Trading memories - Ceremony to celebrate rebirth of Marquette

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

A maintenance man spends his days working backstage, changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, doing the little things that keep a building running. So when he returns to his place of work every day, a typical maintenance man likes to find things the way he left them.

But as Thomas Ackman walked into the remodeled lobby of the old Marquette Hotel for the first time since being one of its caretakers 55 years ago, he wrung his memory to find the hotel he left.

"It's changed," he muttered, wide eyes scanning the high ceiling. The incandescent bulbs he had changed so many times have now been replaced by brighter fluorescents.

The old elevators his father, John Ackman, operated for years in the 1950s are now sealed, their doors simply wall decoration. So too are the double doors that led to the dining room where he set up tables for parties. Now they lead only to a dummy wall, with the dining hall beyond now converted to office space.

A lot has changed at the Marquette since it opened in 1928, but one thing that hasn't changed is how the people of Cape Girardeau feel about it. For decades, it was the hub of civilization for visitor, vagabond and native alike. Its ornate lobby, upscale restaurant and quirky star bar were the outlets where people could plug into Cape Girardeau.

But for last 30 years, the building has stood as little more than a decaying, distant memory of those days.

According to Ackman and many of the hundred of former workers that were the lifeblood of this once-thriving Cape Girardeau landmark, the changes it's seen during its rehabilitation over the past year are nothing short of miraculous. That is why at least 25 of the living alumni of the Marquette have enthusiastically written to the building's real estate agent Tom M. Meyer reserving their VIP spots at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the revamped Marquette Towers Wednesday. Gov. Bob Holden will speak at the ceremony.

Pieces of the past

"I always hoped that someone would come and restore the building," said Mary Jo Bender. "But I had started to lose that hope."

Bender came to work at the Marquette in 1954 as a switchboard operator and later moved to front desk clerk. She left the Marquette in 1970, shortly before the hotel closed. Bender said for the next 30 years she had no desire to return to her former place of employment. She didn't want to see the decay of the once-vibrant hub of Cape Girardeau culture.

Instead, she clung to the pieces of the old Marquette she had taken with her when she left: an antique doorknob, an old desk and mental album of memories.

In its heyday, Bender said, the Marquette was one of the centers of life in Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri. When anyone famous came to the area, the Marquette was where they stayed. Eleanor Roosevelt, Minnie Pearl and Buddy Ebsen are just a few of the names Bender signed into the hotel's registry.

Bill Yeager remembers asking Ebsen to show him some of his dance steps after giving him a haircut. From 1947 to 1970, Yeager trimmed and shaved a number of famous heads and faces in his barbershop on the first floor of the Marquette. Guy Lombardo, Harry James, Dizzy Dean, Marty Marion ... he could spend days adding to the list. But Yeager also remembers many of the everyday passers-through he'd meet for only a few minutes in his barber chair, working men who quietly stayed at the hotel and needed a trim and a friendly ear.

"In 1968, I had a salesman from Anchorage, Alaska, in the chair," Yeager said. "He was a fat guy. He was telling me about an earthquake in Anchorage. Said he saw the earth open up and swallow a car."

At about that time, Yeager said, the ground started shaking, rattling the barbershop in what officials would later report as a magnitude-5.0 temblor.

The stout salesman ran out the door and up Fountain Street, smock still flapping around his neck, to escape the shadow of the tall buildings on Broadway. Yeager said he instinctively chased the man up the street with his shears and comb still in hand.

A place of the people

But while the Marquette was a place for both esteemed dignitaries, celebrities and weary travelers to stay, Yeager said it was also a vital part of local culture. In his years as barber in the Marquette, Yeager said he worked on generations of Cape Girardeau residents who became like family to him.

The local Rotary and Lions clubs always held their meetings and parties in the Marquette dining room. Lawyers, doctors, bankers, professors and politicians all sat in Yeager's chair, ate at the cafe and drank at the star bar. So to did the farmers, factory workers and children of Cape Girardeau.

It was that way from the beginning.

"It was always the center of town," said Harold Tupper Jr.

In 1929, at 4 years old, Tupper came to the brand new Marquette as more than a guest. Second son of the hotel's first manager, Harold Tupper Sr., he lived with his parents, older brother Bill and little sister Betty in a suite that overlooked Broadway on the mezzanine floor, right next to the room where KFVS radio station broadcast.

Every day, local workers would come in and chat over a 10-cent cup of coffee. Often they would be joined by visitors from all over the country.

"Back then the bridge in Cape Girardeau was the only place salesman from Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee could cross the river for 80 miles," he recalled. "We were a hub for people coming and going in the area."

He said the Marquette was not only the figurative center of Cape Girardeau at the time. Located downtown on Broadway, it was also geographically in the middle of the action. As a child, he remembered dropping cherry bombs on passing street cars from the roof and more wholesome family moments when he and his siblings would watch parades from windows in their room. He remembers a procession of Civil War veterans in town for a convention in the 1930s. Those from out of town, of course, stayed at the Marquette.

As he got older, Tupper worked with the maintenance man and was later promoted to elevator operator, relief clerk and bellhop. Two years younger, his sister learned to work the switchboard. She said the Marquette was a special place to grow up.

"All the ladies, the waitresses, the bellhops and clerks, all of them were like extended family," said his sister, now Betty Sandstrom. "They helped raise us."

Coming home

In 2000, after standing abandoned for several decades, the Marquette Hotel was condemned. The only thing that saved the structure at that time might have been the high cost of demolishing it. To its rescue came a group of historic preservation students at Southeast Missouri State University, who got the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation meant the owners of the building were eligible for tax credits amounting to up to 45 percent of the rehabilitation costs.

Prost Builders of Jefferson City bought the building in 2002. Armed with several tax credits and a 10-year contract to locate several state government agencies in the building, Prost set to work restoring the landmark to its formerly glory.

"So much has changed," repeated Ackman as he surveyed the lobby, the decor of which has now been restored to its 1928 look and condition. That may explain why he has trouble recognizing it, because that look had been changed many times by the time he arrived in the late 1940s.

"Most of the people I know that worked here are long gone," Ackman lamented, mentally flipping through his own album of memories.

The same is probably true of the people Harold Tupper Jr. and his sister came to adore growing up in the Marquette. But that's not going to stop them from making the trip from their homes in California to share this celebratory moment with others like Ackman, Yeager and Bender whose lives are interwoven with the Cape Girardeau landmark. It's a time to celebrate the past and the future of the Marquette.

"It's good to know it's going to be there for years and years to serve the people," Bender said.

335-6611, extension 137

Want to go?

What: Marquette Towers ribbon-cutting and open house

When: From 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesday; Southeast Missouri State University historic preservation students will conduct tours

Where: Marquette Towers, corner of Broadway and Fountain Street, Cape Girardeau

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