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Historic Pender hotel revitalized

August 26, 2018

PENDER — Horse-drawn buggies no longer deliver guests to the Palace Hotel on Main Street in downtown Pender.

Ladies and gentlemen no longer dance the night away in the hotel’s third-floor ballroom.

And judges no longer dispense sentences in the courtroom once located there.

But, in many ways, the building still looks and feels much like it would have back in the late 1800s when it was built.

Today, the original hotel desk still sits in the former lobby. A window where passengers bought train tickets is still in place in the “lobby” wall. So is the door where guests entered as they alighted from the buggies or Model A’s that transported them there from the train depot.

BUILT IN 1892 to serve railroad employees and passengers, the hotel was once the hub of activity for this northeast Nebraska town.

In addition to offering guests a place to rest and local people a place to gather, it housed the Thurston County Courthouse and jail until the county bought the former school building down the street from the hotel and moved the courthouse and jail there.

In the 1940s, Fred Hesse bought the building, and when he died, it was passed down to his daughter and son-in-law, Don and Valdine Darling. Now, Hesse’s grandson — Scott Darling and his wife, Katie, — and their family own the property. The Darlings also own Pender Grain.

In the 1980s, some of the hotel rooms were converted to apartments. But eventually, the second and third floors were closed. All that remained open were main floor businesses.

The Darlings knew they had to resuscitate the aging giant.

The building was “too good to not do something,” said Scott Darling. After all, he remembers living at the hotel when he was young and doing chores for his grandfather. His pay was enough money to buy a bottle of soda, he said.

So several years ago, the couple and their daughter, Candice Gardea, embarked on a quest to restore the building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Instead of a hotel, they retained the main-floor businesses and have turned the upper floors into apartments.

During the renovation process, they uncovered and restored original hardwood floors, tin ceilings, wood banisters and spindles and other features. Also retained was the building’s grand staircase that leads to a foyer illuminated by an original skylight.

Upgrades were made to heating and air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems, and a fire suppression system was installed.

The former hotel rooms were divided into modern one, two and three-bedroom apartments that feature granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and washers and dryers.

ONE OF THE small apartments is an extended-stay unit that has been popular, Gardea said.

In addition to retaining original features, the family did its best to keep unusual characteristics, which is why the bathroom in one of the apartments is in a former vault. The vault was in one of the second-floor court house offices, Katie Darling said.

Other apartments have original (non-working) fireplaces, Gardea said.

While the hallways on the upper levels are lined with the original doors that once led to individual rooms, some of them now lead to nowhere because the other side was closed off when the apartments were created, Gardea said.

The main floor houses a number of businesses, including a community thrift store and a dentist office.

And the outside of the building has changed very little. Even the sign on the corner is original, although the face was changed from Palace Hotel to Palace Lofts.

The exterior “is just like it was except for the horse hook-ups,” Scott said.

Although saving the old building was a labor of love for the family, they hope it has a positive economic impact on the community by providing needed housing.

“We wanted to help Pender grow,” Scott said.

Their project was aided by the Nebraska Historic Tax Credit (NHTC) program instituted three years ago by the Nebraska Legislature that provides 20 percent Nebraska tax credit for eligible expenditures made to rehabilitate, restore or preserve historic buildings. It is facilitated by History Nebraska, formerly the Nebraska State Historical Society.

ON THURSDAY, Trevor Jones, director and CEO of History Nebraska, and Jill Dolberg, deputy state historic preservation officer, were in Pender to tour the building and congratulate the Darlings and Gardea on their success.

“A lot of projects are happening that wouldn’t have happened without the credit,” he said.

The goal of the program is to generate revenue and create jobs. And it has been successful, Jones said.

In fact, it’s estimated that the program has generated $130 million in revenue and 1,600 full-time jobs since it began.

“It’s an amazing economic tool,” Jones said.

Jones also shared an interesting fact about the hotel. He said it holds the record for being the longest temporary courthouse in Nebraska.

Indeed, the hotel housed the facility for 38 years, Jones said.

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