Drive north out of the Quad-Cities on U.S. 61 and then west on U.S. 30 and you’ll drive by the Cedar County town of Lowden. And you will, indeed, DRIVE BY, because nowadays the highway skirts the town on its south side.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the early 1900s, the new Lincoln Highway – the first designated coast-to-coast highway in America – rolled right through town, and a woman named Celia Clemmens saw the opportunity to make a buck off the motoring public by building a two-story, stucco-clad hotel on the corner of the highway and what was then Main Street.
When her Lincoln Hotel opened in 1915, the ground floor contained a lobby with an open staircase to the second floor, a public dining room and private living quarters for Celia and her family. The second floor contained a common bathroom and 12 skinny sleeping rooms – six on each side of the central hallway – that rented for $2 per day. For 75 cents, Celia would serve a steak dinner. For awhile, the hotel provided the only lodging between Clinton and Cedar Rapids.
But in the mid-50s the new U.S. 30 was relocated south of town, and by 1957, rooms in the hotel could be rented on a weekly basis. The building became dilapidated and finally closed in 1981.
That the 100-year-old building listed on the National Register of Historic Places still stands today is a tribute to area lawyer Brad Norton and his wife, Liz, and Sue Licht, an architect then based in Iowa City, who bought the building in 1991 after it had stood empty for more than 10 years.
“It was completely falling down — the roof was falling down,” Liz Norton says.
Restoration was a group effort – the Nortons, Licht and many friends helped gut, paint and refurbish. Renovation included replacing the roof, replacing the stucco, replacing the front porch and building new wood storm windows.
Money came from the partners as well as grants from the State Historical Society of Iowa and the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and loans from the area economic development corporation and banks.
The hotel is now a bed-and-breakfast inn and is unusual for two reasons, says Joyce Ausberger, a Lincoln Highway buff: First, it was one of the few hotels built specifically for the highway and second, it is still standing. Joyce and her husband Bob, of Jefferson, Iowa, helped organize the new Lincoln Highway Association in 1990 to support the preservation of the highway and related structures.
The Ausbergers have traveled the length of the Lincoln highway route from Times Square in New York City to Lands End Park in San Francisco, traversing 13 states, and most of the hotels Joyce Ausberger can recall pre-date the highway.
Built shortly after the route was designated, the Lincoln Hotel is a link between two distinct time periods and architectural styles: The 1800s when multi-story hotels were built for the train or horse-and-buggy trade, and the 1900s when the hotel look was abandoned for one-story motor courts or free-standing clusters of cabins.
Today the building is another link, re-created as a bed-and-breakfast for travelers who like to exit the hurry-blurry interstate for roads less traveled.
The change wasn’t immediate, though. One of the requirements of the HUD grant was that the building offer low- and medium-income housing for five years. To accommodate that, interior work included turning the sleeping rooms into apartments with kitchens and baths. Now that the requirement has expired, the Nortons are reconverting the space. So far they have four bed-and-breakfast guest rooms with private baths.
No, the hotel doesn’t have guests every day, and winter is a particularly slow time. But business picks up in the summer – there are cross-country bicyclists, people attending the Hard Acre Film Festival in Tipton, back-roads travelers and former residents returning to the area for weddings or reunions who need a place to stay.
All told, the receipts are enough to make the place self-sustaining, more or less. (Less when the boiler needs to be replaced, Liz Norton says.)
This summer the hotel will welcome a busload of visitors from Cedar Rapids, where the national Lincoln Highway Association meeting will be held June 13-16 at Coe College.
And regardless of occupancy, Liz Norton gets a lot of satisfaction from her role as an innkeeper and from seeing how guests relax in Lowden’s friendly, small-town atmosphere.
“I can’t tell you how many people walk in stressed and when they leave, they’re back in their shoes again,” she says. “It’s just fun to watch people transform.”
Alma Gaul can be contacted at (563) 383-2324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.