Time Machine: The Hotel Montrose
Grant Wood helped decorate coffee shop in 1932
CEDAR RAPIDS — A corner lot at Third Avenue and Third Street in downtown Cedar Rapids changed hands from the Cedar Rapids National Bank to the Cedar Rapids Hotel Co. in June 1903.
Tenants on the property were notified to vacate for a new hotel on the site.
Arthur T. Averill was the prime mover on the venture as the president of the hotel company. He and other company officers went to Chicago and other cities to glean ideas for construction, layout, furnishings and other details.
The first order of business was to get a tax exemption for the structure from the city council. A seven-year exemption was granted. Excavation for the 140 by 120-foot hotel was nearly finished in November 1903. It was projected to be six stories, possibly seven, with 160 guest rooms.
As the foundation was nearing completion, the Cedar Rapids Hotel Co. transferred control of the future hotel to Jackson E. Montrose and Charles McHugh who signed a 15-year lease on June 16, 1904. The two hoteliers, who operated hotels in Rock Island and Peoria, Ill., also took control of a block of the hotel company’s stock and promised to spend at least $50,000 on the hotel’s furnishings.
The lease took effect when construction was finished.
The Cedar Rapids Hotel Co., whose officers were Arthur T. Averill, John Hamilton, Samuel G. Armstrong, and Lew W. Anderson, retained ownership of the hotel.
“Although Messrs. Montrose and McHugh have been figuring on the matter for some days the closing of the lease was really effected within 24 hours,” a Gazette story said. “Mr. McHugh has a pleasure steamer full of guests awaiting his return to Rock Island tonight and will leave at once on a trip down the Mississippi to the world’s fair.”
Bids were taken in January 1905 for finishing the hotel interior as rapidly as possible. A target date of Nov. 1 for turning the hotel over to Montrose and McHugh was set — and passed.
Around 60 workers were still engaged in finish work on Nov. 23, installing radiators and a basement refrigeration plant. Furniture, including 150 brass beds, had just been ordered. The finishing date was pushed back to February 1906, but the hotel finally had a name.
The hotel owners felt that since Montrose and McHugh would control the place for 15 years, they should have the privilege of naming it. They chose “The Montrose.”
One of the best features of the Montrose was its rotunda. It was finally revealed when scaffolding was removed in February 1906. The rotunda was flooded with light from the sides and the top. A skylight of art glass was bordered with plate glass mirrors under which a row of incandescent lights reflected down to the rotunda.
An impressive Montrose sign was installed on the corner of the building in April.
Finally, on May 15, 1906, the hotel was opened for the public to come in for lunch and tours of the building’s 16-foot ceilings and marble walls on the two main floors, its elegant Crystal Ballroom and its guest rooms with balconies overlooking the bustling downtown district. The hotel was an instant success.
The Montrose was taken over by Eugene Eppley in 1917. Eppley controlled hotels in Ohio, Iowa and South Dakota. He planned to make extensive improvements, including adding private baths to 38 rooms, and remodeling 17 more to give the house 193 rooms. At a 1919 directors’ meeting, Eppley detailed the quarter-million-dollar improvements he planned for the Montrose, including adding a seventh floor, moving the dining room from the second floor to the main floor and installing a water-softening plant. The billiard room was turned into a cafe and the mezzanine cafe was converted to a ballroom and banquet hall.
Grant Wood was relatively unknown outside of Eastern Iowa when Eppley commissioned him to decorate the hotel’s coffee shop in 1932. Wood’s seven “The Fruits of Iowa” paintings of Iowa farm life in the 1920s and ’30s were the result. Wood also painted murals for the Montrose’s Corn Room and designed corn-themed chandeliers.
After Wood died in 1942, Eppley advertised the Montrose’s “$50,000 Art Gallery Collection of paintings by the late Grant Wood,” displayed on the hotel’s mezzanine.
When the Eppley chain was dissolved in 1956, Eppley kept the paintings, loaning them to Coe College in 1957. Coe became the paintings’ owner in 1976 when the Eppley Foundation of Omaha was liquidated.
Montrose Manager Charley Gustin temporarily turned his office over to officials from the Sheraton and Eppley chains in June 1956 for a long-distance call to Sheraton headquarters in Boston. When the call was finished, the Montrose was in line for a total remodeling by its new parent corporation. On July 16, the hotel officially became known as the Sheraton Montrose.
Harold Becker, Leo Smulekoff and Abbott Lipsky formed the Montrose Hotel Co. and acquired the hotel from Sheraton and the Averill estate in 1965. Among the changes the company made was setting aside the seventh floor in 1970 as the YWCA-Residence for young women, who were either working or in school.
The Montrose was sold in January 1974 to Lyle Wilson, Allan Yarowsky and Eugene Nassif, then sold again in 1978 to a group of six local investors called Group Six for $800,000. It was renamed the Montrose Motor Hotel. Occupancy in the 199-room hotel remained too low to afford the building’s utility bills, and on Dec. 1, 1981, the Montrose ceased operating as a hotel. The lobby, bar restaurant and businesses operating on the first two floors remained open. The plan was to remodel the upper floors into offices.
The Montrose, after standing vacant for years, was demolished in 1988. The office complex called Town Centre was built there in 1992.