When Gabe’s Tower Motor Inn opened on Nov. 16, 1963, it was the talk of Kentucky and southern Indiana.
Nobody had ever seen anything like the silo-shaped hotel at 20th and Triplett streets, which was then the tallest building in western Kentucky at 175 feet — if you counted the beacon on top.
That day, more than 10,000 people — one fourth of the city’s population — stood in long lines outside, waiting to tour the 120-room, 13-story hotel.
It’s 12th-floor restaurant — Gabe’s Atop The Tower — was credited with being Kentucky’s first high-rise restaurant.
And Gabe Fiorella Sr., the man who built it, was the toast of Owensboro.
The former hotel is again the talk of the town nearly 57 years later, as workers from Evansville-based Klenck Co. are in the final stages of demolishing it.
An iconic piece of Owensboro history is gone.
“I was 12 when it opened,” Kirk Kirkpatrick said. “The pool at the top was a big hit.”
He said, “There was a TV show, ‘Breakfast At Gabe’s,’ that ran every morning. I was on there with a couple of people in a high school play. I think we sang one of the songs. It was a local show live from Gabe’s.”
Kirkpatrick said watching the hotel come down is “bittersweet.”
But he said his memories are “more sweet than bitter.”
“I have great memories,” Kirkpatrick said. “But having it down will help that whole section of town.”
Gary Adams, a local preservationist, said when he saw footage of several floors of the tower collapsing at once the other day, “It reminded me of 9/11. That was the first time that it hit me that it was going to be gone.”
He said the tower “was the only thing that designated that part of town, and it’s gone.”
Adams said he decided not “to tilt at windmills” to try to save the building because it became obvious that the city wanted it gone.
Today, the iconic building has set empty for 15 years — since October 2005.
When people asked why the building was round, Gabe Fiorella Jr., whose father headed the company that built it, said, “I had gone to Chicago to a restaurant convention. They had a picture in the paper there of two round buildings (Chicago’s 65-story Marina City, two round towers that were then under construction). I brought it back and said, ‘Daddy, if you want to build something crazy, build something like this.’ ”
Gabe Sr. and his 35 partners did just that.
The cost was $1.4 million.
Construction began on Dec. 19, 1962, and took just under 11 months.
In 1959, Gabe Fiorella Sr., then Owensboro’s most famous restaurateur, became one of the first downtown businessmen to migrate to what was then the suburbs.
He bought the old Miller Field baseball stadium at 18th and Triplett streets and built his “Steakhouse of the South” on the corner with a shopping center just west of it.
In 1963, he became “the man who parlayed a hamburger into a silo,” as Fiorella joked when the steel-reinforced concrete hotel opened.
It was 80 feet in diameter.
Its 120 rooms included 10 executive suites.
No room was more than 17 steps from an elevator or stairway, and every room had an outside view.
The beacon on top was said to be visible five miles away.
The pool on the top floor was 19 feet by 40 feet, and ranged in depth from 3 feet to 8.5 feet.
The outside of the hotel was covered with red, white and blue baked-in transite wall panels to add to its distinctive look.
But once the Executive Inn Rivermont, which was razed in 2009, opened in 1977, Gabe’s glory days were over after only 14 years.
Long, slow slide down
Owensboro Business College bought the tower in 1978 and converted it to offices, classrooms and a few hotel rooms for special occasions.
But that didn’t last long.
In 1983, the college sold the hotel to two Nashville men — Frank Davis and Bert Ferguson. They spent more than $100,000 on renovations, got a Best Western franchise and reopened the tower as a hotel.
Then, in June 1986, Senior Adult Ministries Inc. of Asheville, N.C., announced plans to buy the property and convert it to an apartment complex for the elderly. The group, which was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America, sought $5 million in tax-free industrial revenue bonds from the city.
In October 1987, the church group reactivated the project with plans to spend $1.9 million converting the hotel into an apartment complex to be called Franklin Oaks. It was to have its own library, music room and arts and crafts area.
But the plans fell through, and the hotel closed in the fall of 1988.
It sat empty for three years.
Then, with a surge in local tourism, Davis and Ferguson reopened the Tower Motor Inn.
But again it didn’t last long.
A few years later, it was sold to the National Foundation for Retirement and Housing Preservation, which also had plans to convert the property to apartments for senior citizens.
In 1997, Cyprus Connection Inc., a local group headed by George Christodoulou, bought the tower for $408,000, hoping to bring back its glory days.
Two years later, it became a Knights Inn.
And in 2001, the name was changed to Sun Hotel.
In 2005, Cyprus Connection sold it to Regency Tower LLC and its managing partner, David Mirani, who announced plans to convert the property into luxury condos.
But by November of that year, Cyprus Connection was suing Mirani, saying he had yet to make the first payment on the property.
In 2006, Sherajul Hoque of Madisonville bought the building at auction for $263,000 and $2,700 for the building’s contents.
He was never able to reopen it as a hotel.
In 2008, Presidium Real Estate Developments of Chicago announced plans to convert the building into a senior citizens housing complex.
But that never happened.
Hoque finally sold the property in May 2013, to a group of Pennsylvania investors for $185,000.
They said they would spend $6 million to restore it as a Best Western Premium hotel.
That also never happened.
In 2017, they sold the building to Bob Zimmerman, an Owensboro businessman, for $500,000.
Last year, after wrangling with the city over the property for two years, Zimmerman sold it to the city for $360,000.
The city made one final effort to attract developers to the tower.
But it received no offers.
And now what was at one time western Kentucky’s premier hotel is just a memory.