When complete, Meridian's 16-story Threefoot Building
will have undergone a transformation similar
to the recently completed Elyton Hotel in Birmingham
(pictured in the above left photograph) which,
like the Threefoot, once served as a space for offices.
It was a $20 million urban revitalization plan forged on a napkin.
The dilapidated Threefoot building, the icon of Meridian's skyline, had sat vacant for years, its art deco facade crumbling piece by piece to the ground 16 stories below. Deals to restore it to its former glory had been made through the years. None of them seemed to stick. The eyesore, which had once served as an office building for doctors, dentists and lawyers, had become a raw subject with the Queen City's residents, who complained of seeing the old gem fall to waste. Some, who felt the historical structures of Meridian should be saved, wanted her restored. Others wanted her torn to the ground and a new, more modern structure built. Then John Tampa came to town.
The Ascent Hospitality president met with Meridian Mayor Percy Bland. Tampa wanted to buy the Threefoot, turning it into a hotel similar to Birmingham’s recently opened Elyton, a former bank transformed into a luxury boutique hotel, which he also designed. He came prepared with photos and blueprints on his laptop. “But we couldn't access the wifi on his laptop in my office, and so I told him we could go to the library,” Bland said. The two men walked across the street, and after Bland heard Tampa’s pitch, they solidified a preliminary contract between the city and the developer using a pen and the closest piece of paper they could find – a napkin.
“I had met with a lot of people, who had a lot of different ideas about how to renovate the Threefoot, but John was the first person who I felt could really get the job done,” Bland said. “We sold him the building for $10,000, and he was ready to commit to spending more than $20 million to complete the project.”
The committed money will turn the building into a 135-room Courtyard Marriott with a Starbucks, as well as a bar and bistro on the bottom level. Developers hope to complete the project within the next 18 months. Environmental testing and abatement, a tedious and time-consuming process, began in September.
Construction of the Threefoot began in 1929, financed by local businessmen. Architects C.H. Lindsley and Frank Fort designed the space. Lindsley also designed the Standard Life building in Jackson, considered a sister structure with similar art deco stylings. When completed, The Threefoot Building was the tallest structure in Mississippi. It remains the tallest building in Meridian, visible to cars passing through the city on Interstate 20/59.
Offices were eventually abandoned, and its doors closed in the 1990s. Efforts to renovate and reopen the building began not long thereafter. Bland and Tampa’s deal represents the culmination of those efforts. “As the mayor, I’m geeked that this is finally happening. We are getting a major injection of funds into a historic part of our city. It’s been an incredibly complicated process to get to where we are now.”
The Threefoot Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was designated as a Mississippi Landmark in 2008, meaning developers must adhere to strict regulations to preserve as many original elements as possible. “They go in and they take pictures of everything,” says Bland. “Every door, every door handle. The details matter, and there’s a lot of back and forth about what you can and can’t do.”
The travails of restoring 87-year-old architecture don't intimidate Tampa. “As a developer, a project like this is exciting. You never know what you’re going to encounter, and every building presents unique challenges. To me, a space like the Threefoot tells an American story about the ability of immigrants to succeed and to come to a place, start their own business, and become a success. So, while I wanted to modernize some elements of the building, it was important to me to let the Threefoot continue to tell that story,” Tampa says.
Members of the local nonprofit, the Threefoot Preservation Society, have spent years working to raise awareness of the building, hosting cleanups and tours. Amos Jones runs the group, and has lived on the bottom level of the Threefoot for the last 19 years. During a recent tour of the building, he described its design and construction.
“I guess they were excited to get this project completed. It took 11 months to build, with men working 11 and a half hour shifts around the clock,” Jones said. He holds up a cylindrical piece of concrete, nearly a foot in height. “This was extracted from the core of the building when they were installing antennas on the roof. They’re working to take all that stuff down now. The building has a steel frame skeleton with poured concrete … the brick exterior is cosmetic.”
The exterior of the Threefoot also features elaborate, hand-painted terra cotta panels from the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, whose work was renowned around the country, particularly in the Deco period. Their designs also appear on the facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The building’s lobby features marble wainscotting and terrazzo floors, with decorative brass elevator doors and dial indicators, as well as a directory board listing the building’s former occupants. That will be removed and replaced with a new electronic board for hotel use, but all other elements of the lobby will be restored and retained. “We want to keep the lobby and the facade as close to original as possible. The biggest challenge with projects like this is coordinating with state and federal agencies and getting every aspect of the space approved, but that’s also what makes it more rewarding,” Tampa said.
The Threefoot’s brick and terra cotta facade will be restored, as will historic skylights on the first floor and terraces on the 14th and 15th stories. The biggest changes will come to the building’s office spaces, which will be reconfigured for hotel use.
Tampa said the building caught his eye on a business trip to the nearby Fairfied Inn and Suites, which opened more than two years ago. “I think it’s a special space, so I wanted to make sure we retain what makes it unique while allowing for contemporary conveniences like valet that the building wasn’t designed for,” says Tampa.
Ascent Hospitality worked with the New Orleans-based architectural firm John T. Campo & Associates Inc. to meet MDAH regulations. The firm was also involved with the renovation of the stately Hilton Garden Inn hotel in downtown Jackson, fondly known as the King Edward Hotel.
Construction is set to begin first quarter 2018, said John Campo, the firm's owner. “Selective demo will begin before the end of the year,” he said. “That's a very important part of the project. Lead paint and asbestos is something that needs to be dealt with. It can be found in the insulation around pipes and in some of the vinyl tiles and the adhesive that was used to secure them. They're not huge environmental issues. We find them in every building. The intent is to get to the point where the building is clean.”
Currently, Tampa's legal team, accountants and architects are soliciting tax credit investors at state and federal levels, Campo said. “We are going through a pretty arduous process of developing legal documents that transform tax credits to cash,” he said. “Campo Architects navigates that minefield of approvals. We've done this for 34 years, working with brilliant legal and accounting minds to get the approvals and negotiate with investors. At its core we're converting tax credits to cash.”
The brick and mortar comes with another set of issues, he said. “These old building are more complicated and have hidden issues. They're a Rubik's Cube within a Rubik's Cube. To replicate, you have to have artisans who know how to build. It's giving our clients a baseline equal to doing a new construction project.”
Before Tampa stepped in, the building had been listed as one of the 10 most endangered buildings in the United States, Campo said. “The backlash was at a national level. The primary goal is to save America's historic structures and to avoid demolition by neglect, and this building was at the cusp of being considered demolished by neglect.”
Approval is required for needed measures, such as moving corridors 18 inches to allow ample depth for guest room. “We have to create vertical circulation pathways, sprinklers, electrics, fiber optics, plumbing.”
It's a task the firm is familiar with, having undertaken such projects as the conversion of a 10-story sugar refinery into an Embassy Suites hotel and the present conversion of an old Georgia Electric Power building on the Savannah River into a JW Marriott. Statistics show historic hotels are more profitable than their newer counterparts, he said. “The guest expectations are more sophisticated,” Campo said.
“Everyone benefits from these projects. This building, when completed, will be a catalyst for urban redevelopment in Meridian, Mississippi, and Mayor Bland had the vision. You have a treasure trove of vacant historic buildings that I think will be an incentive for people to live and work in downtown Meridian. I've seen this picture before.”
As architects begin to retell the story of Meridian's Threefoot Building, they'll look for the found art and historic artifacts that will be woven into its public spaces as art and sculpture with explanation for educational purposes.
In the end, the Threefoot won't look like any other boutique hotel in the country. “There's only one Threefoot Building in America, and its history will be woven into it," Campo said. “It will capture its market share because of the story line. History sells itself.”
Bland said he's ready to see the changing skyline.
“We want to see the Threefoot anchoring downtown Meridian like the King Edward does for downtown Jackson,” Bland said. “The building tells the story of the city’s past, but with the changes being made it will also be something contemporary. It’s a mixture of new and old. I can’t wait until construction begins and everyone knows it’s happening.”