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Restoration or oblivion

PROSOCO and the President Hotel

The question is old, but common -- restoration or oblivion?

The President Hotel waited for its answer, empty, dark and silent, for nearly a quarter century. Its walls were stages for graffiti, its recesses home to vagrants.

But once, as part of Kansas City’s thriving convention industry, the President was full of life. The Republican National Convention tapped Herbert Hoover for president there in 1928, when the Shepard & Wiser-designed hotel was just two years old.

Top entertainers played the hotel’s famous Polynesian-style Drum Room, opened in 1941. Marilyn Maye, one of the nation’s greatest living jazz singers, got her start in the nightclub in 1955. Eight years later, country & western singer Patsy Cline gave her final performance there.

All the while, tourists, business people and other travelers checked in and out, every day, at all hours, until 1980. That’s when a deteriorating downtown, and declining revenues forced the venerable symbol of Kansas City hospitality into closure.

Plan after plan to reopen the Jacobethan-style hotel flew, got shot down and flew again. As late as 2003, opponents of renovation advocated the wrecking ball, changing landmark to park.

“Park?” Ron Jury, the Overland Park, Kan., developer financing the $44 million project is reported to have exclaimed. “That’s the President Hotel you’re talking about!”

The KC city council agreed with Mr. Jury. Now life has returned to the 19-story brick and terra cotta building as workers scurry, inside and out to meet a Fall 2005 opening date when the old President Hotel comes back on line as the new Hilton Hotel President.

Getting the President Hotel on line is the job of Gastinger Walker Harden Architects, Kansas City and Chicago. The inside work, approaching completion, is massive, says Lisa Cheek, AIA, project architect.

It began with reducing the interior to its bones -- columns, girders and concrete, and replacing walls and floors. Workers also replaced the hotel’s 426 tiny 1926-style rooms with 213 rooms of contemporary size.

“The interior is brand-new,” Ms. Cheek said, “but the style is 1940s, which was the hotel’s prime.”

Every wall and hall, she said, has been rebuilt precisely in its original location.

Mid-Co Contractors, Kansas City, Kan., gave the hotel exterior a thorough wash.

“You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but the terra cotta was black from soot and carbon,” said Mike Land, Mid-Co general manager, and project manager for the President’s cleaning.

The Mid-Co crew used Sure Klean 800 Stain Remover on the blackened ornamentation. Normally used to restore the appearance of acid-damaged new-brick construction, the 800 turned out to be a good choice for the dirty terra cotta.

“It melted that stuff right off the terra cotta,” Mr. Land said.

Workers hit the building’s sooty brick with Enviro Klean® Restoration Cleaner. The near-neutral pH cleaner did a good job of restoring the brown bricks intended appearance, Mr. Land added.

The crew worked from bottom to top, in 50-foot-wide drops, usually keeping two or three swing stages going at once. After soaking the brick and terra cotta with clean water, workers brushed on the cleaners. They let the cleaners “dwell” for a few minutes, Mr. Land explained, while they did their work, breaking the bond between contaminant and substrate.

A hot-water rinse flushed the dissolved contaminants and spent cleaners from the building. During the June-December job, workers cleaned about 90,000 square feet of historic hotel.

On the eve of taking in its first guests in 25 years, the President Hotel is a sign of things to come. It’s a first step in a projected revitalization of downtown Kansas City – an effort called “Kansas City Live!” The project aims to develop a seven-block area into a combined entertainment, business, retail, hospitality and residential district.

It’s an answer to the old question, and not only for the President Hotel.