“This is where I learned to dribble,” a man said as he entered a hotel ballroom in the central Iowa college town of Grinnell. Sure enough, beneath the ballroom’s banquet tables was the shiny maple floor of a former school gymnasium, complete with basketball court lines.
Like my husband and me, the man and his companions were among several groups of visitors wandering on a cold winter Saturday around the town’s latest attraction, the Hotel Grinnell, which opened last fall in a former public school.
Unlike us, the man had a personal connection to the place, dating back to the late 1940s. He wasn’t the only former student we met. The welcoming woman at the front desk, who gladly showed us around, volunteered that she had attended school in the building during the 1970s.
With stylish guest rooms in former classrooms, Hotel Grinnell is located in a well-tended downtown of historic brick storefronts. It lies a short walk from what has helped keep this community of just over 9,000 residents relatively prosperous (for rural Iowa) and a magnet for out-of-towners: Grinnell College, a renowned liberal arts institution with about 1,600 undergraduates.
The hotel occupies an imposing limestone and buff-colored brick 1922 building that once was a junior high, an addition to a 1904 high school, which was later demolished except for its gym and auditorium. In 1976, the junior high moved out, but the building endured.
Other schoolhouse hotels
In October 2016, Angela Harrington, a local entrepreneur, purchased the building from the city and partnered with a Grinnell College alum who is a successful hotelier. After a 10-month, $7 million overhaul, the hotel was unveiled in September.
Hotel Grinnell is among several “schoolhouse hotels” that have opened across the country, from Wilson Schoolhouse Inn in La Crosse, Wis., to McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland, Ore. Overseas, schoolhouse-to-hotel conversions are found in Lisbon (Hotel Da Estrela), Stockholm (Miss Clara) and Dublin (the Schoolhouse Hotel).
What’s the appeal? In Grinnell’s case, repurposing the school made sense, says Harrington, now the Hotel Grinnell’s co-owner and solo operator. She zeroed in on the underused, well-located former school building several years ago when she was a city tourism official tasked with creating a downtown hotel.
“Small towns have very few natural resources,” she says. “One of our assets is the unfilled buildings. … Times change. Certain buildings can be reused. Guests really appreciate the story.”
From lessons to fancy linens
Intentional nods to the building’s scholastic past include hotel registration forms printed on notebook paper and room key card sleeves resembling hall passes. Guests receive a hotel guide that looks like an old-fashioned school primer and offers “a brief education to enjoy your stay.” Rooms have a chalkboard (not original) and wooden red apple. Some have furniture made from old lockers.
What drew me was curiosity, tinged with nostalgia. I wanted to see how an old junior high — not unlike the one I attended in suburban Detroit — could be transformed into a boutique hotel. What remained? How were various bits repurposed? And what memories from my lost youth might crop up, for better or worse?
From the outside, Hotel Grinnell still looks like a school — a solid, no-nonsense, three-story building, built to endure. Inside, it feels primarily like an upscale hotel, with well-chosen contemporary art and furnishings, including Iowa-made iron furniture, and little luxuries, from fancy linens to on-call masseuse service.
Trendy and thoughtful touches include spiffy bikes (available free to guests) that hang from racks lining the first-floor hallway. Two “bunk rooms,” for groups up to 10, feature bunk beds with thick mattresses. Guestrooms include a succulent plant as a sleeping aid. (Word has it they emit oxygen at night that helps with slumber.) There are complimentary activity kits for kids and even a welcome kit for pets. (Bringing your pet costs $75.)
Most compelling and evocative are remnants of the original school. Most of the 43 guest rooms have hardwood floors and high ceilings from classrooms past. The gym’s sports scoreboard hangs in the hotel restaurant — and the horn reportedly still works.
I didn’t learn to dribble in what is now the ballroom, but stepping into that former gym reminded me of dodgeball games and school dances from my own awkward adolescence. Looking down from the balcony at the auditorium stage (available for weddings and concerts), I remembered my starring role as Sitting Bull in an eighth-grade production of “Annie Get Your Gun.” In the stairwells, I could almost hear a crush of kids, myself among them, running up and down the hard terrazzo steps.
Grinnell is about 275 miles south of the Twin Cities. At Hotel Grinnell, costs for most guest rooms range from $145 to $165 a night. The Periodic Table, the hotel’s bar and restaurant, serves complimentary breakfast for guests and lunch and dinner to all (925 Park St.; 1-641-236-9250; hotelgrinnell.com).
More food and drink
Perched on Main Street, Prairie Canary (1-641-236-0205; prairiecanary.com) offers locally sourced Midwestern comfort food and 10 Iowa craft beers on tap. Nearby is Peace Tree Brewery Co. (1-641-260-8067), an outpost of a popular craft beer maker based in Knoxville, Iowa. Inside a pretty yellow Victorian house overlooking a downtown park, Relish Grinnell (1-641-236-3657; relishgrinnell.com) mixes fresh seasonal ingredients with worldly flavors.
Jewel Box Bank, a 1914 former bank designed by Louis H. Sullivan, is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends by appointment (1-641-236-6555). Now housing Grinnell’s visitor center, this National Historic Landmark resembles a bejeweled box; the square brick building is adorned with gold-winged lion statues, terra-cotta flourishes and stained glass (tinyurl.com/y7833zqm).
Faulconer Gallery, inside Grinnell College’s Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, mounts exhibits of work by regional, national and international artists. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., free of charge. The current exhibit, through March 18, is “En Voyage: Hybridity and Vodou in Haitian Art,” curated by students (grinnell.edu/faulconergallery).
Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce: 1-641-236-6555; grinnellchamber.org.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.