The Auction Block
landmark Hillside Inn
faces uncertain future
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
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
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