OPINION | REX NELSON: Honoring a visionary

In November, owners and managers of the nation's top historic hotels gathered on the shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama. The Grand Hotel, one of the Gulf Coast's most famous resorts, hosted the annual meeting of Historic Hotels of America.

Elise Roenigk of Eureka Springs was presented HHA's Lifetime Achievement Award for preserving the Crescent Hotel. That award is a huge deal in the historic preservation world, one that hasn't received the attention it deserves here in Arkansas.

When you think of iconic structures in our state--places like the state Capitol or Old Main at the University of Arkansas--they tend to be publicly owned. I believe the two most iconic privately owned structures in Arkansas are hotels--the Arlington at Hot Springs and the Crescent at Eureka Springs. It's important to the cultural fabric of the state that these businesses remain strong.

When Marty and Elise Roenigk purchased the Crescent on Feb. 28, 1997, the hotel was in bad shape. The couple lived in East Hampton, Conn., and had been told by a friend to stop by Eureka Springs after a scheduled trip to Fayetteville. That friend knew of their love of historic properties. The Roenigks fell in love with Eureka Springs.

The couple decided to invest in Arkansas, purchasing the downtown Basin Park Hotel with the idea of converting the sixth and seventh floors into their residence. They also visited the Crescent. Saddened by the condition of the hotel, they purchased it. They returned the roofline (the middle portion of the hotel's top floor had disappeared in a 1967 fire) to its original appearance by adding a residence on the new fifth floor. Elise continues to live in that space, the highest point in Carroll County.

Marty, a Cleveland native, was killed in a June 2009 car accident while on a trip to Iowa with his wife.

During a large garden party in May 2000, the Roenigks announced a 10-year plan to restore the Crescent. Working with Jack Moyer, the hotel's general manager, the couple began to renovate the property. Revenue from room rentals, food service and weddings slowly increased, allowing additional improvements.

The initial goal was to upgrade 20 rooms each year. Walls were painted in colors popular during the Victorian era, and stenciling was done. Bathrooms were renovated. Historically themed furnishings were purchased. In cooperation with University of Arkansas architectural students and professors, what had been dead space in an adjacent servants' quarters was transformed into four upscale suites.

In 2008, plans were drawn for four two-bedroom cottages on the hotel grounds. Noted architect David Mc-Kee designed the cottages in the style of Fay Jones. The four cottages are in a pair of two-story buildings with the floors connected by an elevator in each building. The cottages proved to be popular with wedding parties.

A glass-enclosed room known as the Conservatory was built for wedding receptions. Popular spots for weddings on the grounds included the Fountain Garden, East Lawn and Glenwood Hollow.

According to a history of the hotel on the Crescent website: "The spa industry had become such an integral part of quality hotels that the Roenigks realized early on that the Crescent needed to establish itself as a year-round resort. That realization was followed by the development and opening of New Moon Spa, a concept of local Cat Zorok. It began with a small fitness gym, an aerobic area and a pair of treatment rooms.

"Specially designed private rooms were added for traditional and nouveau massages, facials and other body treatments. A chill room, complete with a juice bar, was added for spa customers to utilize before and after treatments. The original fitness area was replaced with a salon and bridal studio. The bridal studio allows brides and their entourages a private place for pre-wedding dressing and beauty preparation."

The Crystal Dining Room now features Italian food in the evening and breakfast each morning. The fourth floor of the hotel is home to SkyBar Gourmet Pizza, which can be served inside and outside. Pizzas also are delivered to rooms.

Following Marty's death, Moyer said: "For everything the Roenigks did publicly, there were two or three more big-hearted acts that happened anonymously. Marty loved Eureka Springs and did whatever it took to help this community. He was here just a little over a decade. Look at the impact he had. ... It was interesting to see him when Elise was out of town. Marty wasn't in his element and really was uncomfortable. They made a neat team."

In 2007, an event was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the couple's purchase of the Crescent. In an emotional address, Marty emphasized the need for economic sustainability to keep "grand dames" such as the Crescent and Basin Park alive.

In a 2007 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, it was noted: "After he's gone, Marty Roenigk wants to know he helped save the historic 19th century building by taking the city in a more modern direction."

"In 1997, Marty stood before a five-story limestone building that was in much need of repair, in much need of love," Moyer said. "He told me--with Elise at his side--that someone needed to protect these kind of irreplaceable assets. It was on that day that the redevelopment of the 1886 Crescent Hotel and the 19o5 Basin Park Hotel began."

Almost 14 years after her husband's death, Elise carries on. She's a true visionary. It's fitting she has received one of the most prestigious awards in the preservation world.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.