On The Auction Block

Madison's landmark Hillside Inn
faces uncertain future

By Don Ward

MADISON, IND. – Patricia Thomassen sits near the window of her defunct restaurant that overlooks downtown Madison and the Ohio River Bridge as her memory reels through the past 10 years at the Hillside Inn.

Hillside Inn Postcard

Photo by provided

As indicated, this post card of the
original Hillside INn is the last held by
Tom and Patricia Thomassen, whose
1998 bankruptcy has forced this
month's auction. The original hotel
was destroyed by fire in 1964.
It was rebuilt and re-opened
two years later.

Remnants of what was once a thriving restaurant lie cluttered around the room – tables, chairs, steel buffet islands, even old artificial Christmas trees still standing in dark corners.
Thomassen runs a hand through her bushy, gray hair and absorbs the spectacular view below. It's obviously not easy for her to accept the idea of selling out.
But she and her husband, Tom, have no choice. Come Nov. 4, the Hillside Inn, a victim of the Thomassen's 1998 Chapter 11 bankruptcy, will be auctioned to the highest bidder. And with it, the future of Madison's famous landmark will be determined by a new owner. "I just hope that whoever buys it will love it as much as I love it, because if it doesn't receive tender loving care, it will fall into disrepair," says Patricia Thomassen, 70, her Australian accent evident as she speaks.
"I'd hate to see someone buy it, run it into the ground and feather their own pockets with it," she said. "We've kept it up as much as we could afford to do. But you must remember, this place is over 30 years old."
Though an auction seems like a sad way to go out, she's already been through it once. The 11-acre, 29-room hotel and adjacent four-bedroom private residence were auctioned June 10. But the winning bidder, Mohamed M. Moussa of Vevay, Ind., who offered $440,000 plus a $40,000 buyer's premium, failed to come up with the earnest money deposit of $66,000.
So the U.S. Bankruptcy Court has rescheduled the second auction despite post-auction offers of up to $330,000 by local bidders.
Tom Thomassen, too, is reluctant to go. "If I had unlimited funds, I'd buy this place back," he said. "It's the best place in the whole area."
The Thomassen's bought the hotel in 1989 from Bill and Jeanne Harned. The first few years were good. But the 1996 closing of the Ohio River Bridge for renovation and the 1997 flood killed their business, the Thomassens say. They never quite recovered.
"People just stopped going through here like they used to," Patricia said. "And the city did a poor job of advertising when the bridge finally did re-open."
The couple also attributes their hotel's failure to a lack of local tourism events outside of the annual Madison Regatta and Chautauqua.
"We're already booked for both events for next year," Patricia says, "but the rest of the year, we're dead, except for weekends."
Patricia suggested ideas to local tourism officials but received no response. She also researched Indian and Underground Railroad activities that allegedly took place in the caves on the hill behind the hotel to use as a possible tourism draw. But her research only attracted one Indiana University professor and a small group of students, who soon lost interest and never returned.
Then she was forced to close the restaurant two years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer and couldn't continue managing it. "When I wasn't here, things didn't get done like I wanted them, and you can't operate like that," she said.
Tom Thomassen, who is of Dutch and French descent and raised in Indonesia, even suggested that the couple's "foreign" roots didn't help their being accepted into the Madison business community.
"Some people seemed to be mad that these foreigners bought their landmark hotel," he said. "But it was on the market for three years before we bought it."
Despite their bitterness, the couple says they hold fond memories of their time here. Surprisingly, they say few guests inquire about the property's legendary use in 1958 as quarters for the MGM movie "Some Came Running" cast. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine stayed in the Thomassen's private residence, while other crew members lodged in the hotel.
"It didn't put Madison on the map at the time," Patricia said.
Framed newspapers clippings hanging on the hotel walls tell the story of the Hollywood production in Madison. It contains a Hillside Inn post card autographed by MacLaine, who wrote, "Thank you for everything."
Another framed collection tells the story of the December 1964 fire that destroyed all but the restaurant, killed one guest and injured six others. The hotel was rebuilt the next year.
Yet a third collection in the lobby details the hotel's original construction in 1923 by Madison surgeon Dr. George Denny, who had originally bought the land to build a hospital. Denny operated the hotel for 10 years, then in 1934 hired John Lucht to manage it. Lucht later bought the hotel, presided over its fiery demise and reconstruction, then sold it in November 1981 to the Harneds of Columbus, Ind.
"It was in good shape, and it's still in good shape," Patricia Thomassen said. "We did some work to the heating and air conditioning systems, and two years ago we regrouted all the bathrooms."
The Thomassens found Madison after Tom's 25-year career as a computer mainframe technician with Control Data Corp. When they bought the hotel, the couple was living in Minneapolis, where for 20 years Patricia had operated a stained glass studio.
Tom's also an artist, and though the two haven't decided on where they'll go or what they'll do after the hotel's sale, they are considering returning to their art.
"I don't know what we'll do," Tom said, reaching over to touch his wife's arm as he spoke. "We haven't had a vacation in 10 years because we've always been here working."
Patricia added, "It's been a very nice experience, and we've met several regular customers who come every year and stay in the same room.
"I'll miss all that."

Back to November 1999 Articles.



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