Hillside Tranformation

Fuhs’ Hillside Inn project nears
completion, late September
opening anticipated

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. – Jerry and Caroline Fuhs sit uncomfortably on boxes of marble floor tile stacked inside a small storage room in the Hillside Inn. It’s the only air-conditioned spot in the entire four-floor hotel on a hot August afternoon.
Upstairs, workers saw plaster board, replace rusted plumbing pipes and hang wallpaper on finished surfaces. Outside, one young man from Latvia and two others from the Ukraine apply the final coat of stucco to the newly molded exterior of the building.

The dusty hallways and dimly lit stairwells are starting to take shape, but it still requires a vivid imagination to believe that in a few short weeks, guests will be checking in. Newly arrived fire places and jacuzzi tubs sit idle in many rooms, while workers maneuver around them.
Jerry, 47, dressed casually but stylishly in a flowered shirt and cotton slacks, eagerly discusses his plans for the rebirth of the once-dilapidated hotel during a rare visit to Madison. Caroline, 45, sits nearby listening to her husband’s grand plans, occasionally reminding him of things he fails to mention.
She is responsible for decorating the hotel and already has received shipments of furniture that has temporarily been stored in the former restaurant area.
“Things are starting to fall into place, but we’ve got a ways to go,” Caroline said.
The two have been through this routine before. And like past performances in other towns, the citizens below anxiously await the completion of the Fuhs’ pet restoration projects.
The Hillside Inn couldn’t quite be labeled a “restoration,” since it isn’t that old. The 29-room hotel that sits majestically on a hill overlooking the Ohio Valley was first constructed in 1923, then rebuilt in 1965-66 following a devastating fire.
But it is certainly an undertaking to bring life back to the hotel, which fell into disrepair over the last decade, leaving Madison residents with little more than a glimpse of her past glory every time they crossed the Ohio River bridge.
The Hillside Inn was once the playground of movie stars and travelers passing through the area. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine partied there while filming the 1959 movie, “Some Came Running.”
The Fuhs may not be recreating history here, but they’ve certainly rejuvenated spirits among Madison area residents who consider the Hillside a gem that had lost its shine. More than 100 of them turned out for an open house back in January when the Fuhs threw a party to introduce themselves to Madison after buying the property for $480,000 plus a $48,000 buyer’s premium at a Nov. 4, 1999, bankruptcy auction. That night, the Fuhs explained their plans for the hotel and fed the group hors douevres and wine.
The next party is sure to bring them back again to see the finished product. “We’ll probably wait and hold an open house about a month after opening so we can work out the kinks,” Caroline said.
Because of the hotel’s prominent location, Jerry Fuhs calls the Hillside “the anchor” of the town. And he’s determined to make it a memorable experience for future guests. It’s not a labor of love by any means, however. Fuhs regards it purely as a financial opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“What attracted me to Madison was the historic aspects of the community and the opportunity that became available when this property went up for sale,” Fuhs said. “We’re opportunity driven.”
Fuhs would not disclose how much money he plans to sink into the Hillside Inn renovation, referring to it only as “substantial.”
One new feature is an air lock entry way, complete with a handicap-accessible ramp. He’s also added many design details to the exterior of the building to update the hotel’s appearance. Hiring a staff of 12 to 15 people will be handled by Fuhs’ property manager, Tom Richardson, based in Dale, Ind.
Fuhs plans to begin remodeling the former restaurant later this winter in hopes of opening a “fine dining” eatery by spring.
“We will probably start out running the restaurant ourselves but would entertain offers to lease that part if the right person came along and under the right circumstances,” Fuhs said. A restaurateur would have to meet the Fuhs’ standards of excellence, on par with the level of quality he plans to bring to the hotel.
In the third phase, Fuhs will turn his attention to the house next door to the hotel that served as temporary living quarters for Sinatra, Martin and MacLaine in the fall of 1958. The previous owners lived there, and Fuhs says that once remodeled, the house could provide up to six guest rooms. A new retaining wall will be built soon just below the house, and additional parking will be added.
The initial plan was to finish the first phase by mid-summer and begin renting rooms in time for the Madison Regatta. That plan was delayed after construction manager Kenny Murphy was able to “open” the walls and ceiling to determine the extent of the decay to the plumbing, heating, air and other mechanical systems.
“The structure was in worse shape than we could have determined before the sale, and as a result, we ended up replacing all the plumbing and mechanical systems,” Fuhs said.
His decision to introduce a number of additional amenities – fireplaces, jacuzzi tubs, Internet-accessibility – also slowed the progress, he said.
“We’re not discouraged, by any means, we just thought we would have been open by now,” Fuhs said.
He’s not alone. Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau officials were hoping the Hillside Inn would be ready in time for this month’s Chautauqua of the Arts festival, which annually attracts nearly 70,000 people.
Fuhs isn’t ruling that out but refuses to make any promises on an opening date. Perhaps his experience with construction projects has made him overly cautious.
“Let’s just say, sometime this fall,” he says with a smile.

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