In its heyday, Hotel Muscatine and its ballroom were the place for memories, milestones — and a little mischief, if tales of being a speakeasy during Prohibition are true.
But these days, the ballroom has been resurrected — and reinvented — as 101 West, a steakhouse and lounge owned by caterers Laura Juszczyk and Marty Mehlert. Open for about two months, 101 West is the latest new venture to find a home in the century-old hotel renovated by its owners, downtown Muscatine developers Tom and Ann Meeker.
True or not, business partners Juszczyk and Mehlert have capitalized on the rumors that the hotel once housed a speakeasy as they redesigned the open ballroom to hold a 90-seat restaurant and a lounge. Located at 101 West Mississippi Drive, nearly every chair in the house offers a Mississippi River view.
Right inside the doors, a glass panel cascading waterfall sits near carts with stacked whiskey barrels that Mehlert said still hold some of the once-forbidden spirit. The former ballroom, now outlined by limestone walls, has been divided into makeshift rooms by handcrafted wooden doors that hang and slide like barn doors. He is proud that these are one of the many features that recycle items from the past and create a yesteryear effect.
Throughout the restaurant hang poster-sized black-and-white photographs of Muscatine's early days, such as a scene from an old ice factory. An authentic copper-lined bathtub sits behind the bar to hold ice and chilled beverages.
Juszczyk, who is fascinated by the history, said rumor has it that the hotel's sixth floor housed the speakeasy. "They say tunnels ran under the street so they could bring in the alcohol and the girls across without getting detected," she said. "But, like my dad always said, 'don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.' "
The 2,000-square-foot restaurant sits on what is classified as the first floor above the lobby, or ground floor, and the mezzanine level. But from the exterior, 101 West and its outdoor deck appear to be the third floor.
Mehlert said their Cornerstone Catering business had been leasing the ballroom in its previous state from the Meekers since 2012, but the business fell short of their financial expectations. Juszczyk, who has worked in the hospitality business, bought into the catering company in 2011. They now are running Cornerstone Catering out of another downtown Muscatine business.
"The ballroom just wasn't working for anybody,'' hotel owner Tom Meeker recalled. "It wasn't big enough to do big weddings and we were only using it twice a month, which wasn't worth it."
As the Meekers were investigating a new use for the sizable space, Mehlert was looking for a place "to do steaks."
He said the concept was to create an upscale steakhouse — a place where guests come to spend three hours. "We don't want people to feel we're rushing them; we want them to come enjoy the ambiance,'' he said, adding that staff have been trained to take their time with each party. "We're catering to our guests like they are in our own house."
The menu includes steaks, prime rib, pork chops, chicken, pastas and seafood, including whole lobsters. The pair, who are working to transition out of their Cornerstone Catering, hired Quad-City chef Scott Baird for 101 West.
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Juszczyk and Mehlert, who lease the restaurant space from the Meekers, designed the floorplan and decor for 101 West. The renovated space features the handiwork of carpenter Mark Greenleaf, owner of Greenleaf Construction, Rock Island; stonework by Tyler Tompkins, and help from many others.
"Sometimes you have to change things, even old things," said Meeker, who is pleased with 101 West's addition to the 1914 hotel he and his wife converted nearly a decade ago into business and residential condominiums. "We like to mix the old with the new. And people like that — a combination of old and new."
Despite the 65-hour weeks near the project's end, Greenleaf said it is the kind of project he most enjoys with its custom work and some free rein. "I told Tom (Meeker) 'it's the kind of project where you go to bed early because you're anxious to get up and go back to work.' It was a whole crew of hardworking, good craftsmen."
Greenleaf recalled how they began with a tired, empty ballroom and collaborated on the transformation. "They showed me some pencil drawings and we took it from there. That's a lot of fun,'' said Greenleaf, who designed the one-of-a-kind bar, complete with the copper tub, which he sold to the restaurant owners. "I found that in an antique store and since 1975, it's been sitting in my basement."
The idea for the arched doorways came from a picture Mehlert had of similar stone doorways in Europe.
Juszczyk and Mehlert said that was how much of their planning occurred; they would cut out photos from magazines of different architecture they liked and bring them to the crew. Mehlert joked how the crew began to call him "Marty Change" for all his change orders.
Juszczyk said during construction, the community's attachment to the hotel and ballroom became very evident. "People would stop in all the time and tell us how they'd had their wedding reception in the ballroom or their retirement party,'' she said, adding the visitors "feel like they own it. It's part of their history."