Coppin's Department Store history gives glimpse into Hotel Covington's future

Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-27 12:24:48-04

COVINGTON, Ky. -- John R. Coppin had humble but ambitious aspirations when he opened in 1873 his own dry goods store, the California Dry Goods Co., at what is now the corner of Seventh Street and Madison Avenue.

As his business -- and his entrepreneurial spirit -- grew, Coppin eventually relocated before, in 1907, he realized even his four-story storefront wasn't big enough to accommodate his needs. 

That's when he commissioned what would become a first for the commonwealth, a seven-story "skyscraper," as a building that size was considered at the time. In 1910, after a name change to the John R. Coppin Co., the business had transformed from a humble dry goods storefront to the region's largest high-end department store. It would maintain that status for decades to come, long after Coppin's death just three years after the building's completion.

Now, the building that rivals any other in the city for its historical significance will return to Coppin's tradition of luxury as a boutique hotel and restaurant, opening Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m., followed by guided tours.

After a year-long renovation process that included gutting the building while painstakingly preserving its shell, the hotel boasts 114 rooms, including suites and what they refer to as "Anything But Standard" rooms -- that now occupy more than a century of Covington history. 

History made with a gamble

As is stated on the hotel's website, "Like many great things in Kentucky, it began with a horse race."

In order to commission the building's construction, Coppin used $33,000 he won betting on a race at the nearby Latonia Racecourse, according to history compiled by Cov200, a coalition formed to celebrate the city's bicentennial in 2015, in conjunction with the Kenton County Public Library and historical tourism website Touritz.

The result of Coppin's purchase: Kentucky's first modern skyscraper -- that is, reinforced by concrete -- and home to what became a massive department store that outperformed nationally known retail chains like Sears and Roebuck and J.C. Penney Co. when they moved into town in the 1960s -- in an attempt at riding Coppin's coattails.

California Dry Goods Co., located at 607 Madison Ave. (top) and then relocated to 538 Madison Ave., depicted here after becoming Photo Arts Studio (Courtesy Kenton Co. Public Library)

The skyscraper was built on the site of Coppin's original store, at 607 Madison Ave., perched adjacent to railroad tracks running down the boulevard. Coppin moved his business just a stretch down the road in 1880, after his business outgrew its original digs. That second location, 538 Madison Ave., was initially two stories, until Coppin added two more about a decade later. In another historic move, with the two-story addition, 538 Madison became the first building in Covington with electric lighting.

But eventually that wasn't enough either. In 1906, Coppin returned home to 607 and purchased the property. Construction began in the fall of 1907.

Over the next six decades, Coppin's Department Store experienced and recovered from significant debts and eventually changed hands while keeping its iconic name.

The building also witnessed first-hand the power of the Civil Rights Movement when long-time president of Covington's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Alice Shimfessel, convinced the department store to open its "whites only" bathroom to people of all races.

Eventually, suburban flight and the opening of Florence Mall in 1976 led to the department store's closure in 1977. The building sat vacant for 11 years until the city of Covington purchased the property in 1988 and City Hall took up residence after a two-year remodel.

The city moved its administrative offices around the corner onto Pike Street in 2014.

Taking up the torch, in a new direction

When Covington-based developers, the Salyers Group, took up the task of gutting and designing the boutique hotel, they had this rich history in mind.

"The history of this building, we've tried to maintain the touches, the 20-foot ceilings with the original pillars," Hotel Covington General Manager Jack Olshan told WCPO. 

Looking onto Coppin's Department Store's main showroom

Olshan said the building's design works well for the hotel's mission. "When you walked in (to Coppin's) on Madison Avenue, there was actually a 13-inch drop from Madison to the back of the building, which we actually kept," Olshan said. "It was meant to, when you stepped off Madison Avenue into the department store, you could see the whole sales floor.

"And it actually works perfectly for us," he said.

Upon entering, visitors find a large, spacious lobby before entering the equally open Coppin's Restaurant and Bar.

Olshan sees Hotel Covington as a springboard of the building's -- and the community's -- history. He pointed to the department store's central role locally in the rise of malls popping up in urban cores across the country in the early 20th century, driving residents out of the city centers.

"Now it's sort of flipped on its head," he said. "Now everybody wants to be back in downtown. They want to be in the urban core."

Olshan and the hotel's management group, Aparium Hotel Group, want the hotel to contribute to downtown Covington's recent resurgence. 

"It's, excuse the pun, a perfect marriage of the Madison Events Center, which caters to 450 weddings a year, plus 100 corporate events," he said. "Rather than have to take a cab or Uber, they can just walk across the street." The Madison Events Center is located directly across Seventh Street from the hotel.

This past weekend, the hotel hosted two wedding parties as a sort of dry run. "It went beautifully," Olshan said.

All these things, Olshan said, make Hotel Covington more than just a hotel.

"We want to be a local hub for the local community to come in 3-4 times a week and have a different experience along the way."

He also boasted the hotel's proximity to the Madison Theater, Braxton Brewery, numerous restaurants and Mainstrasse Village, the city's popular entertainment district. The hotel also established partnerships with Bellevue-based New Riff Distillery, Newport-based Carabello Coffee, as well as Braxton Brewery, which is developing a Hotel Covington-exclusive beer, to be served at Coppin's.

Opening the doors

While Tuesday's ribbon-cutting means the hotel is officially open for business, Olshan said there's still work to be done.

"We're not quite ready with all 114 (rooms), a little more work to do there," Olshan said. "We have suites on floors five, six and seven. We have our 'Anything But Standard' rooms on five, six and seven ready to go, and then this beautiful lobby, bar and Coppin's Restaurant and Bar fully operational."

He also said the courtyard will be ready "soon."

"We're pushing forward," Olshan said.

No doubt he and his team are doing so while also remembering what came before.

Hotel Covington will open to the public at 11:30 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 27.

9 On Your Side's Evan Millward contributed to this report.

Connect with WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).