UTICA -- A community isn't formed by constantly tearing down old buildings and putting up new ones.
That approach to civic growth tears down shared history and recognizable landmarks and, almost invariably, puts up generic short-term structures instead. So, I was excited this week when I had a chance to tour a historic building coming back to life in Utica.
I've known Tonia Osborn for years, ever since I first covered activities of the Knox County Art League over a decade ago, when I was a reporter for the Mount Vernon News. At the time, Tonia was involved with that organization and was also running an art gallery in Mount Vernon.
Within a startlingly short period of time, I went from interviewing Tonia to organizing literary events for the art league. Tonia has that kind of effect on her surroundings: she's a catalyst.
Her latest activity involves the Jitterbug Café in Utica, a business Tonia opened with her sister-in-law, Melissa "Missy" Osborn. Tonia herself didn't expect this particular project to grow so quickly. When her sister-in-law invited her to join her for a tour of the old Quick Hotel building in Utica with the idea of considering it as the site for a coffee shop, Tonia wasn't expecting it to happen at all.
"Actually, I came down to talk her out of it," Tonia laughed as we walked through the upper floors of the 1910 building.
What instead happened is that she fell in love with the old building.
"I instantly felt like I'd been here my whole life," she said. "I saw a gem in the rough and wanted to bring life back into it."
The initial phase of preparation was short but intense, from November 2019 to late February 2020, a fateful time for a new business to debut. The last day of February, this year, they held an event for friends and family, while waiting for clearance from the health department to open to the public in early March. But, as we all know too well, that's when the state went into virtual shutdown during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The café was finally allowed to open this summer, and has been a big hit in Utica ever since. Along the way, though, the size of the project grew when the previous building owners offered to sell the whole block to the new tenants, who had impressed them with their can-do attitude.
Tonia and Missy formed a company to purchase the block and begin plans for renovation and further business activity. In addition to the Quick Hotel, the block includes the Hufford Building, for many years home of a Ben Franklin Five-and-Dime store. Current tenants of the hotel part of the block include Chad's Barbershop and DJ's Village Gifts in addition to the Jitterbug Café.
Benjamin Quick built the hotel in 1910, during the heyday of Utica's glass factory boom. It consisted of a first floor with a lobby and event rooms, two floors of rooms, and a third-floor attic big enough for events. The building is U-shaped, with the points of the U facing away from the road and toward the North Fork of the Licking River. The two wings were restricted as the ladies' wing (on the north side) and the gentlemen's wing (on the south).
The hotel was quickly recognized as the premier place to stay in Utica, but Quick's interest
seems to have been in the creation of the hotel, not the daily operation of it. Under new ownership, the building became known as the Davenport Hotel. According to an article in the Democratic Banner on April 5, 1912, a barn that sat slightly behind the hotel and the neighboring restaurant burned down in an act of arson. The site of the barn must have been what is now a parking lot. This happened during a spell when Utica was being plagued by a firebug, but the hotel itself was not damaged.
In 1916, a Freemasons event was held at the hotel, lasting from 3:00 in the afternoon until past midnight that night. Eighty-five persons were fed dinner, and five new members were inducted, including the Rev. Theodore Hofmeister. Knox County deputy sheriff Walter Mossholder was one of the notables in attendance.
It must have been a lively occasion for the grand hotel.
But after the glass boom broke, the Davenports discontinued the hotel and sold it. For a number of years around 1930, the building hosted a very different set of customers: It was the home of the Law Funeral Home. They later established a new location and sold the building to a Mount Vernon developer who intended to put a Dodge and Plymouth automobile agency there.
In 1945, it was sold to Mr. and Mrs. D. D. Darling, who reopened the upper floors as apartments, knocking through walls in places to join rooms and adding ad hoc closets and bathrooms. Tonia showed me one of these bathrooms, which was comically small.
"At least you could sit in one place for all your business," she said.
The Osbornes' plan is to close most of the rooms back to individual status, restore the rooms to their original form, and open the upper floors to guests. While there is much work yet to be done to restore the upper floors, Tonia said that an engineer she had look at the building said the damage is mostly cosmetic.
"He said this building has some of the best bones he's ever seen in a historical building," she said.
When restored to its original form, with solid hardwood floors; dark, angular woodwork; and curving walls, the building will be a fine exemplar of the Art Nouveau style of its day.
The Hufford Building is even older, dating to 1900. It contains a carriage house extension in the back, used as a warehouse during the Ben Franklin days. It even contains old employee lockers.
Tonia said that locals have told her the carriage house, which stretches down close to the river, was also known as "Bootleggers' Crossing" during Prohibition, when illegal liquor was delivered from boats on the river. Later, it would be taken to the basement of the hotel which housed a speakeasy.
According to stories shared by locals, drinking, gambling, and partying continued in the building's basement for many years, even as late as the 1980s. She showed me a pile of discarded moonshine and liquor bottles under the stairs into the basement, and the now-collapsed bar.
The building (and the whole block) has a colorful history, now being revitalized by the new activities taking shape. Missy cooks and bakes the delicious food for the café (and creates the clever names for their drinks and dishes), while Tonia has evoked the building's past with striking décor that includes artwork her children helped her create, including a mural that connects its 2020 opening with its 1920 speakeasy past.
The whole project is a glorious example of how to bring the past into the present in a way that honors both.