Friday, May 04, 2012

Lunch at the Continental

The Continental, located on the east side of Centerville's double square, was built in 1893. While the ground floor public areas are adaptive restorations, the apartments (and now in some cases "executive suites") on the second and third floors, are thoroughly modern.

Centerville's Continental Hotel, restored during the 1990s as a senior living complex and public restaurant by Morgan E. Cline as his first large-scale home-county project, is a landmark for preservationists and creative recyclers of vintage buildings in southern Iowa --- the principal reason several involved in the resurrection of Chariton's Charitone Hotel drove down for lunch and a detailed tour Thursday. I got to tag along.

One of the reasons why Centerville is one of my favorite towns (other than Chariton of course) involves the Continental and the multiple and meticulous Cline projects that have followed it on the square and elsewhere. They are among the reasons why time in the Appanoose County seat sometimes is measured as B.M.C. and A.M.C. (Before Morgan Cline --- and After).

A terrace or "porch" just above sidewalk level and sheltered by awnings serves guests and diners as well as offering protection for the Continental's main entrance.

And he's still at it. The renovation of the Majestic Theater just off the square and Porter Hall, a grand old house on Drake Avenue are recent projects.

There are similarities between the Charitone and Continental projects, but major differences, too. If all goes well, the first floor of the Charitone also will include a public restaurant and most likely a bar, but the apartments on the second through fourth floors will be available to everyone --- including older residents looking for smaller-scale homes combined with independence.

The Continental occupies roughly half a block, but the southern portion of its ground floor is occupied by Owl Pharmacy, which also may be accessed from the hotel.

The most obivious difference, however, is the nature of the buildings. The Continental, on the east side of Centerville's double square (the largest in Iowa), was built in 1893 and the landmark interiors of its first floor are decidedly Victorian. The Charitone, which opened in 1923, reflects the prevailing aesthetic 30 years later.

Most of the details in the grand lobby, including the reception desk, main stairway and tiled floors are original. In addition to providing a grand entrance, the lobby serves as a gathering place for Continental residents and guests. A grand piano is available, and if I remember correctly Cline has been known to play it himself on some occasions.

A portrait of Morgan E. Cline hangs over the fireplace in the lobby, and other Cline memorabilia is scattered around the hotel. The hotel's redemption (it was on the verge of being condemned when he stepped in) was motivated in part by the search for housing options for his parents, elderly at the time and still living on a farm. His mother was among early residents.

Somewhat later, Cline built from ground up an assisted living center, The Continental at St. Joseph's, just south of Centerville's hospital and, after that, purchased and renovated the nursing home in nearby Seymour, offering senior residents the opportunity to transition from one level of care to another, if they wished to do so. In addiition, $1.5 million in Cline contributions to the hospital are recognized in the Morgan E. Cline Medical Plaza and the Cline Family Dialysis Center.

Lunch was in the dining room of the hotel, a pleasant high-ceilinged room that benefits from long windows into Charlotte's Garden, a courtyard named in honor of  Charlotte Beck, who with her husband, Robert, late editor and publisher of The Centerville Iowegian, were among early Continental residents.

The restaurant is open to the public from 11 a.m. into the evening daily and also serves meals to full-time Continental residents and to guests. My fish sandwich, by the way, was excellent --- if the fish in a fish sandwich actually looks like fish and is well-cooked and served on something other than a squishy "bun," I'm happy. The homemade chips were wonderful --- and the dessert tray --- well ... Coconut cream pie, strawberry chiffon pie, chocolate brownie pie, cheesecake, etc. I had the amazing coconut pie. Between us, we cleaned off the tray. Alyse had a bite of each.

There also is a full-service bar just north of the main dining room.

We met our excellent guide, Tena Stansberry, director of guest services and property, in the lobby after lunch and she led the way through public areas, guest suites, apartments, the kitchen --- even the basement. You could say it was a thorough tour.

An interesting thing going on at the Continental now, as housing trends in Centerville evolve, is the renovation of some original apartments into "executive suites," designed for short-term stays. These have proved to be extremely popular and the occupancy rate is high, according to Stansberry. You can rent this suite, living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath, for $120 a night (corporate discounts, length of stay and other factors may modify that price).

After finally retrieving members of our party who had been poking around in the Continental basement, we headed back to Chariton and managed to get here in time for the 5 p.m. Non-profit roundable and the 7 p.m. Charitone Hotel memory exchange meeting --- a really rewarding time for all who attended I think. But it was kind of a long day.

Cline (left), born into a farming and coal mining family near Exline, southeast of Centerville, is a graduate in pharmacy of Drake University (Cline Hall on the Drake campus also reflects his generosity) who after service as a U.S. Army pharmacist and brief work as a retail pharmacist, moved into advertising where he made a fortune representing major pharmaceutical manufacturers, founding Cline, Davis & Mann, Inc., during 1984. Cline, who turns 80 this year, continues to live in New Jersey, I believe, but is in Centerville frequently. For more, see his personal Web site.

It would be hard to calculate how many millions of dollars Cline has poured into his home county. Among the more obvious to Centerville visitors are, of course the Continental, as well as southern Iowa's premiere boutique shopping centers, Bradford Hall and The Columns, both located in beautifully restored mansions. He also has contributed to the Ritz Theater restoration, in addition to the more recent Majestic, and is reponsible for projects that have restored and recycled many business buildings on Centerville's square. He's a fairly amazing example of someone who makes a fortune --- then gives it away. There are projects to see in his native Exline, too.

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