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Will life ever return to Monterey Hotel?

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Ann Fiore
November 1, 2007
— Throughout its 77 years, the Monterey Hotel has not lacked admirers.

Residents reminisce about the hotel’s former grandeur. Government folks prize its historical value. Planners include it in their downtown renewal strategies.


But for more than a decade, the Art Deco landmark has been vacant.


The hotel has been the focus of many plans—and just as many conflicts.


The spotlight has returned to the Monterey because of a new downtown plan. Funded by the city and Forward Janesville, the plan envisions the hotel as part of a mixed-focus district encompassing The Armory dinner theater and the Speakeasy restaurant.


Shining another spotlight is Steve Trueblood, a resident with his own redevelopment plans. Trueblood protested Friday in front of the hotel to call attention to its untapped potential.


Redeveloper Jim Grafft has owned the Monterey for about 10 years. He has a long-range vision for the hotel, too. He sees apartments on her upper floors, possibly a restaurant or other commercial enterprise at the street level.


He has bought several surrounding buildings and is demolishing part of one, the Jeffris Theater, for hotel parking.


Grafft believes the Monterey can be redeveloped.


“I don’t plan on losing money on anything I do,” he said.


He points to another project, the former Highway Trailer plant in Edgerton, as an example of how he transforms former eyesores. Two new businesses, Green-Tek and CPT, now occupy the 350,000-square-foot building, which was in such bad shape that Grafft once fell through the roof.


“The hotel is in a whole lot better shape than that one was,” Grafft said.


But several obstacles have hindered redevelopment of the Monterey.


The hotel—now bare of toilets, carpeting, sinks and doors—contains asbestos that requires professional removal, Grafft said.


Grafft won’t start work on the hotel until he demolishes the theater, which also contains asbestos. A contractor was supposed to have removed it by July, but more asbestos was found during demolition, which started in August. That stalled the work.


“By law, I can’t do anything until it’s gone,” Grafft said.


In early October, city officials condemned the partially demolished theater based on an engineer’s assessment that it was unstable. They required Grafft to fence and roof the area, hire security guards and brace the walls. They also gave Grafft 30 days to demolish the theater, a deadline Grafft called unrealistic.


That deadline expires Monday.


Meanwhile, the YWCA has moved some families from the abutting Jeffris Flats to a motel for safety reasons.


City officials visited the demolition site Wednesday, said Jay Winzenz, the city’s assistant administrative services director. He said Grafft’s asbestos contractor told him the removal work should be finished Friday.


Winzenz would not specify what the city would do if Grafft fails to meet Monday’s deadline. The city has cited Grafft before for not meeting other 30-day deadlines on the Jeffris Theater demolition.


“I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to Monday and see where we’re at,” Winzenz said.


Grafft said conflicts with the city and the YWCA have been “pretty frustrating.”


He said he has written several letters to the YWCA in the last three years, explaining his intentions to demolish the theater. He said he offered to pay for work to separate the buildings, which are connected by plumbing, a staircase and the roof.


These days, he communicates through an attorney.


Grafft and the city have clashed over redeveloping other properties, including the former Rock County Jail. Grafft has said he sees a pattern of harassment.


“Michael Vick treats his dogs better than they treat me,” Grafft said, referring to the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback convicted in a dogfighting operation.


Gale Price, the city’s manager of building and development services, said recent discussions with Grafft have focused on the theater demolition, not the Monterey Hotel.


“That’s the most immediate concern with the safety issue there,” he said.


Price said city officials will meet with property owners as the downtown renewal effort moves forward.


The city hopes the Monterey can be redeveloped, Price said. He said the downtown plan identifies certain buildings for improvements, but the recommendations aren’t set in stone.


Ultimately, redeveloping the hotel will be up to Grafft.


“It’s going to take a lot of resources, a lot of money,” Price said. “I think something could happen there, but unfortunately, in a society like ours, things have to make money” to survive.


Grafft said he has no timeline to redevelop the hotel. He said it all depends on parking, which he plans to create once the theater is gone.


Meanwhile, he has other projects on his plate.


“Most of the properties I buy are vacant, troubled properties that have challenges,” he said. “That what I do.”


MONTEREY TIMELINE
1929: “Monterey” is the winning name in a contest sponsored by The Janesville Daily Gazette to name the city’s newest hotel, a six-story Art Deco structure built on the site of the old Grand Hotel.
1930: The Monterey Hotel welcomes its first guests at a grand banquet.
1936: The company that issued bonds for the hotel declares bankruptcy. A group of residents becomes the new owner.
Mid-1950s: The Monterey is remodeled and a new entrance cut on High Street. Art Deco details and marble are ripped out. Architectural molding is plastered over, and terrazzo floors are carpeted.
1960: Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, spend a few hours at the Monterey Hotel during a campaign stop in Janesville. Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Luce and Louis Armstrong also reportedly had been guests.
1962: A partnership of three Janesville businessmen—Gene Obligato, Earl Fugate and Jim Cullen—buys the Monterey.
1960s and ’70s: The Monterey is sold twice more. Under the first owner, the hotel gets a seedy reputation as a home to drifters and drunks, according to Gazette files. The second owner tries to clean up the hotel.
1983: A fire kills one tenant.
1977: Archie Johnson buys the hotel. His son Richard runs it as a residential hotel with maid service.
1989: Johnson sells the Monterey and the Orleans Restaurant to American Realty Constructors of San Francisco.
1990s: A group of California doctors buys the hotel. Plans are to use it for senior housing, but the building winds up in federal bankruptcy court.
1996: Jim Grafft buys the Monterey at a bankruptcy auction.

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