in the form of the town's stubborn matriarch, 80-year-old Ella Garth, played by Jo Van Fleet, who refuses to leave. As Glover attempts to convince Garth, he falls in love with her granddaughter, Carol Garth Baldwin, played by actor Lee Remick.
"Wild River" -- which had a limited release and was lesser-known than Kazan's "On the Waterfront," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "East of Eden" and others -- received a number of positive reviews and was voted eighth runner-up for best picture of 1960 by the National Board of Review. A number of critics, however, felt that the romantic plot distracted viewers from the film's powerful social themes, according to a historical account by the American Film Institute.
Upon the movie's 50th anniversary in 2010, a festival celebrating the importance of the work was organized to commemorate its fifth decade as part of Cleveland's history.
During the tour Friday, Cleveland City At-Large Councilman Ken Webb, 69, said he remembered the hubbub about the movie when he was young. His great-grandmother lived just a couple of blocks away from the Cherokee, and he could recall its splendor as a small-town boy and how excited people were about the movie stars visiting town.
"I remember as a child thinking of it as a big building in downtown Cleveland," Webb said as he stood on an interior balcony overlooking the lobby. "I remember all the stories about when 'Wild River' was being filmed in Bradley County and all the actors and actresses who stayed here."
Webb said the Cherokee held a prominent place in local lore and deserves preservation. The project will take time to come together, but local residents will be proud of the results, he said.
"It'll be a journey," he said. "It won't be a sprint."