If a vote were taken to determine the most politically active of Iowa’s hotels, the Hotel Fort Des Moines would be the hands-down winner. Woodrow Wilson was the first president to stay there, not long after the hotel opened in 1919; 12 presidents in all have slept there.
The Hotel Fort Des Moines has been headquarters for a number of presidents and presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail, especially during the influential Iowa caucuses.
Walter Mondale and Bob Dole celebrated their caucus wins at the hotel. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a well-guarded guest — riflemen were posted on rooftops to protect him — when he came to the United States to check out Iowa farming operations in 1959.
A quick look at the Hotel Fort Des Moines
Hotel Fort Des Moines
Rooms: Thirty guest rooms will be added, for a total of 265. A number of seldom used breakout rooms are being converted to guest rooms. Existing guest-room floors will be gutted so rooms can be refigured to be more uniform in size.
Meeting space: Meeting space will decrease, from 32,000 square feet to 21,000 square feet. However, the restyled meeting space will better fit the hotel’s needs with an expanded, divisible grand ballroom and several new boardrooms.
Amenities: The hotel will add a pool off the llobby. Currently, its pool and fitness facilities are in an adjacent building. Two restaurants managed by Orchestrate Hospitality serve the hotel: the adjacent, casual Raccoon River Brewing Co. and the in-hotel Django, a new French bistro that has proved to be the most successful in-house restaurant ever located in the hotel.
Location: The Hotel Fort Des Moines is in downtown Des Moines in the Western Gateway district, where three large companies have recently made their headquarters, fueling the opening of new restaurants, a sculpture park and other businesses.
But the hotel’s importance goes beyond presidential visits and political campaigns. The Hotel Fort Des Moines has also been an integral part of the capital’s meeting landscape. It is located on downtown’s booming western edge and linked to Des Moines’ extensive skywalk system, which allows visitors to walk indoors to the city’s convention facilities.
Like many historic hotels, the Hotel Fort Des Moines is in need of some modernizing. Its heating and cooling systems are antiquated, its meeting space is not configured to fit modern needs, and its guest rooms are a hodgepodge of shapes and sizes.
So in late winter or early spring, assuming that the last bit of needed funding comes through, the hotel will close for 16 months and undergo improvements estimated “north of $50 million,” said Paul Rottenberg, president of Orchestrate Hospitality, the Des Moines-based management firm that runs the hotel for owner Jeff Miller.
When the grand old hotel emerges, it will be a Hilton affiliate with more guest rooms, less meeting space and the latest in mechanical systems and technology.
“Lawn” art makes a giant leap
For years, John and Mary Pappajohn displayed much of the fine-art sculpture they collected on their lawn in Des Moines. Eventually, their collection outgrew their yard.
So when John Pappajohn drove by downtown Des Moines’ new Western Gateway Park, he realized that the 4.4-acre green swath would be a logical new home for two dozen sculptures he and his wife owned.
The Pappajohns donated the art, valued at $40 million, to the Des Moines Art Center, which, in partnership with the city and the Pappajohns, planned and designed the Iowa capital’s new outdoor sculpture park.
The two-block plain of green is interrupted by undulating earthen berms that serve as visual breaks between all sorts of sculptural art. There’s a Godzilla-like spider crawling across the grass, a vacant overcoat that seems to seek strong shoulders and a massive head and upper torso formed from white connecting letters.
Visitors examine Nomade, on of two dozen sculptures in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
The park is the latest high point in the city’s Western Gateway, once a neighborhood of decay and decline that is “all the buzz in Des Moines right now,” according to Christopher Diebel, director of marketing for Orchestrate Hospitality, which manages several businesses in the neighborhood, including the Hotel Fort Des Moines. In their spare time, meeting goers can take a stroll through the park and even learn more about the artworks during one-hour guided tours given from April 1 through Oct. 31 by the Des Moines Arts Center. Tours must be scheduled at least three weeks in advance. There’s a charge of $2 per person (free for students). The park can also be booked for private events by contacting the city of Des Moines.
Another option for events is the Temple for the Performing Arts, a Masonic Temple one block from the hotel. Restored and now used primarily as a performance venue, the Temple does dinners for up to 275 in former ritual rooms that have architecture that is “just crazy,”in terms of its ornate beauty, said Diebel. Centro, a restaurant housed in the Temple, is “where the politicos eat,” he said.
The 235-room hotel will gain 30 guest rooms by converting small and rarely used breakout rooms on the third floor. Other guest room floors will be gutted, with only corridor walls left intact. New guest rooms will be of standard size and shape.
The hotel’s meeting space will also be reoriented. First-floor space previously leased for offices will be used to nearly double the size of the hotel’s 4,000 square-foot ballroom and to add a pool in the building (a lap pool is now in a building adjacent to the hotel). The expanded 7,000-square-foot ballroom and another 4,000-square-foot ballroom are adjacent to a 2,400-square-foot prefunction area. Other spaces on the second level will become several boardrooms.
“We’ll have slightly less square footage for meeting space, but it will be more functional and more frequently used,” said Rottenberg.
The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places, and its architectural integrity will be considered throughout the renovation, according to Rottenberg. “Everywhere we can restore the historic fabric, we will,” he said. As in past renovations, Rottenberg expects this one to reveal some hidden historic elements. “When we renovate a portion of the hotel, we bring out more of its historic elements by uncovering things that were covered up years ago.”
The renovation project will also spruce up the exterior of the hotel, adding new landscaping and a new entrance. Public areas, including the lobby, will be upgraded as well.
The hotel’s new affiliation with Hilton poses several advantages, especially for meeting planners.
“We are happy they are doing an extensive redo and adding the Hilton brand, which adds a lot for us to sell,” said Greg Edwards, president of the Des Moines CVB. “For a planner who has never been to Des Moines, the Hotel Fort Des Moines has a nice ring to it, and you automatically assume there is a historic value; but then again, if you have never been here…. When you say ‘Hilton Fort Des Moines,’ you are familiar with the Hilton brand and its standards.”
The start of the renovation has been pushed back several times, and several long-standing meetings and events have had to be relocated. Some have been moved to other Des Moines hotels managed by Orchestrate Hospitality; the CVB has helped other groups find new locations.
The refurbishing of the Hotel Fort Des Moines is another sign of the resurgence of its neighborhood, the burgeoning Western Gateway area. (See sidebar, below.) It is the only hotel in the area; its two restaurants, the recently opened Django, inside the hotel, and the popular Raccoon River Brewing Co., adjacent to it, are among the local restaurants creating a buzz.
“There are a lot of new restaurants in that area,” said Edwards. “I could give you the names, but you wouldn’t recognize them, because they are all locally owned, which we look upon as a good thing.”
“This is the most high-profile hotel in the most high-profile area of Des Moines,” said Christopher Diebel, director of marketing for Orchestrate Hospitality. “This is where everyone wants to be, and we feel that this project will be the crown jewel of the development.”