Hotel Grinnell: From Classrooms to Class
By Michael McAllister
Because Hotel Grinnell occupies a former middle school building, pictured above in a photo from Digital Grinnell, and because the school theme is creatively carried out within the boutique establishment, it is appropriate to say the that the hotel, which opened in September of 2017, has successfully completed two semesters and is now in its first summer session.
Angela Harrington—owner, operator, and entrepreneur—recapped the events that led to the hotel for the benefit of those attending UnityPoint Health-Grinnell Regional Medical Center’s Senior Education Program at the Drake Library on Monday, June 25. Approximately 75 people made up the audience.
At the close of the presentation, attendees toured portions of the hotel as Harrington provided information and answered questions.
Harrington came to Grinnell in 2009 to head the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. Her first directive from the chamber board, she reported Monday, was to establish an events center in Grinnell.
Eight years and $7 million later, Harrington achieved that goal in the formof Hotel Grinnell, once the Grinnell Community Center, once the Grinnell Junior High School, a building bordered by 4thAvenue on the south and Park Street on the east.
Harrington explained that several elements had to come together to make Hotel Grinnell a reality. Key parts of the puzzle included historic tax credit possibilities, developed by Grinnell architect Dan Tindall; equity partnership, provided by Grinnell College alumnus Steve Holtze; and the approval of the city’s application for the Iowa Reinvestment Act. With the sale of the building serving as the city’s Community Center to Harrington, approved in September 2016, the work of actual renovation could begin.
Once the project was physically underway, Harrington’s sense of mission intensified and is apparent in the attention to detail throughout the hotel.
Staying with local businesses as much as possible, Harrington approached Co-Line, the metal fabrication company south of Lineville and Sully, and contracted for construction of canopy beds and nightstands. “If strong winds came through the building,” she surmised, “the furniture would stay.”
Bushong Construction, Harrington noted, was another local enterprise serving as a principal of the project.
Among the elements that maintain a school theme are Hotel Grinnell guide books presented as primers, comment slips in the form of report cards, and only number 2 pencils. Each room also features an apple on the desk when a guest or guests check in.
The school theme is also carried out in the hotel’s lounge and eatery, called the Periodic Table, appointed with a giant Scrabble board, the scoreboard from the Grinnell Junior High gym, and art that reflects the section’s name. The Periodic Table opens at 3:00 p.m.
Part of the uniqueness of Hotel Grinnell stems from the fact that no two pieces of art are the same. In general, a single artist is featured in each room.
Harrington reported that “one of the most popular amenities” of the hotel is the availability of bikes, contributed by Bikes to You, that guests can use for rides around town.
One of the challenges of operating a hotel, Harrington noted, is the up-and-down nature of the business. “It’s either Sold Out City or The Lonely Lodge,” she joked. But the fact that weeknights can be slow and weekends fully booked does present staffing challenges.
One way of dealing with that challenge is to cross train all employees. Monika Fetzer, pictured at right, normally handles the front desk Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. She handles reservations, emails, and telephone calls. Her voice is likely to be the first that a prospective guest hears.
However, she may be tasked with other duties—making beds, mixing drinks, moving tables. Because employees can replace one another if necessary, the roller-coaster nature of demand can be accommodated.
Since the hotel opened last year in September, some 3000 guests have been served. The hotel has hosted 10 weddings, and 30 are scheduled for the coming months. Just this past weekend, the hotel attended to a
wedding involving 280 people. Among public events, the Iowa Rural Development Summit, arranged by Grinnell’s Bill Menner, is perhaps most notable. It drew more than 300 people to Grinnell for two days in early April.
Harrington is grateful for the corporate support she has received. She specifically mentioned Grinnell College, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance, Jeld-Wen, and Monsanto.
Press reports have praised the creativity of the building renovation. A March 2018 article by travel writer Betsy Rubiner in the Minneapolis Star Tribunedrew approximately 40 guests from the Minneapolis area to Grinnell, Harrington stated, which underscores Hotel Grinnell’s potency as an economic force in the city.
In addition, the hotel has attracted national and international attention. The picture above comes from Interior Design Mediaand its website as part of its 2017 award series. The caption reads, “Perkins + Will [the Boston design firm that Harrington contacted to present an initial rendering] jazzes up a former junior high for the Hotel Grinnell in Iowa.”
But a hotel is more than design, furnishings, and amenities. Ultimately, a hotel is about people. When discussing the human side of hotel operation, Harrington’s passion comes through most strongly, most poignantly.
She observed, for example, that many international students are drawn to Grinnell by the college, and that, after hours of traveling, the hotel may be “the first place they lay their heads in this country.”
The concerns of international travelers highlight the contrast between life in Grinnell and life in other places. They might ask, for instance, who will watch their cars or who will escort them if they choose to walk about the town. Such questions are surprising to Grinnellians, yet the fact that the questions are asked reminds us that all the world is not Grinnell.
To own and operate an enterprise that welcomes people to the United States, that provides safe haven, is “my privilege and honor,” Harrington stressed.
“Many times,” she continued, “your first impression about a place, about a city, about its people, is about where you lay your head. It was important to me that, when you woke up the next morning, that you would feel like you were someplace special.”
There is no question that Hotel Grinnell is someplace special in a special place.