DISCLAIMER: This post is in partnership with Travel Iowa. However, all opinions and views are ours.
Walking into the gymnasium at Hotel Grinnell, memories easily travel back to elementary school and playing Dodge Ball during physical education class. Or, how about high school homecoming or prom dances?
With its hardwood floor, and basketball markings still on it, the court resembles any small-town school’s gym. The only thing missing are the bleachers hugging the courtside and players sitting on metal chairs.
With the baskets now removed, the basketball court is known as The Ballroom, with the former junior high school transformed into downtown’s Hotel Grinnell.
The gymnasium separated Grinnell High School (built in 1904) from the junior high school when it opened in 1921. The junior high school closed in 1978, long after the high school had been relocated. The hotel kept the school’s original façade of limestone and faded light brick. Inside, it’s a modern, upscale boutique hotel with a “laid-back feel.”
Opening in 2018, the boutique Hotel Grinnell took over the building previously occupied by city government offices. The building also housed a community center.
Embracing school history
A multi-million-dollar project, owner Angela Harrington oversaw an 11-month project to renovate the hotel, following five years of fundraising, obtaining permits and finalizing architectural designs, to return the 1920s structure back to its original look. Opened in 1921 as Grinnell’s junior high school, every room has its original maple flooring. Two first-floor suites – former offices of the superintendent and principal – required new flooring.
The hotel’s 43 guest rooms are located inside former classrooms. Hotel Grinnell’s eight suites are mostly larger rooms, including an accessible suite. The Penthouse Suite is located above the auditorium. Once used as a dressing room for actors performing on stage at the auditorium, the Penthouse Suite is an excellent option for weddings, with plenty of space for the bridal party to get ready.
From the bunk bedroom (with five sets of twin-sized beds, perfect for larger families, girls or guys weekends or teams) to the suites, each of the bed frames was built in nearby Sully. Iowa companies also produced bathroom fixtures and marble.
Our suite – once used as the superintendent’s office consisted of a living room and bedroom, as well as a restroom with dual shower heads for a relaxing shower. With a black and white tiled floor, the scheme added to the feel of staying in an old schoolhouse. Like every other room at the Hotel Grinnell, we had a chalkboard on the wall, where we could leave messages. I gave Lisa an assignment to have a fun trip. The television features streaming services, so we were able to watch a few shows during downtime that we had recorded at home. Rooms also include a necktie that you can hang from the door handle in the hallway to request quiet time. We noticed a few hanging in the halls during a tour of the hotel.
The hotel has become famous for its art. With about 300 original pieces, Harrington sought to use regional artists among the artists. No two pieces are the same, with beautiful pieces in each room, as well as public areas. Our suite featured a chameleon, elephant, bird and a three-board work of a woman with flowing hair.
Along with your stay, the Hotel Grinnell includes a complimentary breakfast buffet. Ours included scrambled eggs, potatoes and bacon, as well as freshly made oatmeal. Coffee, milk and a variety of juices are also available.
While downtown Grinnell is walkable from the hotel, complimentary bicycles are available to use if you prefer an option other than walking. The old gym is now called The Ballroom and features pickleball, cornhole, and other games. It can also be used for receptions and dinners.
Periodic Table lounge and restaurant
Periodic Table restaurant and bar took over the former high school spot. Featuring a menu of food truck-style entrees – street tacos with unique flavors such as Indian butter chicken, Korean beef and Costa Rican mahi, as well as flatbreads and charcuterie.
The Periodic Table, named after the scientific table of chemical elements, includes drink menu names such as Lunch Lady (Bloody Mary), First Crush (pina colada) and Lab Partner (grasshopper with mint, chocolate, heavy cream, whipped cream and cherry). Of course, a classic lounge wouldn’t be a classic lounge without serving an Old Fashioned, with whiskey, simple syrup, bitters, cocktail cherry and orange peel.
While waiting for your meal, or just to have fun, enjoy a game of bar-style shuffleboard, skeeball or a wall version of Scrabble (just ensure you know how to spell, so you don’t leave an embarrassing reminder for others to see).
The staff goes beyond in offering a memorable experience at Periodic Table. Lisa and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary during our visit, and the restaurant hosted a private dinner for us. I enjoy a good salad, and the staff came through with flying colors, with a tangy vinaigrette dressing atop a bed of arugula lettuce. The main course featured a perfectly cooked medium rare filet atop a bed of mashed potatoes, topped with a mushroom gravy sauce. A side of roasted asparagus was seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon. Our dessert of personal-sized cupcakes topped our amazing celebratory dinner.
The hotel is large enough to host plays, concerts and even conferences in the auditorium. Renovated from its original small seats to larger ones with cup holders, the theater seats about 400 people, with 267 seats on the main floor and space on the balcony level for an additional 133 seats, mostly temporary chairs.
The Hotel Grinnell also has an onsite fitness center but also has free access to a local center.
Jewel Box Bank
While staying at the Hotel Grinnell, explore the downtown area. Home to one of only eight “Jewel Box” designs by Louis Sullivan, who favored the Prairie School design of horizontal lines, flat roofs with overhanging eaves and banded windows, the Merchants National Bank operated there for about 85 years before closing in 1999. It’s now home to the visitors center and chamber of commerce.
Plan to spend at least half an hour at the bank, soaking in the history and design. Stained-glass windows are prevalent and shine brightly at night. The building maintains much of its original concept.
Grinnell College attractions
It’s easy to see why the city of about 9,000 is called “Jewel of the Prairie,” with impressive vintage architecture, as well as being home to Grinnell College. The liberal arts college attracts students from around the world – including notable alums Robert Noyce (co-founder of Intel Corporation), musician Herbie Hancock, Walter Koenig (Star Trek’s Chekov) and Kumail Nanjiani (comedian and movie actor).
We were impressed with the school’s repurposing of Swanson Hall, with the contemporary Alumni and Student Center built around the classic structure. It was a beautiful sight of history and modern times combined.
The college’s Museum of Art supports a mission of social justice, highlighting the need for humanity in a challenging world. With rotating exhibits, we checked out an Iraqi historical art exhibit, as well as a modernist look at society by one of the school’s educators.
Grinnell’s public art scene is growing, with murals highlighting diversity, rail history and community involvement.
The city is an art lover’s hangout. With its arts center encouraging community involvement in everything from children’s plays to sewing lessons and painting classes, the arts center is a hotbed for creatives.
Across the street, the Stew Makerspace is an extension of Grinnell College’s art program. Open to community access, the maker space includes a pottery studio, woodworking room, and sewing space, as well as industrial and 3D printers. During our visit, we learned how to make vinyl stickers, which will find their way to my laptop cover.
Grinnell culinary scene
Foodies will love Grinnell’s culinary scene. From authentic Mexican to Iowa’s “best pizza,” great food is within walking distance from Hotel Grinnell. Since we seek out local options, Lisa vetoed my idea of “local” – lunch as Pizza Ranch – for lunch at Maria’s Fresh Mex. Maria de la Luz Salinas Fuentes arrived in Grinnell nearly 20 years ago. After retiring from working at the Monsanto plant, she longed to run another restaurant as she did in Mexico. So, when an opportunity arose to take over a former gas station building on West Street, she seized it.
Open for about two years, Maria’s offers fresh, authentic Mexican food, with housemade salsa. We recommend the traditional enchiladas, while other diners enjoy street tacos and burritos.
Pagliai’s is a Grinnell stalwart. Serving pizza and other Italian dishes since 1957, Pagliai’s hand-tossed pizza dough is perfectly seasoned and topped with fresh meat, vegetables and cheese for an impressive dining experience. We ate there on a Monday night and the place was packed, with people waiting for a table. That says a lot about a place. After dinner, we agreed that the pizza was among the best we’d had anywhere.
Our dining experience included lunch at Hometown Heroes, a sports bar and grill. The downtown eatery was our kind of place – with a casual environment, TVs everywhere with sports on them, and a menu that cried out to us to explore. Starting with an order of onion rings – thinly sliced and breaded – we figured it would be six or eight rings. When the huge basket came out, it was enough for us…and about four more people. We barely made a dent in the rings by the time lunch arrived.
Lisa went with the Hat Trick, a trio of smoked meats – applewood smoked turkey, cherrywood smoked ham and applewood smoked bacon – with dijonaise (mustard/mayo mix), avocado, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato grilled sourdough. My choice was the Ragin’ Cajun Sandwich, featuring sauteed onion, red and green peppers, andouille sausage, chili aioli and pepperjack cheese on a toasted hoagie bun. We both opted for sweet potato fries at a slight upcharge. Our lunch at Hometown Heroes was quite satisfying, and we had outstanding service.
We enjoyed coffee and a breakfast muffin at Saint’s Rest Coffee House. The coffeehouse, which has been open for almost 25 years, uses beans roasted by Capital City Coffee out of Altoona, Iowa.
Grinnell Craft Brewhouse is a popular downtown taphouse. With a variety of Iowa-based beer and ciders on tap, you can enjoy a cold drink from breweries across the Hawkeye State.
We enjoyed our visit to Grinnell and loved our stay at the Hotel Grinnell. We’re already planning a return visit to the “Jewel of the Prairie.”