Breathing New Life into Old St. Nick

Brick & Mortar by | Mar 2015 | Issue #98

Bits and pieces of Du Quoin, Ill., and the surrounding area, pepper the restored hotel that houses St. Nicholas Brewing Company: wood from an old barn, floor pieces from a local bowling alley, and parts of the hotel itself, recovered, refurbished and repurposed.

Memories are woven into the brewpub’s fabric, too. The couple in their 40s who met there while in high school. The woman who remembers accompanying her grandmother to a beauty salon that once occupied part of the space. The elderly man who lived at the hotel after arguing with his dad and moving out of the house for the first time.

“There are a lot of people who come in with their stories, their sentimental stories,” says general manager Abby Ancell. “It’s a piece of this town that people remember.”

The St. Nicholas Hotel opened in 1879 in the heart of the “Little Egypt” area of Southern Illinois, an enclave of rural towns far from the bustle of Chicago to the north. It is thought to be the third hotel built on the site. Du Quoin served as a major stop along the railroad line that ran from the Windy City to the Gulf Coast, and the St. Nicholas—steps from the train station—provided a respite for those travelers. Amtrak still stops in Du Quoin.

The town’s most famous resident is probably Rudolph Walter Wanderone Jr., a professional billiards player who later adopted the moniker of fictional pool hustler Minnesota Fats. Reportedly, Wanderone and some pals rolled into town in the spring of 1941 to fix his Cadillac. While there, he found some action at the cards and billiards tables, and met Evelyn Inez Grass, a 22-year-old waitress who worked at a local nightclub. They married two months later, and spent much time on the road. But for several years the St. Nicholas served as home.

The building usually had a bar of some sort in it, including a speakeasy during Prohibition. But the hotel lost its luster, eventually becoming what might be called a flophouse. Facing demolition in 2009, the 10,000-square-foot structure was purchased for $777 in back taxes by St. Nicholas Hotel, Inc. One of the investors, local attorney Gene Gross, later transferred ownership to Ancell, his stepdaughter.

“We started a slow renovation process of it from that point on,” says Ancell, who sits on an ownership board with six other investors. “One or two guys just worked on clearing out the layers and layers of stuff that were left in the building. Everything from trash to treasures.”

Then they discovered seriously sagging floors that threatened to halt the project. A Missouri construction company solved the problem by installing massive, 2-foot-thick steel beams, but destroyed the budget in the process.

“It was a ton of money; it was scary,” Ancell says. “We had to reverse and scale back and try to find small, local contractors that were going to take a lot longer but would do it right and a lot cheaper.”

Finally, in August 2014, a soft opening allowed the public to see how the historical space had been transformed. The grand opening took place on Halloween.

To the left of the entrance is the bar and restaurant area, with brewmaster James McCoy’s four-barrel brewing system behind glass to the right. Much of the original brickwork was preserved, highlighted with repurposed wood accents, salvaged carriage lanterns and other antique decor.

Plans call for a banquet hall on the second floor; the future of the third floor remains uncertain. Serendipitously, Ancell notes that the hotel-turned-brewery’s namesake is not only the patron saint of children, sailors and prisoners, but also another most-appropriate group—brewers.