What would happen if city planning departments everywhere decided, willy-nilly, that the building practices of two, three, four generations ago would now become law? No new building would be allowed to punch through the 6-story ceiling of the old neighborhood. And, well, if the city needed to grow, it would just have
to find other ways to do it.
This was never an issue in the Ohio Valley river town where I grew up. Not that Owensboro, Kentucky, was an architectural backwater. I've always had a soft spot for this little ode to Mies, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1962.
But as Louisville gets ready for its Rem-tacular close-up, Owensboro, the economically flatlined "capitol of western Kentucky," has never been under imminent threat from a rogue invasion of tall buildings. And yet, in the 1960s and 70s, Owensboro, Kentucky, did put a couple of intrepid toes — literally, two — in the shallow end of the Pool of High-Rise.
Given the results, the low-rise people
of Owensboro probably wish planners had just capped their "skyline" early and called
it a day.
It all started when Gabe's Shopping Center opened
at the southwest corner of 18th and Triplett Streets
in 1959. Built a generation before the strip mall, with parasitic ubiquity, began to chew up ever-larger
swaths of the urban fabric in places like Owensboro, making such developments the paradigmatic trope of a suburbanized America — Owensboro's population within the city limits is the same 55,000 today that it was in 1959 — Gabe's Shopping Center was nonetheless and, for all intents and purposes remains, a strip mall.
Originally anchored by a W.T. Grant's dime store on
one end and the Bi-Lo drugstore on the other, Gabe's Shopping Center today looks out across its parking lot
to the antiseptic glare of the new-ish BP station and convenience store on the corner.
The BP, a model of spotless corporate efficiency, seems to look back with a mix of pity, shame, and reproach. For unlike so many other older shopping centers that have long since been retooled into slick little cash registers with cupolas on top (often with shiny gas stations out front), Gabe's somehow never caught up with the times. Always a little shambly and forlorn, it stands like Moses looking over into the Promised Land, a ghostly reminder of a vision that did get fulfilled, just not here.
Indeed, the BP station serves as a "dis-intimation" — a "putting the dogs off the scent" — of the largeness of vision that once held forth on this site. For a shopping center wasn't the only thing Gabe Fiorella opened at 18th and Triplett in 1959. Where the BP now stands
was the second generation of a restaurant — Gabe's — that for more than 60 years, starting in 1922, was
fine dining in Owensboro, Kentucky.
On the point of the corner was a bigger-than-life-size statue of Gabe himself. With his trademark red jacket, black trousers, white shirt, and black colonel string tie, Gabe — tonsured, smiley-toothed, black-horn-rimmed Gabe — stood atop a 6-foot pedestal on a revolving platform, his right arm raised, forearm right-angled
from the elbow, hand straight, and palm forward in a perpetual hello. Really more of a stereotypical "Indian" "How!" Round and round and round, 24 hours a day. "Welcome to Gabe's!"
And in late 1963, Gabe Fiorella completed construction of Owensboro's first tall building. There, on the southern edge of the little world Gabe was building at 18th and Triplett Streets, Gabe's Motor Inn — a 13-story cylinder of a hotel, clad in a rainbow of pastel-painted panels — was a slice of Miami in western Kentucky. By the time I was a kid in the early 1970s, Gabe's Tower — swimming pool at the top; restaurant-in-the-round just below; and still rising alone from a field of one- and two-story houses — was the undisputed marvel of Owensboro, Kentucky.
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IT WAS at about this time that Owensboro built its second — and last — tall building. "Designed" to "house" the elderly, Roosevelt House — now Roosevelt I, to distinguish it from the much smaller Roosevelt II, which went up next door in the early 1980s — put 18 stories of federally subsidized concrete right on the small city's main thoroughfare. It's a real HUD* special.
Like Gabe's Tower, Roosevelt I was, and remains, a "tower in the field." Except for a handful of 6-story bank buildings downtown and a few buildings of similar height scattered elsewhere, Owensboro is at heart the same 1- and 2-story town it was in 1963.
The difference is that the charmless Roosevelt I hasn't a trace of the earlier tower's whimsy or optimism. At the very least, the town's tallest building could have offered the town's eldest residents — who live here, after all, only because they have to — the town's best views, opening north to Owensboro's beautiful old residential neighborhoods and parks and to all of its old-growth trees, with the Ohio River and Indiana farmland in the distance.
Instead, every apartment window looks east and west, to the placeless borderlands of strip malls and storage sheds, where wall-to-wall privilege comes with a brass chandelier and a double-height atrium on a quarter-acre lot. One after the other.
Presumably there will continue to be a waiting list for Roosevelt I, so long as enough people need the kind of social welfare that the building provides. But in every other way that matters, Roosevelt I is a building with no character and no future. Ask anyone in low-rise Owensboro to name the worst building in town, and you will hear the same quick and fatal judgment as when Roosevelt 1 was completed in the mid 1970s.
Owensboro's business and municipal leaders had welcomed the previous decade's construction of Gabe's Tower as a sign that Kentucky's stepchild city — then and now, the state's third largest — was finally ready to join Louisville and Lexington at the ball. (It never did.)
But in a town small enough to make everyone's "backyard" the same, the decision to build Gabe's was a Not-In-My-Back-Yard initiation rite — and, as it turned out, Roosevelt I practice run — for Owensboro's rank and file, who sought vigorously, albeit without power
or money or voice, to keep a tower that tall (!) from being built.
Four decades later, Gabe's is an endearing folly, a bit
like New York's long-embattled 2 Columbus Circle (which, coincidentally, was completed the year after Gabe's, in 1964). The tower has been an economic disaster for most of its peripatetic life; has long since traded in its period pastels for a tellingly conservative pale gray with black stripes; and, by right, should have been demolished years ago.
And yet, Owensboro can't quite seem to let go of its quirky landmark. Last month, Gabe's Tower was sold for $280,000 to a developer who promises to make it, once again, a hotel.
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NONE of this would be worth mentioning if the New
York City Department of City Planning wasn't pushing a reactionary rezoning of the East Village and Lower East Side that, if successful, will set these Manhattan neighborhoods back a hundred years.