On the opposite Ohio River shore from The Queen City, Covington, Kentucky was established in 1815. Ever since its founding, Covington has lived in the shadow of earlier, larger, and more populated Cincinnati, Ohio – forever relegated, it would seem, in the supporting role as a suburb to its more sophisticated, cultural neighbor. In spite of many noteworthy attractions and accomplishments, these still have left Covington subordinate. They include: numerous early to mid-19th –century homes located in the city’s 16 National Register historic districts which rival the beauty and charm of Charleston, South Carolina; the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption based upon Paris’ Notre Dame; the southern terminus of John Roebling’s magnificent Suspension Bridge – an engineering marvel completed in 1866; an international airport with the call letters “CVG” (for Covington); the location of famous architect Daniel Libeskind’s sculptural, high-rise condominium, The Ascent.
With the creation and opening of the Hotel Covington in September, 2016, some of these antiquated Ohio attitudes about their Southern neighbor may begin to be challenged. This new hotel on the scene offers unique, sophisticated lodging which far surpasses its competition locally and nationally. Hotel Covington is the antithesis of “cookie-cutter” design: from the moment one crosses the threshold, everything about it communicates freshness, spaciousness, and world-wise points of view while venerating the building’s past and the community’s heritage.
At 638 Madison Avenue, Hotel Covington actually represents an excellent example of adaptive reuse. Originally, the building was constructed for Coppin’s Department Store in 1907-1909 for its founder, John R. Coppin. A Cincinnati architect, James Gilmore (1875-1962), was selected for this ambitious seven story structure, designed in the Commercial Style. Notable characteristics include its clean, tailored lines, combining oversized windows throughout its façade, and a projecting coved cornice with large “C”s for Coppin’s – evident to pedestrians looking upward.
As a member of a prominent Cincinnati banking family, James Gilmore was something of a child-prodigy when architecture was discovered as his future vocation, and he consequently was sent abroad at age 10 to prepare for his professional career. Having graduated from technical schools of Florence, Italy, the University of Pisa, and the School of Application of Engineers in Rome, Gilmore returned to Cincinnati in 1902, at first working for Desjardins & Hayward and then the aging James W. McLaughlin. The latter was one of the city’s most important architects of the last half of the 19th -century, having designed the original Cincinnati Art Museum and Art Academy, the former Hamilton County Courthouse, Public Library (the latter two buildings sadly have been demolished), and two department stores for the John Shillito Co. From 1906-1932, Gilmore practiced on his own, and the Coppin’s Department Store commission in 1907 helped propel his new firm.
The design of Coppin’s in the modern Commercial Style is reminiscent of one of Chicago’s most important works of modern architecture by Louis Sullivan (and also happens to be another department store at Madison and State Streets in the Loop): Carson-Pirie-Scott. Built between 1899-1904, Gilmore must have been aware of this newly completed major store with all of its modern amenities created by Sullivan, a leading American architect.
Coppin’s construction was quite advanced for its day, with it being Northern Kentucky’s earliest example of a high-rise reinforced concrete structure. This technological advancement allowed more windows on the facades and less masonry with the use of steel reinforcement strengthening the concrete for greater expanses. The latest fashion was to provide increased amounts of daylight for interiors utilizing large windows, in this case, for a department store: all of this glazed fenestration became a sidewalk showcase. Today, stores are windowless boxes to avoid fading of merchandise and make shoppers unaware of outdoor conditions relating to time and weather.
By the 1960’s, retail and commercial traffic along Madison Avenue began to decrease with the development of numerous new suburbs and shopping malls. In 1977, Coppin’s Department Store closed, following in the footsteps of other major retailers such as Sears, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward. Fortunately, the City of Covington purchased Coppin’s in 1988 in order to renovate it into new city offices.
In spite of the city’s efforts to reclaim one of Covington’s most important buildings along Madison Avenue, this once-bustling thoroughfare was quickly slipping in prominence. Located just a block away, Peoples Liberty Bank (now U.S. Bank) was Northern Kentucky’s largest and owned by Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. The Haile’s name is recognized these days as being one of Cincinnati’s great philanthropic foundations, contributing annually to many endeavors. The Foundation’s fortune began with the Haile’s banking prowess, success, and genuine concern for Covington’s future. As Peoples Liberty Bank’s president, Mr. Haile’s dream had been to see the revitalization of the Madison Avenue business district. Although deceased in 2006, nothing would have brought him greater joy than to witness the realization of Hotel Covington and the rebirth of the city’s heart. Involved with countless studies and plans over the decades, he had noticed some advancements, but Madison Avenue seemed to languish.
Not any more! Several years ago, Guy Van Rooyen of the Salyers Group purchased the old Coppin’s Department Store from the City of Covington to transform it into the dramatic, progressive hotel that it has become.
As much as possible, the Salyers Group and Aparium Hotel Group as the hotel’s operator have tried to support the local community in every way possible for this project’s $22 million metamorphosis. From the selections of the Covington-based architectural and interior design firms, Hub & Weber and Plume respectively, to the craftsmen, artists, furnishings, and even edibles in each of the 114 guest rooms’ mini-refrigerators: it all has combined to be a celebration of civic pride and achievement. Local artist and teacher, David Beutsche, was commissioned to create original works of art with a Covington theme for the hotel rooms instead of the usual anonymous, forgettable floral prints. Spacious guest rooms are furnished with luxurious faux fur throw blankets from Covington’s own Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs – made famous years ago by Oprah Winfrey’s recommendation.
Historic photographs of Coppin’s interior assisted designers in the renovation of the building into a hotel. For example, large display cases which once wrapped around numerous octagonal columns on the First Floor have been replaced with equally long dining tables in the restaurant. Incidentally in honor of the building’s heritage, the Dining Room is named after Coppin’s which features delicious, inspired, innovative cuisine.
Nearby to the right of the Reception Desk is a display boutique celebrating the history of merchandise sold at Coppin’s Department Store. This attention to detail is pervasive and allows Hotel Covington to be truly unique.
Bricks and mortar, fine furnishings, and even great cuisine can be no substitute for a talented and attentive staff, which is led by General Manager Jack Olshan. As a third generation hotelier, he received years of excellent training and knowledge at one of America’s oldest and finest resorts, The Greenbrier of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, before assuming his current role. Hotel Covington is most fortunate to have Mr. Olshan at the helm guiding it skillfully.
A New Year’s resolution worth keeping should be to treat ourselves to an overnight stay at this fine establishment. Why should out-of-town travelers be the only ones to experience and enjoy the pleasures of Hotel Covington?
–Stewart S. Maxwell