For those outside of the Illinois-Indiana-Kentucky Tri-State Area, Gabe’s Tower in Owensboro, Kentucky may be an unfamiliar structure. It’s iconic design, however, should not be.
Gabe’s Tower is a 12-story cylinder completed in 1963 as Gabe’s Motor Inn. Originally enveloped in an array of pastel-colored spandrel panels, seemingly reflecting the upbeat spirit of its owner and the spirit of the decade, the cylinder arose during a period when the world was captured by innovative designs such as the Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles and Marina City in Chicago. Prominent Owensboro architect R. Ben Johnson, designer of Gabe’s, was profoundly affected by the changing paradigm in design during this era and integrated the tenets of modernism in his work throughout the city and region, at places like Apollo High School, City Hall, and Western Kentucky University, where he designed the Kelly Thompson Science Complex, Grise Hall, E.A. Diddle Arena, and others. In designing Gabe’s, Johnson and Gabriel Fiorella, owner of Gabe’s and local giant who also constructed a $1.4 million shopping center in the area, found particular inspiration in influential designs such as Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, the twin 65-story cylindrical towers. As noted by a regional newspaper: “Its circular shape and rooftop all-year swimming pool are ‘gimmicks’ that Gabe says will make it as unusual here as Marina City in Chicago.” It was upon these “gimmicks,” the innovative designs that had captured America’s interest in an age of space races, geometric motifs, and obsession with the future, that Gabe’s opened its doors with optimism.
Today, though Gabe’s tells a different story: one that has erased the optimism of the past with years of neglect and disinvestment – not just for Gabe’s but the total of the contextual environment. Indeed, the combination of apathy and sustained mismanagement have rendered the area void of its past charm and vibrancy. For Gabe’s this has left some locals calling for the toppling of the tower. As noted in a recent local newspaper editorial:
“To much of our satisfaction, the wrecking ball looks to be headed toward the dilapidated Gabe’s Tower. Mayor Ron Payne instructed City Attorney Ed Ray last week to start the condemnation process….And if you live in the neighborhood or have driven down Triplett Street lately, you understand why the city’s patience has finally run out on what has become a 13-story silo-shaped eyesore…”
Others, however, have not been blinded to the possibilities that exist for Gabe’s and for the area as a whole. For them, and rightfully so, Gabe’s continues to ascend the skyline as a modernist icon and beacon to rally around, to recall what once was, and to stimulate a dynamic conversation about the possibilities that exist – for Gabe’s, the corridor, and for Owensboro. RPPN emphatically supports the goals of this coalition, Save Gabe’s, and we encourage you to check them out and lend your voice.