Historic Macon Hotel, once a host to prominent Black entertainers, may finally see new life

Mark Ferenchik
The Columbus Dispatch
The Macon Hotel on the Near East Side was a place for Black performers and travelers to stay when they couldn't stay Downtown. It was in the Green Book made famous by the movie. It has been on Columbus Landmarks' most endangered list. Now the owner plans to redevelop it into residences.

The historic Macon Hotel, for decades a place for Black entertainers to perform and Black travelers to stay, may have a future after years of uncertainty.

The Near East Side building's owner and architect have been to the Columbus Historic Resources Commission with renderings and plans for the three-story building to convert it into an extended-stay hotel, with a first-floor space for a restaurant and bar.

"We were really excited to get hold of this project," architect Laurie Gunzelman said. "We want to make sure it's done right."

According to an application for a certificate of appropriateness from the city Historic Resources Commission, she and building owner Yhezkel Levi want to do masonry repairs and exterior painting, add windows and a new roof, new first-floor storefronts and entrances, and an exterior exit staircase.

The application mentions the renovation of the three-story building "to maintain the historic use as a hotel and bar/restaurant."

There would be seven units each on the second and third floors, Gunzelman said.

Gunzelman also said she and Levi want a mural on the building depicting the Macon's history and that of the neighborhood. She said she doesn't think the project needs a zoning variance.

Historic Columbus building hosted Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald

The brick building, located at 366 N. 20th St. in the King-Lincoln Bronzeville District, dates to 1888. It was in The Green Book, the guide created decades ago to help Black travelers navigate a segregated America and find friendly lodging and restaurants. The hotel hosted Black entertainers such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Columbus' own Nancy Wilson during the early to mid-20th century. 

The Macon Hotel is listed on the Columbus Register of Historic Properties, and is only one of four sites listed in The Green Book remaining in Columbus.

The building was on the Columbus Landmarks Foundation's "most endangered" lists in 2018 and 2019.

"I believe it should be the No.1 preservation priority in the city," said Becky West, the group's executive director. 

She said this project could contribute to the neighborhood's revitalization efforts.

More:Preservationists lament state of Macon Hotel, once a King-Lincoln jewel

"We feel strongly that the community and future generations can learn from this place," West said. "The Macon can help tell the full story of Columbus."

"It's an incredibly powerful and important history for all of us to understand, acknowledge and learn from," she said.

For years, local preservationists and neighborhood leaders worried that the building would be lost. "We were concerned about the lack of progress," West said.

Through his limited liability corporation, Y on Main LLC, Levi bought the 4,930-square-foot building for $45,000 in 2017 to convert into micro-apartments, but that never happened.

A chunk of bricks tumbled from its southeastern corner in 2019.  And a recent look around the building found that while the building was mostly boarded up, one second-floor window was uncovered out front and two windows or doorways were uncovered in the back.

Meanwhile, Columbus code enforcement inspectors looked at the building on June 24, and have issued an order for removal of high grass, weeds and trash.

Al Edmondson, whose barber shop sits near The Macon, said it is important to restore memories of the hotel and its history as a gathering place for the community.

Revamped 'eyesore' brings back excitement to 

"It has been a eyesore for almost 15-20 years. It will bring back the hope in the community, bring back excitement to the neighborhood," said Edmondson, who leads the Mount Vernon Avenue District Improvement Association.

Macon Hotel reflects Black community's history

Rita Fuller-Yates, a local historian and Columbus Landmarks board member, said Columbus doesn't have many sites that reflect the Black community's history here.

The Macon operated during a time of segregation, Fuller-Yates said. "It allowed African Americans to have a place to stay," she said.

"My father who was born and raised here frequented there, watching major jazz players from across the nation," she said.