Plans for historic Bowling Green gym include wine bar

Published 4:07 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2023

By Don Sergent, Bowling Green Daily News

Once home to boisterous crowds witnessing hotly contested basketball games and other sporting events, the former State Street High School gymnasium at 202 State St. may soon bring another type of excitement to downtown Bowling Green.

Derrick and Deserea Huff, owners of Traveler’s Cellar Winery in Rockfield, expect to soon purchase the gymnasium property and begin transforming it into a wine bar and retro-style speakeasy that they believe will be a great fit in a building that dates to 1929 and sits in the heart of the Shake Rag Historic District.

“My wife and I fell in love with this building as soon as we saw it,” said Derrick Huff as he toured the structure Tuesday. “Buildings like this deserve to be saved, deserve to be honored.”

The Huffs are purchasing the building from the CSR BG Investments LLC controlled by local businessman Chris Robertson, who in January bought it and surrounding properties totaling 1.55 acres for $1.65 million.

Although he hasn’t yet closed on the purchase of the half-acre gymnasium property, Derrick Huff has a clear vision for how he wants to transform it.

As workers prepared to clean the brick walls and make repairs to the maple floor on Tuesday, Huff laid out that vision.

“This will be a wine bar with a kitchen in the back,” he said as he walked through the 4,000-square-foot gym. “We’ll serve brunch, and it can also be rented as a venue for weddings and corporate meetings.”

Huff expects the wine bar on the upper floor of the building to be open from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. daily, but that’s hardly the only use he envisions for a building that was used by the African-American State Street High School before public schools were integrated in the 1960s.

The bottom floor, Huff said, will be transformed into a speakeasy reminiscent of the Great Depression era.

“We want you to be transported back to the 1930s,” he said. “It will have a vaudeville stage. We’ll have live jazz and blues music.”

Huff even has a name in mind for the speakeasy: the Mustang Club, in honor of the former high school’s mascot.

That homage to State Street High will extend to the upstairs wine bar as well. Part of the maple floor will be striped like a basketball gym, and Huff said a vintage basketball goal may be mounted on one wall.

In addition, he said, photos and memorabilia from both the State Street and High Street African-American schools will be on display.

“We’re very aware of the history there,” Deserea Huff said. “Derrick and I want to pay homage to that history.”

That fits with the vision of Telia Butler, downtown development coordinator for the city of Bowling Green.

“I absolutely love this concept,” Butler said. “Anything we can do to activate those blocks and keep the Shake Rag District alive is good.”

Butler sees the Mustang Club as a great fit with the White Squirrel Brewery that has moved to 302 State St. and with the riverfront development plans of the city and of local businessmen Patrick Reynolds and Kelley Coleman.

Such developments, Butler said, should “bring new people to the Shake Rag area and the riverfront area who had never thought of it as a destination before.”

Vivian Baker, president of the George Washington Carver Center nonprofit that works to preserve the Shake Rag area’s history, said she could be onboard with any renovation of the State Street High gym that preserves its history.

“It (the gym) has been a staple in the community for some time,” Baker said. “Its history should be maintained as far as it can be.”

Baker, though, admits to some misgivings about the end use of the old gym.

“I’m disappointed in wine and alcoholic beverages being sold in the area and near the (State Street Baptist) church,” she said. “I don’t see that as a positive thing.”

While his main goal is to build a successful business, Derrick Huff says he is committed to preserving the Shake Rag area’s history beyond just the gym he is buying.

He and his wife, in fact, are aiming to submit a proposal to purchase and restore the former Southern Queen Hotel owned by the city and located near the State Street gym.

“We plan on submitting a proposal,” said Huff, a Bowling Green native who graduated from Warren Central High School. “We’d like to see it be a hotel again. It’s a fantastic property that deserves to be saved.

“We want to be part of helping preserve some of these downtown buildings.”