By Harry McCawley

At this writing the fate of Columbus’ oldest hotel/motel is in a state of limbo.

At one point recently, the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center on Jonathan Moore Pike near the Interstate 65 interchange was on a list of properties to be offered at a sheriff’s sale. Last week, the complex was removed from the list, but its future status is uncertain.

The future of the hotel and its adjoining conference center can have far-reaching effects on the Columbus area, especially in the economic domain of visitors and tourists. The loss of the 253 guest rooms and a conference center that could host up to 1,000 people could severely impact the city’s ability to recruit conventions, smaller meetings and major events. The Columbus Area Visitors Center would almost immediately feel the pinch in revenues local hotels provide in a bed and board tax.

Of lesser but still important consideration is the fact that the hotel is a piece of local history. Opened in 1963 as the Holiday Inn, it became the first hotel franchise operation in Columbus. The timing was important in that the Columbus interchange for I-65 had just been opened, making any business at the exit an immediate attraction to travelers.

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From that point forward interstate highway interchanges became economic development zones for national and international businesses in the areas of hotels, service stations and restaurants.

There was also a downside. The interchange business explosion put one of many nails in the coffins of smaller businesses often located in the middle of downtown areas usually skipped by interstate planners. Major victims included independent, often family-owned hotels.

Two of those businesses in Columbus were institutions in the hotel industry, the Belvedere and St. Denis. In historical comparisons, today’s Holiday Inn/Clarion would be considered the new kid on the block alongside the Belvedere and St. Denis.

The Holiday Inn dates to 1963, just under 54 years.

By contrast, there was a Belvedere Hotel on the northwest corner of Third and Franklin streets in Columbus from 1891 to 1967. It might have lasted even longer under that name, but the building on Third Street between Washington and Franklin streets was destroyed in a major fire in 1967. Its place was taken for a few years when Bartholomew County developer Fred Suhre built and opened the aptly named Surrey Inn in its place. That venture lasted only a few years until the sale of the building to Bartholomew County government, which converted it into an office complex.

The St. Denis Hotel was even older. Built in 1875 on the southwest corner of Fifth and Washington streets, it was open for business just a year after the finish of construction on the Bartholomew County Courthouse. Both buildings were constructed by Columbus contractor Patrick McCormack. The St. Denis site still stands, but the hotel stopped taking guests in the mid-1960s.

Columbus hotels in the late 19th and 20th centuries served a different clientele than their counterparts in post-interstate America. They did host visitors from out of town, but those guests were likely to be agents seeking to do business with local companies or travelers who were using the city as a way station on routes to other communities.

Actually, both the Belvedere and St. Denis served dual roles. In their later years they tended to be permanent residences for many of their guests. Charles Sparrell, the local architect who designed dozens of homes and businesses in Bartholomew County around the turn of the 20th century, lived in the St. Denis. So did George Cummins, a bachelor who owned the legendary Cummins Book Store.

Perhaps indicative of the future, there were only six guests staying at the Belvedere the night in 1967 when it was destroyed by fire. Of the six, five were permanent residents.

But there were some pretty noteworthy celebrities who used the two hotels during visits to Columbus. Among the most notable was legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who was an overnight guest at the St. Denis when she came to Columbus for a 1936 speech.

Although neither could be described as convention centers, they became known in the community as gathering places for local residents. When it was opened in 1891, the Belvedere boasted a bar, billiard and reading rooms, and even lavatories, which by the way weren’t all that common in 1891 homes, much less hotels.

The building on Washington Street housing the St. Denis served many functions. For years the hotel shared space with other businesses. Irwin Bank was located on the southwest corner of Fifth and Washington prior to its move to newer quarters across the street. Carpenter’s Drug Store had a place on the ground floor as did Lindsay’s men’s clothing store. The corporate offices of Cummins Engine Co. occupied parts of the second and third floors, and a number of Cummins executives shortened their commutes to work by living in the hotel.

It took a huge fire to do in the Belvedere, and over the years the Marr family, owner of the St. Denis building complex, has been able to repurpose a great deal of the space made vacant by the end of the hotel and the move of businesses to other locations.

Neither the Belvedere nor the St. Denis has been a presence in Columbus since the 1960s. However, they’re still remembered. One of the city’s newest hotels, the downtown Indigo, decided to put names to two of the facility’s conference rooms.

They’re called the Belvedere and the St. Denis.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.