|By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Jan. 2, 2006 - PERRY, Iowa -- Drawing guests to a historic luxury lodge in the middle of rural Iowa seemed like a tough sell, especially when the rooms cost up to $299 a night.
But the charm of the Hotel Pattee helped spark a cultural renaissance here in the past decade, inspiring dreams of a more idyllic past. The 93-year-old Colonial Revival inn had been restored to its grandeur of the days when it first welcomed guests to this then-metropolis and railroad hub.
For visitors who grew up in Small Town, USA, it also restored hope that they could indeed go home again and return to the way they remembered things used to be.
"Without this, the town would look like every other small town dying across the Midwest," said hotel manager Jeff Spence, who grew up in a small Iowa town.
But after a decade of fueling hopes in Perry, the hotel shut its doors Saturday, worrying retailers and residents who saw it as the gateway to the town's future and angering those who always have resented the rags-to-riches tale and ideology of its owner, Roberta Green Ahmanson.
A 1967 graduate of Perry High School, Ahmanson, a former religion reporter, and her husband, multimillionaire philanthropist Howard Ahmanson Jr., have financed dozens of conservative Christian movements. Their causes include opposing gay clergy in the U.S. Episcopal Church and replacing the teaching of evolution with intelligent design.
Restoring the face of her hometown and recapturing what she sees as classical values represented another way of sharing that vision. Since 1993, Ahmanson has poured $20 million into the historic renovation of the hotel, the town's original Carnegie Library and a non-profit organization called Hometown Perry, Iowa, which celebrates the perks of small towns everywhere.
The hotel itself became a museum. Each of its 40 rooms is a unique tribute to the arts, crafts and history of Iowa and Perry in particular.
During my first stay, for a wedding, I searched for inspiration in the Telital Room, named for the Perry High School newspaper where Ahmanson and I both apparently discovered our niche. In addition to a roll-top desk, manual typewriter and vintage cameras, Telital clippings paper the walls.
The newlyweds hid out in the Louis Armstrong Suite, named for the jazz trumpeter who stayed there in 1954 because he wasn't welcome at Des Moines hotels--a reminder that the good old days weren't always so bright.
'Rooms have an emotion'
"All these rooms have an emotion," Spence said. "The true meaning of the hotel is what it represents."
Sean Stokely left Perry in 1979 and returned in 2004 with his partner, Brian Magruder, to convert the town's old Elks Lodge into a hip coffee shop, bistro and bar. Stokely said the hotel's closure came as a shock to many residents who had just come to understand Ahmanson's mission of preservation.
"You get to an understanding and acceptance, and then the rug is pulled out from under you," Stokely said.
But the town, which has a diverse ethnic heritage, has a history of bouncing back from hardships, said Justine Zimmer, a spokeswoman for Hometown Perry.
Years ago, when the railroad closed, townspeople raised $1 million in six weeks to build a meatpacking plant. To this day, the plant accounts for the aroma that wafts through the town when the wind blows just right. It also drew a wave of Latino immigrants, who now make up 30 percent of Perry's population.
Ambivalence over benefactor
"It keeps reinventing itself even beyond Roberta," said Zimmer, who also runs an eclectic art gallery. "She experienced all those feelings of loss. You survive it. You find a way. She learned it from her forefathers and she's trying to honor it."
But many in town were upset by the way they found out the hotel was closing. A Seattle public relations firm brusquely delivered the announcement to employees while Ahmanson and her husband traveled abroad.
Through the firm, the couple declined to comment.
A column by Magruder in the hometown weekly, The Perry Chief, captured the remorse felt by many.
"With every story and rumor about the closure of the Hotel, I kept feeling disappointed--kind of like the feeling one gets when a childhood fable is proved untrue," Magruder wrote.
Ahmanson's absence during the closure has fueled more speculation across the town of about 8,800. Some say her husband tired of supporting her pet projects and wanted to steer more money toward evangelical work.
Yet the hotel is a sort of ministry itself. Prayer cards are placed on the pillows each night. C.S. Lewis' Christian books occupy the nightstands. Bible verses are inscribed throughout the lobby and library. And along with the spa and 1913 bowling alley, the hotel houses a chapel in the basement.
But many residents of Perry, where the annual median household income is a little more than $35,000, could not afford to experience its amenities. They doubt that a savvy hotelier would want to shell out $3 million for a boutique hotel in this small blue-collar town.
"Closing it means a loss of jobs, and this community needs every job it can get," said Kathryn Holmes, a Perry native whose sister graduated with Ahmanson. "We're going to end up with this white elephant."
Other residents have faith that the hotel will be closed only for months before a buyer recognizes its promise and potential.
"It would be a great loss," said Jay Pattee, the owner of Perry's five and dime who moved from Minneapolis. He likes to josh that he moved to a town where there was already a street, a park and a hotel named after him, but he is only distantly related to the hotel's namesake. "I also think part of our identity will be gone."
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