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From monastery to treatment center

April 1, 2009
by Joseph L. Lemon Jr., JD, MBA
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A historic building becomes a place for people to seek recovery

An aerial view of the abbey in bettendorf, iowa
An aerial view of The Abbey in Bettendorf, Iowa. Photos courtesy of The Abbey

When we opened our doors at The Abbey last autumn, I felt an inexplicably divine sense that my work for the prior 17 years had been leading up to this moment. As I reflect on that transformational moment, I realize that my 17 years of unintentional preparation for opening an addiction treatment center were dwarfed by the nearly century-long wait our facility experienced.

The 35,000-square-foot building was constructed in 1914 in Bettendorf, Iowa, as the Regina Coeli monastery for an order of cloistered Carmelite (Catholic) nuns. Unlike most Catholic facilities, however, the monastery's construction was not financed by the Catholic Church but rather through local townspeople's generosity. Ironically, those who contributed to welcome the Carmelites to the community had little interaction with them because the sisters lived exclusively behind the monastery's imposing walls (13 sisters were buried in its crypt). Their primary occupation was to pray for the local community.

A new purpose

The monastery was placed on the market in 1991 after the sisters left because the aging building had become unmanageable for them. My father took an interest in the property, and he had a dual mission: to save the sacred, historic landmark and develop a resource for the community.

We bought the monastery and spent all of 1992-and all of our life's savings-renovating and converting it into a luxury boutique hotel. AAA awarded The Abbey Hotel a Four Diamond rating (one of only two Four Diamond hotels in Iowa at the time), and the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

During the next 16 years, The Abbey Hotel served as a rich asset for the community, and we became the premier location for weddings and receptions. By 2007, however, my family began to reevaluate the hotel's future. In the years since the hotel opened, riverboat gambling had arrived on the banks of the Mississippi and brought its predictable deleterious effects: a draining of local pockets, gambling addiction, and increased alcohol and drug abuse.

It was time for a new mission for The Abbey: addiction treatment. The notion of converting The Abbey to an addiction treatment facility was conceived in 2007, inspired largely by the successful transformation of Alta Mira, a luxury boutique hotel in Sausalito, California, into an addiction and mental health treatment center.

Anyone with experience in the addiction field knows that the chief challenge facing a prospective facility is gaining local approval: NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) attitudes are alive and well in America, no matter how noble the prospective treatment provider's intentions.

To gain approval for the new use, we engaged in a six-month permitting process, with no fewer than seven public hearings as well as community open houses, planning commission meetings, and city council presentations. During this time, The Abbey was featured weekly on local papers' front pages, and a galvanized neighborhood group opposed to our plan circulated a petition, collecting more than 450 signatures. Our detractors relied on predictably uninformed and specious arguments, implying that The Abbey would become a den of criminal activity that threatened the neighborhood.

Ultimately, the city council voted six to one to approve our plan, based primarily on my family's track record with the hotel and our dedication to the local community. The lone city council member who opposed our new use demanded in a public hearing that I guarantee that his family would be safe. I explained that I could not make such a promise but rather offer the assurance that our neighborhood would be safer with our treatment center because of close client supervision. (That same council member resigned three weeks later after it was revealed that his wife had a restraining order against him for domestic abuse.) Ironically, the publicity we received during the permitting process brought The Abbey to the attention of our first client, who had been reading about us in the local press!

One of the benefits of converting The Abbey from a luxury hotel to a rehabilitation center was the lack of changes needed to the physical plant. The hotel already had 20 private rooms, a variety of meeting and conference areas, a full commercial kitchen, beautiful grounds and gardens, and an outdoor pool. Some changes were nearly effortless, like converting the ballroom's dance floor into a yoga studio.
The abbey offers many places for quiet contemplation

The Abbey offers many places for quiet contemplation.

Clients can enjoy a relaxing swim

Clients can enjoy a relaxing swim

The abbey's lobby

The Abbey's lobby

Perhaps one of the building's most distinguishing features is the historic gothic chapel, with hand-painted stained glass from turn-of-the-century French artisans. When I passed through the chapel one day, I was uplifted by seeing a client who had taken some time out for thoughtful prayer and contemplation-exactly as we had dreamed would happen.