Making Progress

Work continues on restoring
Eagle Cotton Mill into a hotel

The historic building is being converted
into a Fairfield Inn

(July 2020)
Read previous Don Ward columns!

Don Ward

(July 2020) – It is perhaps the largest building in downtown Madison, Ind. – a gem in the rough of the nation’s largest 133-block National Historic Landmark District. It is the Eagle Cotton Mill, a massive, four-story, 80,000-square-feet structure that hovers above the Ohio River and just beneath the Milton-Madison Bridge.
It has a long history as an industrial giant in its day – with hundreds of workers transforming raw cotton into weaved fabric on dozens of machines spread out across its expansive open floors. Today’s residents only know it as a dilapidated behemoth that since the 1980s has stood vacant in one of the most prime locations along the Madison riverfront. For decades, local officials and prospective developers have contemplated what to do with it. Some have tried to raise the money to develop the property, but none succeeded.

Fairfield Inn

Photo by Don Ward

Workers are busy rehabbing the exterior and interior of the 80,000-square-foot building on the Madison, Ind., riverfront. The hotel is set to open in spring 2021.

After a series of failed attempts to redevelop the property, the mill’s ongoing deterioration and difficult prospects earned it a place on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list in 2013 and 2014, and a spot on its “watch list” ever since. In 2007, Bob Przewlocki, a historical preservationist from Chicago, bought the property and began marketing the project to investors, but his efforts were met with the economic downturn of 2008, so the building continued to sit and decline.
But last year – finally – a real estate development group led by a newcomer to Madison and his company’s partnership with Dora Hospitality of Indianapolis teamed up to not only save the building but restore it to prominence as an 85-room Fairfield by Marriott hotel and mini conference center. Perhaps unbelievably, it is slated to open in spring 2021.
The $21 million project has received $4.75 million in conditional tax credits from the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to revitalize the city’s largest historic buildings to meet a real need for additional rooms and amenities to support Madison’s growing tourism industry. The tax credits were made possible through the Industrial Recovery Tax Credit (DINO) program, which encourages investment in large, former industrial sites. The former mill will be the oldest building in the state to be redeveloped to date under the program.

Ron Bateman

Photo by Don Ward

Ron Bateman came out of retirement to head up the project to restore the Eagle Cotton Mill building into a hotel and mini-conference center in downtown Madison, Ind.

“We couldn’t find a construction company that would come to Madison to do this project within our budget, so we decided to do it ourselves. They were all $1.5 to $2 million over budget. We think we can do it with the money we have - if we’re careful,” said Ron Bateman, 70, the principal owner in Riverton LLC who moved to Madison two years ago from Alaska with his wife, Marlene, to retire from a long career in the construction industry. But his interest in historic preservation and his desire to do something to help Madison recoup the potential he saw in the Eagle Cotton Mill brought him out of retirement. Together with officials of the City of Madison and upon earning tax credits from the state of Indiana and the National Park Service, plus TIF funding and in-kind help from the city, Bateman last year embarked on a project to revive the structure.
A consortium of seven entities joined forces to invest in the project, and initial cleanup of the property began in 2019. In November 2019, workers began the arduous task of restoring the brick exterior and renovating the interior floors and walls and repairing the roof. They also are rehabbing most of the outbuildings that stand behind the main building. This includes separate smaller buildings – the cotton picker house, the smokestack and the engine/boiler house.
“We have to save those outbuildings; they’re great and they tell the history of this place,” said Bateman, a Frankfort, Ind., native.
Then the coronavirus arrived. Government offices shut down. Some contractors temporarily stopped working to protect their employees. “We just kept going, doing whatever work we could get done,” Bateman said.
In the past few months, the crew has renovated the floors, installed one of two stairwells on each end of the building, began work on the elevator and designed the layout for the various rooms – king, queen and double rooms to meet Marriott’s standards. The interior walls have been painted white in accordance with the National Park Service’s requirements, since all cotton mills in their day were white to provide more natural light. All of the 248 windows will be restored to exactly match the originals at a cost of $1 million, Bateman said.

Fairfield Inn

Photo by Don Ward

The interior walls of the Eagle Cotton Mill have been painted white to meet the National Park Service’s requirement, since all cotton mills of the time were white to provide natural light for the workers inside.

“We will match the original windows to look identical to the original ones to within 1/16th of an inch,” he said.
The six-acre property runs all the way down to the river, so there is potential to install a temporary boat dock in the future, Bateman said. He also has some ideas for the small building that stands on the west front corner of the property. It is now being used as the office for the project, but Bateman said he would like to see it used for tourism information or a gift shop or as a mini-museum or interpretation center to tell the story of the Cotton Mill.
Gary Berquist, a marketing official with Dora Hospitality, called it “one of the most exciting projects we have done in a long time. We have done historical properties before, but this one is really cool because of the history of it and where it sits on the river.”
He said officials in Madison have been easy to work with because they are so eager to see this project take shape “since it has sat there for so long. It is a project that seemed dead for a long time and then just kept popping back up.”
It took the owners group two years to complete the financing and purchase from the previous owners, he said.
The project gained lots of attention by Louisville TV stations and local media when the project was first announced. And city officials in Madison are excited to see the revival of the structure finally come to fruition.
“The Eagle Cotton Mill project supports the City of Madison’s goal of reusing long-vacant historic sites, maintaining the integrity of the Madison National Historic Landmark District, and improving economic development within our downtown historic district,” Nicole Schell, preservation coordinator for the City of Madison, said in a press release last year. “We believe this project will transform the Cotton Mill into our most significant tourism asset in downtown Madison and will be a model for historic preservation throughout the country.”
Local architects and builders Robert Rankin and James White constructed the Eagle Cotton Mill in 1884 to bolster Madison’s manufacturing economy. They used money raised through local subscriptions to purchase and relocate equipment from a Pennsylvania mill, and by the turn of the 20th century the mill was the city’s major industrial plant – with 400 employees producing muslin, canvas and twine.

Fairfield Inn

Photo by Don Ward

Three structures located behind the Eagle Cotton Mill are being restored to preserve its history. These include the picker house (right) and smokestack (left) and engine room, where the machines were located to drive the belts that transformed raw cotton into fabric.

More than 200, eight-foot-tall windows (25 on each story) set in brick arches follow the course of the building’s longer sides, allowing workers to make the most of natural light, according to a National Park Service description of it. Each interior floor is designed as a single open space with an enclosed corner stairwell. The expansive open floor plan allowed mill owners to fit massive machinery used during the cotton milling process.
Though it ceased operating as cotton mill in the early 1930s, the building housed a number of other manufacturing operations for another 50 years, producing shoes, canvas military goods, ice cream carts for vendors, and refrigeration units. The company sold its milling equipment in 1932, shifting its focus to making shoes and later canvas baskets. Meese Incorporated, a Madison company that made canvas containers before moving to plastics, occupied the building from 1938 until the 1980s, when it closed for good.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at info@RoundAbout.bz.

Back to July 2020 Articles

Copyright 1999-2020, Kentuckiana Publishing, Inc.

Pick-Up Locations Subscribe Staff Advertise Contact Submit A Story Our Advertisers Columnists Archive Area Links Area Events Search our Site Home Monthly Articles Calendar of Events Ketnucky Speedway Madison Chautauqua Madison Ribberfest Madison Regatta