Feb. 03–It's a family business with roots in Burlington that is restoring a grand hotel in the heart of Des Moines.
The Patel family and their Coralville-based company Hawkeye Hotels, has taken on a $50 million project to bring back to life the historic Hotel Fort Des Moines at the intersections of Walnut and 10th streets.
Raj Patel, a 2009 graduate of Notre Dame High School and chief development officer for the business and the restoration, saw the beauty in the project when he purchased the hotel for $4 million in 2015. His sister, Sajni Patel, a 2002 graduate of Notre Dame High School, and brother, Ravi, a 2004 graduate graduate of Notre Dame High School, also have played integral parts on the project in downtown Des Moines.
The hotel causes Raj to pause and reflect on growing up in Burlington. The picturesque downtown and how the historic buildings drew his interest to this historic project.
"Downtown Burlington is so beautiful," said Raj. "I would marvel at the steeples, and the abundance of historic buildings in downtown."
The hotel in Des Moines is steeped in its own history. It was built in 1919 and has been visited by 13 U.S. presidents and celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Lindbergh and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. An original jewel of the hotel was grand two-story lobby. This was closed off in 1962 when a ceiling was installed to create a second-floor meeting space.
The decision to open up the lobby to its past grandeur was an easy call for Raj. However, It did take time to complete inspections and secure the $1 million to fund the expansion.
In addition to reopening the lobby, workers will restore the Grand Ballroom and Wedgewood Room that once served as backdrops for many notable Iowa caucus moments. These included rallies for candidates George H.W. Bush and Hillary Clinton.
Raj said his parents, Bob and Angie Patel, who got into the hotel business in 1982 and later created Hawkeye Hotels, are enjoying the historic nature of the hotel. A hotel that has changed hands three times.
"We are only the fourth owners of this hotel, and we take our role of being a good steward very seriously," he said.
"My dad finds all the elements of how they originally built this hotel in 1919 fascinating," said Raj. "My mom loves the stories and history."
This interest in the hotels past is why a lot of the original details are being restored. In the lobby they will keep the original terrazzo floor, wood trim and ceiling medallions. A new sculpture will be installed where the hotel's original fountain once stood and a mezzanine on the second floor will look over the lobby with the original "Romeo and Juliet" balconies.
The hotel is getting a makeover from top to bottom and much of that work has connections to southeast Iowa. Brockway Mechanical, of Burlington, is the mechanical and roofing contractor for the entire project. Baxter Construction, of Fort Madison, is the general contractor.
"Burlington taught me great lessons in humility, morality, and community," Raj said. "Relationships make up a community, and that holds so very true in Burlington."
He also has had the support of his siblings during the extensive redo of the hotel.
"Ravi is interested in all aspects of the project, he's always there to strategize and game plan when needed," He said. "My sister, Sajni, has been intimately involved in the Interior Design of the hotel to ensure the look and feel of the hotel is exactly how we imagined it."
There are other unique details to the hotel Raj wanted to maintain, which includes a hidden access for politicians in the second-floor ballroom and the presidential suite will be on the 10th floor of the 11-story hotel so Secret Service can secure the floor above and below the president during any stay on the property.
The hotel will be part of Hilton Hotel's Curio Collection and will have 290 rooms with a penthouse suite on the 11th floor. There also will be two restaurants and two bars that will operate inside the hotel.
An opening date has yet to be announce by Hawkeye Hotels as work is ongoing and Raj wants to make sure every detail is complete before opening. This has been a great project for Raj as nothing he has worked on compares to the Hotel Fort Des Moines.
"100 years of hospitality, the community's hotel, a modern marvel when it was opened in 1919, the Presidents and world leaders, you couldn't rewrite the history any better," he said about the hotel. "And now the Hotel Fort Des Moines will once again reclaim it's rightful place in Iowa history as a crown jewel."