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Group recognized for Metropolitan's rebirth

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

Only a few members of the Upper Town Heritage Foundation board remember when the Hotel Metropolitan was still a lively boardinghouse. Most recall it as an empty building ready for the wrecking ball.

But all are proud of what the former hotel has become after more than a decade of work. They say it's a gathering point for the community and a vital lesson in local history. And a statewide historic preservation award now backs up their opinion. Upper Town Heritage Foundation co-founders Betty Dobson and Sheryl Cooper recently accepted a Preservation Project Award from the Kentucky Heritage Council in recognition of their efforts to restore the landmark. The organization began work on the condemned, segregation-era hotel on Oscar Cross Avenue in 1999.

"It just looked like it would cave in on you when you walked in," Dobson said. "Just about every wall had a bulge in it. ... If you touched it, you didn't know if it was going to fall in on you or not."

But members of the foundation believed in the building's historical and cultural importance. A young black woman named Maggie Steed opened the hotel in 1909, and it served as the only lodging option for black people traveling through Paducah.

It housed some of the century's most notable musicians - such as B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong - as well as politicians, athletes and everyday travelers not allowed to stay at the "white" hotels. It ceased operations in 1996 and was condemned in 1999, according to Sun files. Owner Clarence "Big House" Gaines then donated the property to the foundation, Dobson said.She said it took close to 10 years and $875,000 to restore the two-story building to its current condition. The heritage foundation received numerous local, state and federal grants to complete the project. Part black history museum, part bed and breakfast, the building features nine upstairs guest rooms and a bathroom, as well as a full kitchen downstairs. Members of the Upper Town Heritage Foundation didn't always believe they'd succeed. They'd witnessed the failure of efforts to restore similar landmarks in the neighborhood, such as the Lincoln School on South 8th Street, which was demolished in 1998. But the Metropolitan turned out differently.

"The hotel offered something to everyone. It didn't matter what walk of life you were from," Dobson said. "Everyone liked music."  

Now, fundraisers such as monthly fish fries, lectures, comedy shows and this month's Salute to Black Music help the nonprofit heritage foundation break even, but more often they serve to raise awareness of the hotel, which operates solely on donations.

The site has been open since about 2008, Dobson said, but board members still hope to do more with both the building and their outreach efforts. They've discussed building a patio, adding a garden or renovating a small outbuilding on the property known as The Purple Room. They'd like to bring in staff so the museum can offer regular hours to the public.

Whatever happens, "It's wonderful it (the hotel) didn't get torn down, because it's been a focal point of what's been going on in this area for 150 years," board member Jim Hank said.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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