‘Hotel of the Stars’ Finds New Purpose as United Church of Christ Affordable Housing Community

The restored LaFontaine Center in Huntington, Ind.

It’s not every day that residents of an older adult community can say they live in a building once frequented by the rich and famous. But then, LaFontaine Center in Huntington, Ind., isn’t your everyday place.

Built in 1925, the former LaFontaine Hotel was a hot destination spot for movie stars and jet set clientele, who traveled to Huntington just to stay there. The guest list included such notables as  Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, Carol Lombard, John Dillinger, and even Olympic Gold Medalist and movie star Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame, who once swam in the hotel’s Egyptian style pool. Guests, who arrived via the nearby train station, enjoyed several fancy restaurants, a barber shop, ice cream parlor, ballroom, and eight-lane bowling alley.

Before restoration.

But by the 1970s, the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad, among others, had stopped passenger service, and the hotel faded. It closed in 1974 and was slated for the wrecking ball. But then, the UCC’s Retirement Housing Foundation and the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana saved the day. Working together with the local Huntington community, RHF and the foundation were able to secure a HUD 202 grant. Combined with a lot of creativity, expert architects, local fund raising, and volunteer sweat equity, the hotel reopened as LaFontaine Center in 1986, an affordable housing community for older adults. It was dedicated in April 1987.

After restoration.

“I visited there in early 1987, and some of the residents were former maids and bellhops who had worked at the hotel,” says the Rev. Laverne R. Joseph, president and CEO of Retirement Housing Foundation. “They were thrilled to be living where they formerly worked.”

Old and New Come Together at the LaFontaine

Today, residents of 66 apartments call LaFontaine Center home. All of the studio and one-bedroom units once were luxurious rooms in the hotel, and have been adapted for the needs of the residents. Among the many activities and programs that residents can participate in are social outings, special events, musical programs, gardening, and movie nights. The center is equipped with a 24-hour emergency call system and staff, and provides health, nutrition, wellness, and fitness activities and exercise opportunities.

The frog fountain and carefully restored tiles are centerpieces of the LaFontaine Center.

The many restored features of the center add charm and beauty to the daily lives of both residents and staff. Thanks to a host of local volunteers, a frog fountain in the opulent main lobby was restored, as was the historic ballroom and “red brick room,” a space for smaller gatherings. Both the ballroom and red brick room are can be rented by the general public.

Volunteers also restored the stucco walls with their intricate stenciling and imported tiles. Other items that bring a touch of elegance to the center include original chandeliers, restored murals in one of the dining rooms, and restored chairs in the lobby.

Restored murals bring beauty to the dining room.

The LaFontaine has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984. To celebrate LaFontaine’s history and the 30th anniversary of the center’s dedication, RHF helped sponsor a production by Matthew Wayne Murray and White Horse Entertainment called LaFontaine: A Look Back, Joseph says. The film premiered April 27, 2018, and tells the story of the LaFontaine in the context of the local community.

While the film celebrates the vast history of the LaFontaine, new memories and stories are being created daily, thanks to the repurposing of the building into affordable housing. Says RHF’s Joseph:

“Repurposing a historical site for affordable housing not only brings much-needed housing for local, low-income seniors, but also helps preserve the larger community’s heritage for generations to come.”

Watch a short video on the restoration.

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