Witwer Building + Downtown Hotels

Witwer Building, Cedar Rapids

The Witwer Building at 303 2nd Ave SE in downtown Cedar Rapids was originally the Post Office and Federal Building when built in 1908. (The original structure actually dates back to the 1890s, but was completely rebuilt in a different style in 1908.) It is currently owned by Linn County and housed community service-related offices and a senior center before the flood. The county now has plans to sell the building, which presents some compelling redevelopment opportunities. For instance, County Supervisor Linda Langston announced last week that a developer had been looking at the site for a boutique hotel at one point. However, she noted it is now more likely the building would be made into offices. Despite this reality, let’s entertain the hotel idea for a moment.

A small, boutique hotel in downtown could help increase nightlife activity downtown and the uniqueness of it would be attractive to certain visitors who otherwise would not stay at a hotel in downtown. The building itself seems appropriately sized to accommodate 10-15 guest rooms and perhaps a restaurant or upscale lounge on the first level. The site is at a very good location to synergize with other downtown attractions. Within a two block range is Theatre Cedar Rapids, the Paramount Theatre, the US Cellular Center and future Cedar Rapids Events Center, along with some existing bars and restaurants.

In addition to more housing, it is important to diversify the kinds of amenities and attractions in downtown to create a more lively, 24-hour neighborhood. While a specialty hotel seems pretty unlikely at this point, if one were to be developed, I’d be cautious to doubt its potential for success, as similar ventures have worked very well in other comparable cities.

Hotel Donaldson, FargoA great example of a new high-end niche hotel succeeding in a modest midwestern downtown is the Hotel Donaldson in Fargo, North Dakota. The “HoDo” was built in 1894 as a meeting hall, and opened as a hotel around 1915 when a third floor was added. Deteriorated over the decades, Karen Stoker bought the hotel in 2000 and renewed the building into a modern upscale hotel with 17 guest rooms, a high-end restaurant and lounge, and a variety of small meeting spaces including the “Sky Prairie” rooftop garden. Since its rebirth the Hotel Donaldson has been very successful and a pivotal part of Fargo’s downtown revitalization. There is also a dominant Radisson Hotel in downtown Fargo, plus a mid-level Howard Johnson on the edge – similar to Cedar Rapids’ arrangement with the Crowne Plaza and Coppers Mill Hotel.

In the past downtown Cedar Rapids was home to several hotels as it was the active hub of the city and for the decades the grand entry for visitors at Union Station, which most tragically was demolished in 1961, and replaced with a parking garage. Nearby the station and along the 4th Street tracks were a number of large hotels. Between 1st and 2nd avenues, sat the Allison Hotel and Magnus Hotel, both handsome, five-story brick buildings adjacent to the tracks. Unlike today, the corridor of tracks were responded to by buildings much like they would to normal street facades.

Unfortunately nearly all the original buildings along the tracks are now gone and nearly all remain as vacant lots or lifeless parking structures. The half-block site where the Allison and Magnus hotels stood is now the parking lot next to TCR that had been used for a number of years for the BBQ Round Up. Other nearby downtown hotels included the four-story Taft Hotel on 2nd Avenue next to the tracks and the six-story Montrose Hotel at the corner of 3rd Ave and 3rd Street SE. The Taft Hotel is now a parking lot behind the art museum and the Montrose Hotel was replaced by the five-story Town Centre office building around 1990.

Allison Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids Magnus Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids
Allison Hotel (left) and Magnus Hotel sat along the 4th Street tracks between 1st and 2nd avenues.

Taft Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids Montrose Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids
The Taft Hotel (left) was on 2nd Avenue SE east of the 4th Street tracks. The Montrose Hotel was located at 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue SE.

The historic hotel photographs are taken from Then & Now: Cedar Rapids Downtown and Beyond by George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, excerpts available on Google books.

2 Comments

  1. Maybe you can take over for Mark Hunter when he retires. Neat idea. There’s a downtown hotel in Galena, I think, too…but that’s a different kind of town.

  2. It would be nice to see Cedar Rapids pull something like this off. Omaha has a nice boutique hotel called the Magnolia; it seems to be doing well there, but Omaha is also a larger city and can more easily support a high-end boutique hotel. If Cedar Rapids were to pursue a hotel in the Witwer, it seems it would make more sense to wait until the Events Center is finished. Hopefully by then downtown will have attracted more jobs, residents, and the economy will be in better shape so that this doesn’t end up being a good idea that fails because the timing isn’t right.

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