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Big Story: Introducing the Current Iowa

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Davenport's original skyscraper is rising again as The Current Iowa hotel.

In the former Putnam Building at Second and Main streets, Amrit and Amy Gill's Restoration St. Louis has renovated a tired downtown office building into a modern luxury hotel that champions the building's past and will be a showplace for the Midwest art scene. 

The $33 million Current, which opens Wednesday, July 26, is the latest Quad-City historic restoration by the St. Louis developers and part of their $62 million City Square redevelopment that includes the former M.L. Parker Building, just east of the new hotel.

The artful hotel is what Amy Gill calls "the younger, hipster sister" of the nearby Hotel Blackhawk — the first Davenport project tackled by Restoration St. Louis seven years ago.

"It's not just about being an artsy hotel; it's about bringing that artful approach to everything we do," she said.

That artful approach is grounded in 500-plus pieces of Midwest-generated art, including a wooden cut-out wall map of the Quad-Cities, blown glass resembling waves on water and a life-size cow sculpture Gill calls "Bessie," which all are in the lobby. Original paintings and sculptures by Midwest artists are found throughout the Current, including in its Baja Mexican restaurant off the lobby — called Viva — and in the region's largest indoor/outdoor rooftop restaurant and bar, known as Up. 

In addition to the two new restaurants, which are open to the public, the Current features 78 suites. It has 14 luxury apartments, meeting space and a host of amenities in the hotel and adjoining Center building. 

Built by Davenport construction company Russell, the Current joins Hotel Blackhawk as part of the Marriott's luxury Autograph Collection. It was designed by Checkmate Design, Restoration St. Louis' architectural and design firm.

Borrowing the Autograph Collection's branding tagline, Amrit Gill said the new hotel "is exactly like nothing else."

"Our experience is art," he said, adding that the artful experience begins from the time visitors walk through the door, "to how we bring them food and how we clean the room." 

'Less art museum, more art experience'

The 1910 building, the last designed by iconic Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, makes for a fitting palate for the art-filled hotel.

The building's appearance prior to the overhaul? Not so much. 

The Current Iowa houses a lot of history

The Restoration St. Louis team gutted the former office building, "giving it a lot of love," Amy Gill said, and followed a simple, yet sleek interior design, mostly white, grey and black colors, to allow the artwork to take center stage.

"The palate is so bland to make the art stand out," Amy Gill said.

Amrit and Amy Gill

Amy and Amrit Gill, owners of Restoration St. Louis, pose in the lobby of the Current Iowa, the couple's latest historic renovation project in downtown Davenport. 

Meanwhile, she and her husband searched the Midwest for all kinds of contemporary art. 

They toured art fairs, museum galleries and small private collections, hand-picking pieces that fit into a specific vision: “A Midwestern, fun, local approach to an art hotel.”

“I was trying to buy pieces from all kinds of people,” Amy Gill said. “I want everyone represented, all walks of life and all types of humanity. That’s what art should be about.”

Gill says 40 artists are represented from places such as Chicago, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana and Texas as well as St. Louis and the Quad-Cities in what she calls “an art museum in flyover country.”

"The whole impetus is we can find artists here — really good artists — and bring them to the forefront," she said.  “This is for the underappreciated artists from the Midwest." 

Their team got a few leads from Tim Schiffer, executive director of the Figge Art Museum, which is just a block from the hotel.

“It’s a great match to be so close,” Schiffer said. “I’m glad they’re supporting local artists. When you see art that is created nearby, you get a flavor of a place. It’ll make the hotel special.”

A look at the 'not cookie-cutter art' on display at The Current Iowa

The proximity creates a natural relationship with the Figge, Schiffer said. Plus, a handful of artists who have artwork in The Current also are featured in the Figge’s collection. That includes Iowa City- based artist Nancy Purington, Rowen Schussheim-Anderson, the chair of Augustana College’s art department and Michael Meilahn, who created the popular blown-glass installation, called “Corn Zone,” often on display on the ground floor of the museum.

Still, Gill says the hotel is "less art museum, more art experience." 

The Current Iowa hotel lobby

The lobby of the Current Iowa hotel features artwork, such a hot glass installation which resembles water waves. In all, over 500 pieces of art is inside the hotel and more will be added in the upcoming months. 

"People may not think it's fancy enough art, but we're not going for fancy art," she said. "We have that across the street at the Figge."  

"We're serving $3 tacos here," she added. "It's cheap as chips." 

Introducing a trend

The Current Iowa is part of a trend that appears to be making a home in the Quad-Cities: Boutique hotels.

Two other projects in downtown Moline fit the bill, including Heart of America Group's 5th Avenue Historic Block project and the Amin Group's nearby Element by Westin. The Element is an extended-stay hotel that is part of The Q multi-modal station development.

The boutique concept was introduced to the Quad-Cities by the Gills, who led a $35 million renovation of the historic Hotel Blackhawk in 2010.

“A boutique hotel is a smaller, more intimate place where the guests get to know the people who work there,” said Amy Gill. “They’re huge right now. They appeal to millennials who travel and want to have this unique experience.”

Gills focus on re-building neighborhoods one building at a time

The Gills, who have been in the restoration business since the early 1990s in St. Louis, say the Blackhawk paved the way for the Current.

“We would never have been able to finance this if the Blackhawk had not been successful,” she said, recalling the financing challenges in the Hotel Blackhawk project. 

But just seven years later — with the Blackhawk’s occupancy rates sitting in the mid-70 percent range — there’s room in the market for another boutique hotel.

“Now downtown Davenport is thriving, booming and everybody wants to be here,” she said.

Restoration St. Louis not only restored the Blackhawk but followed up with two office-building conversions into housing, along with a warehouse-loft conversion and now City Square. 

Gaining momentum

In the years since the Blackhawk opened, the boutique trend has gained momentum in medium and large markets. 

“Over the last several years we’ve seen the trend, at least regionally, to move away from large 200- to 300-room hotels along the interstate to downtown, smaller hotels,” said Joe Taylor, the president and CEO of the Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Current Iowa

Over 500 pieces of Midwest-generated art are displayed in the lobby of the new Curent Iowa hotel, seen as "an art hotel in flyover country." 

In the 1970s, for example, larger hotels were built along the interstates, such as Holiday Inns and Jumer’s Castle Lodge in the Quad-Cities, he said.

“Then we were trying to capture a leisure visitor on the interstate, and now the dynamics have changed,” Taylor said. “We have more meeting space, different niche markets we’re going to, and our downtowns are developing.”

Heart of America founder Mike Whalen, who is excited about his own 5th Avenue hotel project in Moline, said the industry has now “woken up” to the research that shows travelers want an experience.

Moline's Element hotel on track to open December
Heart of America transforming Moline building into boutique hotel

“It’s different than 30 years ago when the traveler was looking for consistency,” he said. “Now the traveler is going on TripAdvisor and other (websites), and they want to find a cool place to stop.”

As Amrit Gill said, boutique hotels attract the traveler who isn't concerned with sticking with one brand and collecting hotel rewards. 

“Sixty percent of the transient business comes from people who collect hotels like foodies collect restaurants,” Gill said.

The Gills, however, say their small and unique touches make the Blackhawk and now Current Iowa stand out among the boutique landscape.

During one of her many recent visits to Davenport from St. Louis, Amy Gill watched a guest arrive at Hotel Blackhawk and overheard staff say to him, “You haven’t been here in a month.”

“You don’t get that feeling in a regular hotel,” she said, “That feeling of ‘I belong here.”

Economically huge

When The Current Iowa opens, it will mark “the achievement of a massive goal” for downtown Davenport, according to Kyle Carter, executive director of the Downtown Davenport Partnership, an initiative of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce.

“It may be lost on people how unlikely this seemed for many years,” he said. “The cost and complexity of the project was enormous, and the building was vacant for 30-plus years.”

Beyond that, the Current’s opening marks another step in completing City Square, which encompasses the block that stretches along 2nd Street between Main and Brady streets. Phase one was renovating the former M.L. Parker Building into Class A office space and luxury apartments. 

When the $62 million makeover is done, Carter said it will be a “bigger deal than the Blackhawk opening.

The Current Iowa rooftop bar

Seen here in late June, the rooftop of the Current Iowa hotel will serve as the area's largest rooftop bar and restaurant, called Up, which is open to the public. 

“The Blackhawk had a special place in people’s hearts on an emotional level,” he said. “From an economic point of view, this block’s completion is a bigger project.”

That block also will house the future Urban Campus being built by Scott Community College. 

City Square emerged in 2011 after the Gills’ proposal for a land-based casino in downtown was not selected. Still, the project incorporates ideas proposed in their casino bid. They also were drawn by the building's history, being designed by Daniel Burhnam.

Amrit Gill said they envisioned the Putnam building as a hotel since the beginning. That was in part because it helps meet a need of the RiverCenter for more available hotel rooms to help the convention center draw more and larger events to downtown, he said.

10 fun facts about The Current Iowa

“Just adding a hotel is really necessary,” Carter said. “You could argue there's room in the market for another one.”

While converting the Putnam into housing would have been less work and less expensive, Amrit Gill said, The Current Iowa — with its lodging, restaurants, art and skybar — is filling a void.

“The community needs more hotel rooms. The community needs that excitement in downtown,” he said. “We do what the community needs."

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).