In all the babble and debate over what to do with the Davenport riverfront, one lonely pocket of joy has been overlooked. What are those planners going to do about the Levee Inn? It is our beloved landmark. It must be saved. We cannot lose the Levee Inn. It is our history on a bun!
The Levee Inn has been our top dog of landmarks since it was built in 1929. Architecturally, it rates a pretty good grade with its blue tile inlays and overhangs. Structurally, it has survived everything Mother Nature has thrown at it.
And then, there's the history: What would we do without the Levee Inn’s high-water markers that have measured Mississippi River rampages all these years? Floodwaters have never been more than a nuisance: When the devastating deluge of 1965 went away, for example, the owners swept out the water and reopened.
It’s no wonder the sturdy Levee Inn snubs floods, hell and high water. The designers were the same ones responsible for the classic bandshell in nearby LeClaire Park and for Modern Woodmen Park, the finest minor league ballpark in all America. Those are reasons enough why Levee Inn must be saved, now that its neighbor gambling boat is forever gone.
The city owns the place since the exodus of the floating casino. Levee Inn is a sad sight today, but it looks to be sound. Menus on the outside wall, still proclaiming proprietorship by the President gambling boat, which hit the water in 1991, offer pastrami sandwiches and a selection of hot dogs. Among them, the Wundram Dog for $2.75. What a buy, easily worth $5 today.
Levee Inn, in its heyday, was jovial, with the biggest Vienna hot dogs this side of Wrigley Field. Downtown workers would walk a half-dozen blocks to get a dog with Levee Inn’s neon green relish.
The place has had more names than anyone can remember. It started with the bland monicker of “Municipal Inn.” For some unknown reason, it was named for me a couple of times, Bill’s Hot Doggery or some such nonsense.
It was a rite to open the hot dog season with Paula Sands, of TV reknown, and me designing our favorite summer hot dog. Hers was always delicate; mine reeked of chopped onions. The only rule of the place was that it never served ketchup on any of the dogs. Ketchup on a hot dog was a mortal sin.
Dick Bittner, the attorney and civic guru, and I always claimed that we would reopen Levee Inn — under our names — once we retired. At a celebration of Bittner’s longevity, his son once mocked up a photo of the two of us as proprietors of the Bittner-Wundram Levee Inn hot dog stand. It'll never happen. Our wives complained they would have to cook the hot dogs while we stood outside, gabbing.
The beloved riverside inn had assorted proprietors in its life. One of the longest-running operators was Archie Weindruch, the father of the “Big Archie” hot dog. Business ebbed in the springtime of 1991 when the President casino boat arrived on the inn’s doorstep. Next up was a pork tenderloin joint that survived two summers.
The inn — as best figured — has been closed since October 2000 when Rhythm City replaced the whale-sized President. Steve Ahrens, who heads the Davenport Levee Improvement Commission, says the dates of opening and closing of Levee Inn are inexact. It was always a private business.
“Whatever, Levee Inn is a fixture of Davenport. We can’t let go of it,” Ahrens says. “Floods can always be a problem for the place, but we could always raise it to save it.”
Long live the Levee Inn. And long live its Vienna hot dogs. The place must reopen and survive forever. We should relish a rabble-rousing campaign to save it!