A Long-Awaited Dream Comes True at Embassy Suites

After decades of hard work and persistence by many people, the Ziock Building in downtown Rockford has finally been reborn as the Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront.

A once-abandoned icon of Rockford’s industrial past has been converted into a destination of the highest quality.

The 13-story structure called the Ziock Building, named for its original owner, has undergone nearly three years of renovation. With the “soft opening” of Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront and its adjoining Lawrence J. Morrissey Rockford Conference Center on July 1, the dream of many is finally realized.

“This property is such a stand-out for the Embassy Suites brand,” says General Manager Fred DeLaRosa. “Everything about it is neat and historic. It’s what attracted me to come join the Gorman team.”

Wisconsin-based Gorman & Company Inc. is the developer who produced the $87.5 million conversion. DeLaRosa worked for the Embassy brand the past 20 years, but moved to Rockford in April to assume his new GM role for Gorman.

“It’s very exciting to see this project come to fruition,” says Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara. “It clearly exceeds our expectations and we’re proud that it’s here. It’s also great that [CEO] Gary Gorman followed through on his promise to use local labor and artists to help beautify a magnificent building.”

The original part of the structure is 107 years old. The building has gone through numerous industrial ownerships and uses. It stood vacant for at least 25 years and just barely escaped the wrecking ball. (See related story.)

The New Complex

The new configuration contains 160 suites with a sleeping area separate from the living/kitchenette area. Rooms include a mix of single, queen and king-size beds and vary from $149 to $239 per night, depending on amenities. A typical corner room with king bed is 550 square feet. Most windows have floor-to-ceiling construction from the original factory design.

“We’ve worked very hard to preserve the building’s historic charm,” says DeLaRosa.

The “industrial chic” motif throughout the hotel includes unfinished, massive concrete pillars and ceilings, re-installed wood block flooring and original metal fire doors flanking newer doorways. Artifacts from prior manufacturing processes, such as a steam boiler and an overhead conveyor once used to dry hardware after metal coating, serve as decor elements. Photographs and paintings throughout the building feature scenes from Rockford’s past.

“The original elevator shaft ‘lived’ in one of the new stairwells,” says DeLaRosa. “It’s one of my favorite adaptations.”

The hotel contains two restaurants, one on the roof and one at ground level. Named “The Top,” the 11th-12th floor restaurant/lounge includes casual and structured indoor/outdoor seating, with spectacular views of the Rock River and downtown Rockford. Along with the Faust Landmark (1929) and the Talcott Building (1927), the Ziock Building is among the tallest buildings in Rockford. The rotating menu includes items like ahi tuna nachos, flatbreads, pizzas and hand-crafted cocktails.

“We offer a happy hour on Friday afternoons at The Top,” says DeLaRosa. “We think it will become a strong local attraction for people to hang out, where everybody wants to be and see what Rockford has to offer.”

The ground-floor restaurant is called The Tower Tap and Grill, and includes indoor/outdoor patio seating opening onto Davis Park. The menu consists of upscale American fare, and The Tower is the location for a complimentary evening reception for guests from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. daily.

The hotel features views of the Rock River waterfront, pictured here as seen from The Top restaurant.

The spacious lobby opens onto the main entrance at street level on South Main Street. A large skylight offers a view of the hotel exterior, and east windows look out onto Davis Park and the Rock River. Behind the front desk is a large installation by local artist Jeremy Klondicki, from MainFraim Studios. It depicts a map of downtown Rockford and is made entirely from materials reclaimed from the former Amerock building.

Rockford Roasting Co., a third-party tenant, will open a coffee shop on the main floor soon. A complimentary breakfast for guests is assembled in an area on the same level, using current health department guidelines.
“It’s kind of an upscale ‘grab and go,’” says DeLaRosa. “A server assembles it for you, based on your specific requests.”

Hilton hotels use a “CleanStay” program, a series of protocols and products that ensure the health and safety of their guests during the current pandemic. Each room is cleaned and sanitized, then sealed with a special sticker to indicate no one has entered the room prior to their arrival.

They also offer a completely virtual check-in procedure, with room “keys” delivered straight to your smartphone, making personal contact with a desk clerk unnecessary.

The hotel lobby is all-new construction and connects the hotel to the newly named Lawrence J. Morrissey Rockford Conference Center, so named to honor the efforts of Rockford’s former mayor to bring the complex to the Forest City. He made several trips to China to obtain investors for the project and fought to win state and federal income tax credits to keep them interested.

Other facilities available to hotel guests include a state-of-the-art fitness center, a game room with a golf simulator, a ground-level pool and hot tub.

While the hotel building is owned by Gorman & Co., the $13 million Conference Center is owned by the city. According to city officials, bonds sold to finance its construction will be repaid without raising taxes. Gorman & Co. is the management company for both facilities. Embassy Suites is an independently owned and operated franchise of Hilton.

The Center contains 14,000 square feet of flexible event space, including the 7,800-square-foot Ziock grand ballroom, with 20-foot ceilings and state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment.

“We can host 800 guests for dinner, or a nice wedding reception with a dance floor for 450 guests,” says DeLaRosa.

Floor-to-ceiling windows are featured in most bedroom suites.

The Long Road to Fruition

Shortly after the city purchased the Ziock building in 2010 for $240,000, a group of concerned citizens met with then-mayor Morrissey to intervene on behalf of historic preservation. The group included several persons who had been involved in past development projects, including local architect Gary Anderson, Marge and Kyle Bevers, and Don Bissell. They eventually formed a loose organization called the Friends of Ziock (FOZ).

“The city was seeking state and federal funds to demolish the building because they didn’t think it had any historical significance,” recalls Anderson, a preservation advocate. “We researched its history and put together an application to obtain historical landmark status from the National Park Service. That process took about nine months, and it put the brakes on demolition of the building.”

Landmark status was granted on May 13, 2011. To assist in the process of developing an adaptive reuse for the building, the FOZ folks helped to assemble a list of developers who had a track record of redeveloping historic buildings and handling projects of the intended size.

“At the time, we were considering a combination of condos, apartments and a boutique hotel,” says Anderson. “Marge [Bevers] called businesses within 1.5 miles of the site to find out how many room-nights they would use for business guests if such a hotel were to be built. The results were surprising – a little less than 30,000 annually! These people were sick and tired of trucking their guests back and forth for 1.5 hours a day from the existing hotels [by the Tollway].”

Anderson and others have been advocating for a downtown hotel since at least the 1980s, when the MetroCentre/BMO Harris Bank Center opened in 1981 and began to draw huge crowds downtown for events.

“Doug Logan [former MetroCentre Operations Manager] said they needed a hotel down there for guests and performers,” says Anderson. “We don’t realize the impact of some of the things we don’t have, how hamstrung our industries are, what they have to do to get their guests a room, let alone the time lost in transportation. Now all that can change.”

Gary Gorman, CEO of Gorman & Company Inc., based in Oregon, Wis., emerged as an interested developer early on. Gorman had already produced other projects in Rockford, mostly in affordable housing, when he and then-mayor Morrissey met for cocktails in a bar in Shanghai, China, in 2012, as part of a marketing mission for the State of Illinois.

As the story goes, when Gorman asked Morrissey what one thing Morrissey wanted to do for his city, his immediate reply was to bring a hotel downtown, a facility where he could have meetings and be proud to invite people. That planted the seed that eventually grew into the development unveiled this July.

Gorman and the city began negotiations for a downtown development in July 2012. Plans eventually included an adjoining conference center, in part to drive demand for the hotel. Another early idea included incorporating a new train depot and parking garage as part of the state’s plan to expand Amtrak rail services to Rockford, but that project was “defunded” by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015.

According to Morrissey, as he explained in a 2018 podcast, the city was forced to consider non-traditional capital sources to finance the plan, including historic tax credits and EB-5 money. EB-5 is a federal program to encourage foreigners to invest in the United States. For every $500,000 invested, the investor receives a green card for himself and his family. Getting their children into U.S. schools is often a primary concern of such investors.

Gorman made 20 trips to Asia to pitch the project and Morrissey made four to China. Between them, they found 60 investors in China, India and Vietnam willing to put $30 million into the enterprise. When the train depot idea folded, Morrissey and others tried to convince the city council to shift its equity contribution from the parking deck and train station to owning the adjoining conference center.

This idea didn’t sit well with some aldermen, especially after a front-page controversy erupted over another Gorman development then under construction. It all came down to a dramatic vote in the council chambers on April 10, 2017. The city council approved the Amended Development Agreement with Gorman & Co. by a 7 to 6 vote.

Prep work at the construction site began in September 2017, and the official groundbreaking was April 10, 2018. As they say, the rest is history.

A map of downtown Rockford, created by artist Jeremy Klondici and made from recycled materials, adorns the wall behind the lobby desk.

The Future

Many stakeholders in the renaissance of downtown Rockford see the arrival of a marquis hotel complex as part of a natural progression. Recent projects like the Prairie Street Brewhouse, the UW Health Sports Factory, Indoor/Outdoor Rockford City Market, expansion of market-rate housing, restaurants and retail space, as well as the museum campus on North Main Street and the restoration of the Coronado Performing Arts Center have all reshaped downtown Rockford into a desirable destination. In fact, such precedents were a part of what convinced Gorman & Co. to sign onto the hotel project.

“We wouldn’t be in the place we are today with the Embassy Suites and the Conference Center opening if these other building blocks hadn’t come before,” says John Groh, president/CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB).

Nathan Bryant, former president/CEO of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC) agrees. “Embassy Suites is not an exception, but an extension of a comprehensive plan for Rockford’s downtown area redevelopment,” he says. “It’s a big part of what has happened downtown over the past 15 years.”

City leaders see the hotel complex as an economic development driver for the city in general and the southwest quadrant in particular.

“In today’s world, people are making decisions about where they want to live before they decide where they want to work,” says Bryant. “The more things we have that work for people, the better chance we have for growth over time. The Embassy Suites/Conference Center project fits right into the ‘honey hole’ of selling our community. If it brings people in for conferences, it’s also an opportunity to show them what a great experience the downtown is for folks.”

“I think over time, we’ll see additional hotels open in downtown, because they tend to do better in clusters,” says Groh. “I think we’ll also see greater utilization of Davis Park as a civic space to bring our community together. They’re right next to each other and they ‘play well’ together. Gorman has done a fine, fine job of re-imagining an old industrial space. I think anyone in the region should be proud to have it here.”

Indeed, we are.

The History of the Ziock Building

The following chronology was created with the help of The Friends of Ziock (Marge Bevers) and the Rockford Mayor’s office.

From 1900 to 1930, Rockford was known as the textile capital of North America. The building, which now houses the Embassy Suites hotel, was constructed in three phases. The original 11-story knitting mill, completed in 1913, was commissioned by William Ziock Jr., a key player in the Rockford knitting industry which employed more than 4,500 workers downtown in its heyday. Ziock expanded the work begun by his father, a German immigrant, and sold products under the B-Z-B Knitting, Ziock Paper Box Company and King Company names.

The factory was located in the city’s central industrial area, originally known as the Rockford Water Power District, due to its dependence on a race diverted from the Rock River that was used as an energy source. The area later was powered by electricity from the Fordham dam.

Built of reinforced concrete with two-foot thick floors, the facility was considered a state-of-the-art daylight factory because of its floor-to-ceiling multi-paneled steel sash windows, an open floor design, and plenty of ventilation. It was the tallest building in Rockford at the time, and during its grand opening, an auto show was staged on the top two floors.

“Apparently, the Ziock family was a consummate employer who thought about the welfare of workers,” says Gary Anderson, local architect and preservation advocate. “They built brownstone housing for their employees, between Mulberry and Jefferson Streets, and really reached out to give them both good working and housing conditions.”

A second 13-story addition was built in 1919, as Ziock’s business demanded more space. The Tapco building, just to its south across Cedar Street, was also a knitting factory. It was demolished by the city in 2012 and that land ultimately became parking space for the hotel.

In 1946, the Ziock Building was acquired by the American Cabinet Hardware Company (later Amerock), which built a third six-story addition in 1951. It vacated the building in 1956, when Amerock moved to a rural campus, but repurchased the facility for storage in 1959.

In 1989, the city razed more than 400,000 square feet of multi-story industrial buildings that once housed much of Rockford’s knitting industry. It used the property to create Davis Park along the riverfront. The Lorden Storage building, another relic from the knitting industry, was refurbished to provide a viewing deck and stage house for outdoor concerts.

From 1995 to 2009, numerous efforts to renovate the Ziock Building for “adaptive reuse” were attempted by various developers, but all plans fell short. The city acquired the structure on May 11, 2010, and began plans to demolish what many viewed as an eyesore on the community.