Life of a Building
The site of so many significant events—as public as the kick-off of Bob Dole’s presidential campaign or as private as an intimate wedding—nearly everyone in Topeka and thousands across the state had a good memory associated with this landmark. As it began to decline, however, hope that it would rebound became dim. People wanted to believe, but they were doubtful.
The Capital Journal’s Pete Goering reported, “The first thing Jim Parrish noticed was the smell, the reek of neglect.”
As soon as the papers were signed, Parrish went to work. The priorities were clear—repair the roof, redo the rooms, restore the reputation. The public was encouraged but skeptical, waiting for the follow-through on promises to bring back this historic hotel.
It was a daunting task. Age and competition had taken a toll, somewhat reminiscent of the Urban Renewal in which the Ramada’s construction played such a significant role.
Older neighborhoods with modest homes in the Keyway Area, the four blocks between Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, Kansas Avenue to Monroe Street, many of which lacked basic services such as indoor plumbing, were razed to make way for modern improvements in 1962 with the Urban Renewal Area Plan. The home of Topeka founder and visionary Cyrus K. Holliday would have been located about where I-70 passes the Ramada. The hotel itself was the result of a later visionary developer Sam Cohen.
Cohen was a difficult man. Shrewd, energetic, direct—he obviously spent more time pouring over the accounts than on Dale Carnegie classes. His vision, however, was grand, as evidenced by plans for the Ramada. When proposed in 1963, he noted it would be the first major addition to Topeka hotels in 35 years. In the financing documents submitted to the First National Bank, Cohen described the project as the “. . .newest downtown, luxurious, Motor Motel—a fabulous resort atmosphere with all the series of a Cosmopolitan Hotel—at Motor Motel prices.”
Cohen wanted the business to be welcoming even if he was not.
Cohen incorporated architectural features from the old Governor’s Mansion at Eighth and Buchanan, a landmark he controversially purchased and tore down. Those items continue to be a part of the Ramada— an elaborate staircase, mantels, windows—lending character to what could be innocuous meeting rooms. It is an element Parrish especially valued and sought to preserve when the partners purchased the property.
Cohen remade the Ramada a couple of times, expanding, adding rooms and adding the tower. Parrish felt the hotel might have over-expanded, and one of his first decisions as owner was to reduce the number of guest rooms.
Return to Glory
Another popular feature of the Ramada through the years has been the Le Flambeau Club. When it opened in 1966, Topekans heralded the eatery as an upscale restaurant and an exception to hotel chains with a captive audience shunned by locals because of high prices and poor quality. Over the years, that too declined and former food critic Dena Wallace Anson reported in 1991, “While the vestiges of the original grandeur are still evident, the brilliance has faded at Le Flambeau.”
Thankfully, Le Flambeau is once again shining as the hotel management has focused on bringing back the attributes that made the restaurant itself a destination.
Another popular addition to the Ramada has been Uncle Bo’s. The blues club located on the lower level is operated by Topeka entrepreneur and music promoter, Suki Wilson. Since opening in 2005, it has hosted some of the biggest names in blues music and attracts music lovers from miles around.
With a commitment to keeping the Ramada as a viable and vibrant cornerstone of Topeka’s business and social life, the new owners have kept their promise and the work continues. The most obvious sign of success is the parking lot, full of cars, the lobby filled with patrons, and the new energy that is palpable on these premises.
The results might even bring a smile to Sam Cohen’s face.