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Civic Skinny

The Fort Des Moines: What is next for iconic hotel with a glorious past?

12/3/2014

The city fathers got together. The population of Des Moines had nearly doubled in just 20 years, to about 120,000, and the city needed a great hotel, they said.

Des Moines already had 30 hotels, with 4,000 rooms, but most were down near the Rock Island and Union depots around Third and Fourth streets. There was the Irwin (“100 rooms, 90 with bath”), the Elliott (“the most European Hotel in Iowa,” with rooms from $1 to $2.50 a night), the Kirkwood (“Business Men’s Lunch — 75 cents”) and the Wellington (“200 rooms, 50 with bath”).

But none of the 30 — not even the fabled, gabled Victoria Hotel — was a great hotel, none truly worthy of what was to be a great city, the city’s business leaders believed. So Frederick C. Hubbell, of the insurance and land-owning family, Ford dealer (and future governor and senator) Clyde Herring, and Younker Bros. president Norman Wilchinski led an effort that raised about $2 million to build what all agreed was the grandest hotel the state had ever seen.

It was, said The Des Moines Register, “an enterprise of vast significance in the upbuilding of Des Moines.”

The year was 1919, and the hotel was the elegant Fort Des Moines. It had 400 rooms and 400 baths and a Grand Ballroom that would hold 400 people. It had “Permutit softened water” and all the amenities a demanding traveler would demand at rates of “$2.00 per day and upward.” It was at Tenth and Walnut, far from the depots in an area that was rapidly evolving from residential to business. The Clemens Automobile Co. (selling Overlands) was on the same block, the Herring Motor Co. (which in 1915 sold more cars than any dealer in America) just down Tenth across Mulberry. Capital City Commercial College was nearby. But houses still filled the lots on Tenth just across Walnut.

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For decades, as Des Moines grew into a commercial center, the 11-story, granite, stone and brick Fort Des Moines stood majestically as the place to stay, the place to party, and, for some, the place to live. At least a dozen presidents stayed there, as did Nikita Khrushchev and Tallulah Bankhead. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was mobbed there as he tried to get to his room, and years later Katherine Hepburn convinced a highway patrolman to sit with her in a corner of the lobby and pretend to be her husband so she could escape screaming autograph hunters.

Louis Armstrong stayed there. And so did George M. Cohan. And William Jennings Bryan and Thomas E. Dewey. Aaron Copeland and Gene Autry. Bob Feller and Bob Hope. Yul Brynner and Gypsy Rose Lee. Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Lawrence Welk and Benny Goodman. Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Lady Astor. And Eleanor Roosevelt. And Mae West.

Several private clubs were housed there over the years. One, the Gotham, was elegant — and lively. Gloved and hatted ladies lunched there — presumably not noticing the slot machines. In 1945, police raided the club, looking for liquor violations. Which they found.

Des Moines debutantes were married there. Wealthy widows lived there. So did Clyde Herring when he was governor. And E.T. Meredith. Republican Roger Jepsen kept a place there when he was in the Senate. Long before then, Democratic headquarters was there — and state chairman Jake More lived in the hotel. For a time, in room 527, so did Tiny Tim.

In its 95 years, there have been but four management groups or families. All were good stewards.

The men who founded it immediately leased it to the Miller Hotel Co. of Davenport — operator of the then-grand Blackhawk Hotel there — and W.F. Miller himself came to Des Moines to manage the new hotel. He was more or less legendary in the hotel business, and he brought luster as well as experience to the job.

In 1935, in the Depression, the Tangney-McGinn group took over, and the Fort Des Moines became its flagship. Eighteen years later, in 1953, Ed Boss and his Boss Hotels group bought the Fort Des Moines for about $2 million, and in 1977 brothers Ed and John Hunter and their friend John Graham bought the hotel for about $1.2 million.

It was still the grandest hotel in the state. In 1994, noting the 75th anniversary of the Fort Des Moines, Luther Hill — who was linked to the town’s old families and who cherished its old institutions — noted “how pleased” the men who spearheaded the hotel “would be to find the hotel in the hands of owners who respect its history, maintain its elegance and enhance its reputation.”

Ed Hunter’s son Jeff began working at the hotel when he was 27, in 1978. Since then, he has never worked anywhere else. He became manager in 1981, oversaw periodic remodeling and bought the hotel in 1999. Over time, the elegance became a little tattered, so in 2009 he announced a $40 million makeover. The hotel would be closed for a year or so, he said, and would reopen as a Hilton.

Then the financing fell through.

You shouldn’t announce you’re closing a hotel until you’re sure you are closing it, he said over coffee at the hotel last week. Business dropped when Hunter said the hotel was closing, and it’s been hard to rebound as new hotels spring up everywhere, all with national names and national reservation systems. Hunter has a boundless affection for the place, and he is nostalgic about its glorious past. (“This has been my life’s work,” he notes.) Yet a while ago, he decided he should sell, sell to someone who could afford the remodel that he had planned but couldn’t pull off.

So last week, he told Cityview he is selling for $5 million to the Patel family that recently built the Marriott Residence Inn and the Hampton Inn on the downtown riverfront. They plan a total renovation, starting next summer, and the hotel ultimately will reopen as two hotels — an extended-stay Hilton Homewood Suites and another Hilton brand, perhaps one of its new Curio classic hotels.

The Fort Des Moines name probably will survive, one way or another. The building will look the same, too, but of course it won’t be the same. The memories and the history will survive — they can’t be erased — but will the feeling and character be there as well? “The Patels are as intrigued by the hotel’s history and its statewide role as I have been,” Jeff Hunter says, “and I think they will be good stewards for such an iconic building.”

Meantime, the city fathers are getting together. They think Des Moines needs a great new convention hotel. … CV

COMMENT

There’s surely no reason to be cynical about the fact that no legal bills in the Chris Godfrey case were sent for approval to the Executive Council between July 21 and the November election. Surely, George LaMarca and the private lawyers defending Gov. Terry Branstad and the other government defendants in the defamation, extortion and discrimination lawsuit just weren’t very busy on the case in the summer. Or were too busy to send invoices.

Surely.

In fact, the billable hours were mounting. On Oct. 16, the firm sent a $69,756.31 invoice to the office of Attorney General Tom Miller. That invoice just hasn’t yet made it to the Executive Council, where it will be posted on a public agenda. And on Nov. 6 — two days after Branstad was re-elected — the law firm submitted another $51,301.62 in bills, the Attorney General’s office said in response to a question from Cityview.

Now that the election is over, it’s a safe bet those will quickly get to the Executive Council, and it’s a safe bet they will be approved. (Branstad himself has one of the five votes on the council.) That will put the total payout by the taxpayers at $648,140.93 — and the case is not even close to trial yet.

But the fact that there was a lull in the billing during the heat of the campaign? Surely, just a coincidence.

Surely. CV

— Michael Gartner

The architect

The Hotel Fort Des Moines was designed by the Des Moines architecture firm of Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson. The firm was as well-known and well-connected as the men who built the hotel.

Between 1884 and 1940, the firm designed more than 300 buildings, houses, schools, churches and theaters in Des Moines. Many of the great buildings are still around. The firm designed Roosevelt and Lincoln high schools, the Hubbell Building and Iowa-Des Moines National Bank building (now the Valley National Bank building ) downtown, the Polk County Courthouse, the Des Moines Building and Smouse school.

The firm was the forerunner of Brooks, Borg & Skiles. CV

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