Amana Colonies’ Millwright Hotel Gets It Right
By Brian E. Clark
Full disclosure: I’ve got a sweet spot for old buildings that have been restored and turned into lodgings.
So when I learned about the Hotel Millwright (hotelmillwright.com) in Amana, Iowa – nestled just 25 miles northwest of the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City – I had to check it out.
The mill – part of which still has looms producing wool and cotton textiles – was the industrial heart of this small community.
Today, the tastefully restored woolen mill boasts 65 upscale rooms, a farm-to-table restaurant, bar, indoor conference space, and outdoor entertainment venues on the banks of a 160-year-old canal. Heavy sewing machines and other, century-old mill equipment decorate the lobby and hallways, repurposed as artwork.
The Amana Society and its seven villages – spread out over 26,000 acres of farmland and forest – was founded in the middle to the 1800s by German immigrants known as Inspirationists. In their homeland, textile weaving was one of the foundations of their economy.
It thrived as a collective until 1932 when the Great Depression forced members to leave behind their communal ways and create a privately held corporation.
In 1965, the colonies became a National Historic Landmark. Many visitors come to walk its quaint streets, dine in restaurants with German names, and shop in stores that offer homemade food and chocolates, artisan beer, gifts, local wines, and hand-crafted wooden furniture that can cost thousands of dollars.
The woolen mill continued to function after the reorganization and textile production remained an economic lifeline for the community until the 1980s when only some small-scale weaving continued.
Starting in 2015, the Amana Woolen Mill has been producing a specialty line of cotton fabric textile totes, bags, and table-top decor, as well as an expanded line of iconic wool and cotton blankets.
At about the same time, some members of the Amana Society began thinking about turning the unused space into a boutique hotel to attract couples, families, professional groups, reunions, and even bachelor and bachelorette parties to the town.
When photographer Tish Lafferty arrived in Amana for a recent autumn visit, the sun was sinking, illuminating the main, red-brick building in a soft light that bounced off low clouds. Across from this three-story, 160-year-old, crimson structure – which houses working looms and event space – a tall smokestack rose more than 60 feet into the sky.
Inside the lobby, a huge metal pipe – part of the mill’s original heating system – stretched halfway across the atrium. Partially exposed brick walls, scarred hardwood floors, and photos of mill workers – and even sheep that contributed their coats – lined the walls. Just steps from the bar, part of a wall showcased large spools of thread that reflected the mill’s past.
Sara Cunningham, the lead designer for the renovation effort, said most of the woolen mill’s buildings were sitting empty and unused as recently as two-and-one-half years ago.
The Amana Society, which has retained ownership of the property, engaged consultants to find what Cunningham described as “best uses” for the complex. Ultimately, a boutique hotel and event center within the historic buildings were selected to “create a unique and new hospitality and entertainment destination in Eastern Iowa.”
Rather than remaking the buildings, however, Cunningham and her team chose to blend the old with the new, honoring the millwrights who toiled to create the original complex.
“We chose the name to pay homage to the millwrights of the Amana Woolen Mill,” she said. “They were the heart of the operation.
In the same way that millwrights installed, dismantled, repaired, reassembled and moved machinery in our mill, we’re hoping Hotel Millwright will be the anchor in the rejuvenation and redevelopment of the Amana Colonies.”
She said the biggest puzzle in the project was deciding what stories to incorporate in the design.
“There are so many cool facts about the building and its history, but not enough wall space to tell them all,” she said.
What was ultimately kept, such as the huge heating tube in the lobby, was determined in large part by the state’s Historic Preservation Office.
“There were quite a few obstacles to work around in order to keep things historic and make the buildings safe, all while adding in the modern luxuries you’d expect in a swanky boutique hotel,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but we’re happy with the final product.”
The total cost for the renovation was a hefty $17 million to restore seven historic structures. Cunningham said all the sewing machines and other artifacts came from the mill.
“Amana folks are known for holding onto things,” she explained. “And we’re so glad they didn’t disappoint when it came to this project. Before renovations began, all the rooms were cleared and many amazing artifacts were discovered.
“We loaded them into storage spaces and have slowly dug through all of it over the last couple years, making plans as to where each would end up in the complex. It was a fun -and very dirty – process.”
Cunningham said the muted colors throughout the mill were selected to “let the mill’s historic elements, photography, art, and artifacts do the talking.”
She said the buildings themselves served as the inspiration for the project.
“The Amana Woolen Mill is the only working textile mill left in Iowa,” she said. “So this place matters. It felt important to really dig into the history, do the research, and tell the story.”
She said the most enjoyable part of the effort was brainstorming ideas for the artwork and artifacts. (The same for) digging through archives and photos, listening to stories… and figuring out how to take what most people see as junk and turn it into something beautiful.
The designer said the Amana Society hopes the Hotel Millwright will fill a missing niche in the village.
“There are quite a few small, unique places to stay in the Amana Colonies,” she said. “Something more substantial was definitely needed for our growing festivals and larger events. Hotel Millwright is a great reason to come out and rediscover Amana. We hope it brings out new generations of intrigued visitors and is a fun new stop for individuals who make the trip to our little villages.”
For more information on the Amana Colonies, see amanacolonies.com.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.