Filmmaker to explore history of LaFontaine

January 8, 2017 GMT

The six-story brick building at 208 W. State St. has been an iconic Huntington landmark for nearly a century.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary as LaFontaine Center, a subsidized housing facility for seniors, the repurposed structure barely reflects its glory days.

But back in its heyday, the 110-room LaFontaine Hotel was a destination of choice for the famous (Henry Ford and Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard) and infamous (John Dillinger).

It was built by businessman James Fred Bippus, son of George J. Bippus, primary promoter of the C. & E. Railroad, namesake of nearby Bippus and purportedly once the largest individual producer of crude oil in the United States.

The building was a tribute to the younger Bippus’ father, according to some accounts. And no expense was spared.

It is the hotel’s story that Auburn-based filmmaker Matthew Wayne Murray has showcased in a documentary planned for spring airing on Fort Wayne’s PBS affiliate WFWA.

“It’s always about the story,” said Murray, president of White Horse Entertainment. “Of course, it was the beauty that first attracted me. I honestly felt as if I had just stepped back in time the moment I stepped through the door.

“But the story is also about a grand piece of history which, like so many others, had at some point in time lost its luster and become almost forgotten.

“It’s also the story of J. Fred Bippus, sacrificing everything to build his dream. And it’s the story of people joining together to save something they loved, when it seemed beyond all reason to do so. Those are the stories that grip you, move you.”

The hourlong film, “Matthew Wayne Murray Presents – The Hotel LaFontaine: A Look Back” incorporates video, archival film and narratives. While showcasing the LaFontaine, it also profiles the city of Huntington. “Our team spent many hours visiting the city and researching the history of the hotel,” Murray said. “One thing that impressed us was the warmth with which we were greeted. It’s an absolutely charming town, and several businesses were gracious enough to provide services while we were on our shoot.”

Center manager Rose Meldrum understands the structure’s appeal.

“When you walk in, you still get the ‘Wow!’ factor. It’s quite a beautiful building, and we’re very fortunate it wasn’t torn down,” she said. “Everything has been repurposed, but done so as close to original as possible.”

Opened in 1926, LaFontaine Hotel operated until 1974. A subfloor was then installed over the pool – which remains intact – allowing boxing matches to be held there.

Meanwhile, the building began to fall into disrepair.

In 1982, the citizen-led group LaFontaine Center Inc. formed, rescuing the hotel from demolition. The building was reconfigured into 65 apartments through a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additionally, private donations enabled restoration of the ground-floor grand lobby and the ballroom, which is rented to the public for social functions.

Residents began moving in four years later, and the building was granted historic landmark status.

Tina Bobilya, executive director of the Huntington County Visitor & Convention Bureau, considers the LaFontaine “a special place, with a definite presence.” She said the CVB is considering hosting a tour that would incorporate the building.

“Huntington has some beautiful historic architecture, including the United Brethren/Odd Fellows block and two Purviance mansions – J. Fred Bippus’ mother was the former Sarah Purviance – one in the process of renovation. Because of the interest in the building, it would make sense to include it, along with attractions such as the Sunken Gardens and Historic Forks of the Wabash.”

Maintaining the building is an ongoing challenge, and Meldrum said this year’s goal is to extend central air conditioning throughout the building, replacing window units from the second to sixth floors. New chairs for the Community Room are also on her wish list.

“I’m really excited PBS has found interest in our building, and believe the documentary is going to draw a lot of attention to Huntington,” she said. “It showcases some of the other reasons people come to our community, and I think people will start to think of Huntington in a different way.”

“I believe it’s this story, and others like them, that represent the fiber of America,” Murray said. “I’m obviously passionate about the LaFontaine, and believe this will definitely provide more opportunity for people to see what a gem Huntington is, as well as learn about the building’s history.”