Like a work of art, the wraps come off the renovated Hotel Blackhawk today as the historic property quietly opens her doors, reclaiming her original name and prominent stature in the Quad-Cities.
The soft opening will reveal a grand new lobby, guest rooms with a contemporary design and a new Bix Bistro restaurant, where the first dinner crowd is expected to be served later this week. The hotel will open for business at 4 p.m. today; the restaurant and lounge will be open tonight for cocktails only.
Perhaps what so many have anticipated is the return of the Gold Room ballroom, the scene of so many first dates, weddings, anniversaries, brushes with celebrities and other celebrations.
Four years after out-of-town developers Amrit and Amy Gill took Davenport’s 95-year-old hotel under their wings, it has been restored to its original beauty. It’s a day the Gills, their hotel staff, the construction crew, city and development leaders — and Quad-Citians with long memories — have been anticipating. The downtown anchor has been shuttered since a devastating fire in 2006.
While still refereeing the job site and juggling the countless details that remained last week, owner Amy Gill walked through the renovated hotel recalling how her company, Restoration St. Louis, took on the $35 million project four years ago. “It’s beautiful, you could see it. A lot of times we are the developer of last resort. The Blackhawk needed us and you could see what it could be. You could see it would be amazing and beautiful.”
But the historic hotel did not return to that splendor without the Gills’ commitment, the city’s cooperation and investment, and the handiwork of dozens and dozens of craftsmen over the past two years.
The crews restored what they could, unearthing treasures such as columns and ornate architecture from beneath wood-paneled walls and dropped ceilings. What they could not restore, they built from scratch, matching it to existing architecture for a true historic rebuild.
And in some cases, they improved on the past such as relocating the entrance to the Pershing Avenue side, where the swimming pool had been, and installing a 15-foot-wide granite fireplace and a grand staircase that greet guests as they enter. A resurrected atrium in the middle of the building — with a new custom-made stained glass — houses the front desk and provides a view of the second floor and the French doors bordering the renovated Gold Room.
“It’s 99 percent recreated from old photographs and pieces found in the hotel,” Gill said.
She jokes that there might not be anyone left in town who hasn’t already spied their handiwork. “We’ve had everyone who knows anyone trying to get in here for a personal tour. Everyone is just anxious.”
Wes Ludloff, the hotel’s general manager, said hotel staff has had to work at keeping the improvements a surprise. “We’ve been trying to qualify people for tours, (determining if) it’s somebody legitimately trying to do business with us versus someone who is just trying to get a look.”
But he knows the excitement has been contagious. “There is nothing that compares when a community has this nostalgia and pride in something. There is a lot more energy if it’s an old hotel coming back versus a new build.”
It’s the same energy seen in the 18-hour days that crews have been putting in the past two weeks. “Right now it’s all about the details,” said Ludloff, who is on his 14th hotel opening and second as general manager. “All the big work is done. The big decisions have been made. It’s the timing of everything coming together — the development world and the operations team.”
The Blackhawk’s sales staff has seen the same excitement in the new tenants who quickly rented all 20 of the hotel’s apartments and are preparing to move in this week and next.
Pre-bookings for the ballroom — fittingly named the Gold Room in another nod to its history — also have increased dramatically.
“The number of inquiries we’re getting daily is ridiculous,” said Guyla Ezugha, the events manager. She said the calls have exploded in recent weeks as “people can see it being finished.”
She already has booked 24 weddings for 2011 with four months booked solid: May, June, September and October.
Tim Heim, the marketing and sales director, said several belated holiday parties are booked for January and February as well as fundraisers and corporate meetings. “There is a lot of interest out there with the product we have because it is very unique,” he said of the Quad-Cities’ only boutique-style hotel.
Among those eager to promote Hotel Blackhawk to the outside world is Joe Taylor, the president and chief executive officer of the Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s not every day a $30 million-plus hotel is developed in a community. But what makes the new Hotel Blackhawk especially important is the relationship to the RiverCenter.”
Leaders hope the Blackhawk will help the adjoining city-owned RiverCenter recapture its once strong convention and meeting business. “Since the former hotel closed in 2006, the RiverCenter has been limited in its ability to bring large conventions and meetings to downtown Davenport,” Taylor said, adding that the RiverCenter definitely lost business over those years. In some cases, it went to other Quad-City venues, but there also were events that moved on to other cities “because tourism is a very competitive business,” he said.
Still Taylor never doubted the day would come when the Blackhawk would be back. “Given the dynamics of downtown Davenport and the proximity to the RiverCenter, the Radisson and other new amenities, I really thought it was more a question of when it would be redeveloped, not if.”
Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba also remained a believer in the hotel’s rebirth. “After seeing the building languish for nine long years, it’s truly a long-awaited and welcome development,’’ he said.
Having it sit vacant — and because of a meth lab fire, was a disgrace for the city, he said. “From a meth lab to a majestic lady ... She’ll again take her majestic place alongside of our other beautiful Davenport buildings … this will complete Davenport’s skyline again.”
Gluba, who described the project as “one of the best examples of a private-public partnership,” said the fact all the actual renovation work was done in two short years is “pretty incredible.”
The city chose Restoration St. Louis as the developer in early 2007. Final plans were not unveiled until October 2008, and exterior work began in October 2009. But all the interior renovations did not begin until February of this year.
“The community had a lot to do with this,’’ Gill said. “Hopefully this will be the meeting place where they feel proud to come. In St. Louis, people say I’m going to take you to the Coronado (an early project of the Gills). They’re proud of it. This really belongs to the city of Davenport.”
And she hopes it will belong to those who carry Blackhawk memories, people like Ron and Teri Osborn. The Davenport couple owe their 51 years of marriage to a chance meeting in the bowling alley of the Blackhawk, which also will be back for guests.
Though their bowling days are behind them, Ron Osborn said “we’ll probably get down there.” But the hotel’s opening is stirring up memories of how he and his wife met there 52 or so years ago.
As a young man at the time, he and some buddies decided to go bowling one night “when we saw these gals there. So of course we went back the next week and they were there then, too.’’
And the rest is history.