Rising out of the Iowa cornfields (and a prestigious nearby Midwest college), you’ll find the Hotel Grinnell smack dab in the city’s picturesque center square. Amidst a quaint coffee shop, bike shop, and gift shop, the behemoth boutique hotel stands out.
A nod to mod, if you will.
That was by design says owner Angela Harrington, who has the rare distinction of being the only woman in Iowa to own not just one, but two hotel projects. (The other being her newly renovated, rock-n-roll themed Highlander Hotel in Iowa City.) “Hotel Grinnell is unlike any hotel in Iowa,” she says. “My favorite—and thankfully frequent—guest comments are that it looks and feels like a cool, boutique hotel in Chicago, Denver or New York but that the service is very warm and authentic.”
As the hotel gets ready to celebrate its fifth anniversary next year, Harrington reflects on the renovations which began in earnest as a grand recycling project. “There are not enough holes in the earth to put old buildings in,” she says. “Historic buildings are the natural resources left in small places that can provide a catalyst to economic growth in a very sustainable way.”
Over the years, the original granite building went from an aging junior high school to a waning rec center. Harrington took several of the amenities, like a plush, in-house school auditorium and basketball court, and incorporated them into her newfangled hotel. Paying homage to the building’s scholastic past was a must, she says. She also found understated ways to honor Grinnell’s history as an industrial hub. “I think my favorite parts are the subtle, whimsical nods throughout the guest experience that poke a bit of fun at the silliness and juxtaposition of a sexy hotel inside of school,” she says with a laugh. “Preservation drove design but within the context of the historic fabric of the building.”
Harrington spent millions meticulously updating the 1921 building as a modern, eco-conscious boutique hotel, eatery, and event destination in Central Iowa. But when asked about why she chose Grinnell, she demurred. “I didn’t choose it. It chose me,” she says. “People come from all over the world to go to Grinnell College. I felt that the city itself and Grinnell College deserved a hotel that was world class. Visitors’ first impression is often driven by where a visitor lays their head for the first time. Grinnell’s first guest impression needed to be something other than a budget/chain motel off the interstate.”
Harrington recounts the arduous eight-year process from inception to opening. “Small places matter,” she adds. When we joked she could have written the self-help manual Building a Luxury Hotel in a Micro Market For Dummies, she laughed. It took a lot of heavy lifting—figuratively and literally—to get her way, especially in a rural city of 10,000.
Take one look around and you’ll see plenty of nuanced attention to detail. Harrington painstakingly decorated and designed the entire hotel herself. “No piece of art is duplicated in the entire hotel,” she says. “I chose each piece myself and procured all of the furniture and decor myself.”
To keep things hyper-local, all of the iron furniture was made at a factory just 30 miles south of the hotel. And in an ode to old-meets-new, “the wood floors in the guest rooms and in the ballroom are the original maple floors from 1921 as are the terrazzo floors,” she says. “The ceilings are really cool—which, on the third floor, are 15 feet high!” (Just ask her about trying to find 15-foot drapes and blinds. Bless.)
Over 30,000 rooms have been booked at the hotel since its inception and the hotel’s eatery The Periodic Table (get it?) is open year-round serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Order the butter chicken flatbread from the hotel’s oddly specific food truck menu. You’ll be glad you did.)
Harrington calls the Hotel Grinnell a sort of basecamp for exploration of Central Iowa. “I love that you never have to move the car and can go exploring on foot or by bike,” she says. Never one to rest on her laurels, Harrington has her eye on a third nearby hotel that she’s set to renovate in the next year or two. “Building hotels that celebrate a cool city are what’s most important to me,” she boasts.