At this year’s Gathering of the Green in Davenport Iowa, we stayed at the beautiful historic Blackhawk Hotel. The hotel not only opened their doors to allow John Deere machinery in the hotel to provide as Sheldon Wellman said, “A touch of Iowa.” While staying we found out that they also offer a tour of the hotel. I jumped at the chance and recruited Carol Hain and Jodi Reynolds away from their respective booths at Green Magazine and Aumann Auctions to learn about the magic of the Blackhawk with me.
Sheldon who serves as the bell boy and support specialist also is the resident tour guide. This 21 year old young man has been with the hotel for a little over two years, but has the knowledge of one that has been there for decades. It was quickly evident how much he loved his job. Decked out in his three piece suit and the token John Deere hat, Sheldon took us through the history of this hotel that was built back in 1915. “The Blackhawk has been serving a century of elegance,” Sheldon said. “It has been here 100 years and we are starting our 101st year. There is a lot to our property.”
Sheldon began the tour outside the entry to the hotel from the River City hall. “We opened our doors February 16, 1915. This was the original entry on Perry Street. When we opened there would have been a hitching post out here,” he added. “When we opened in 1915, we had this original lobby and had seven floors.”
On the outside Sheldon said from the 7th floor down that some wear can e seen because he said, “The building has been in the weather and the elements.”
Once inside the lovely lobby he said that the hotel when renovated in 2010 was taken back to its original luster. “Everything is original, a repair of an original, a recreation of an original or a replica,” Sheldon explained saying the difference between something recreated was adding to existing décor like the crown molding, while a replica was using a blueprint drawing to replace what was lost.
The former entry way is now the business center and although the black and white tile is newer, the pink and green more lobby center are the original ones. “If these floors could talk!” Sheldon said. “We have been host to Preident’s and movie stars and legendary athletes. It is said that both Frank Sinatra and Al Capone have sat down in our bar. President Obama was here in 2011. He fell in love with our porkchop and had his chef get the recipe. it is delicious and now called the Presidential Pork Chop on our menu.”
The restaurant is called Bix Bistro after the legendary Leon Bismark aka Bix Beiderbecke, an American jazz cornetist, jazz pianist, and composer. Davenport has a famous bike run dedicated to the musician as well. The elegant yet modern bistro has one strange thing that Sheldon said they can’t explain. “This is our original exterior door decorated with marine animals and we have no idea why.”
Besides the hotel guests, Sheldon said Bix Bistro has it’s own private following. The hotel is known for treating guests like royalty. “We have a valet and room service that comes from the same kitchen as the restaurant,” Sheldon said.
Besides Bix Bistro, the property also has the Beignet café as well. We tried this out as well as Bix where we ate breakfast. Both spots had great food.
It was the 1923 when the hotel went from seven floors to eleven. “This increased the size of our property. In 1923 we had 48 guest rooms and now we have luxury apartments on the 10th and 11th floor and 130 guestrooms.”
It was at this time too that the downstairs bar and bowling alley were added. We tried it out one night and it was great fun!
The hotel has had its good and its bad days. “In 1965, Davenport saw the worst flood. We had six feet of water in our lobby. When the hotel was restored, we changed the space and made it open with an airy feel.”
During the 1970’s the original skylight was enclosed and they dropped the ceiling giving the lobby what Sheldon called “a dark dank look”.
When the renovation later occurred, they lost the stained glass window that is so lovely in the lobby and had to replace it. The hotel boasts a spa that Sheldon said the staff are lucky enough to take advantage of.
We stopped at a window that was a bit like a big shadow box. “This is a living time capsule with examples of silverware and china,” Sheldon said.
The area that used to be the pool area has been converted to the main entrance and has a lovely 8′ fire place made of Aphrodite granite imported from Italy that welcomes visitors as they come in the door. The bell boy helps usher guests to the original front desk that is in the same spot as when the hotel opened in 1915.
We were surprised when we learned that the hotel is pet friendly. Sheldon shared a couple stories of what he has seen over the years. “I have seen hamsters, mice, pythons, dogs and a guest that had a 20 year old cat. It is the oldest cat I have ever seen!”
Besides the flood, the hotel caught fire in 2006 and that forced the total renovation because the hotel was condemned after the fire. It was after this time that the new owners took over and restored the lovely hotel. In the back entrance that is now the front entrance was a truly a Baldwin Piano from the 1904 that Sheldon said is tuned to ragtime music that he said, “Can only come from a piano that has aged.”
For anyone planning a wedding or elegant affair, the place it be is the Gold Ballroom. “Cinderella events happen here,” Sheldon said.
In the ballroom, the columns have pineapple, oak, corn and acron deorations. The room has been updated with Internet and speakers making it not only “historic but hip,” Sheldon quipped.
The room can open to the veranda that overlooks the entrance allowing a large group to gather. The hotel offers great security requiring a key card for entry to the elevator, a fact not lost on some of the famous clientle.
Perhaps it is the view from the top floor that brings residents to the downtown location where they can see the world’s largest rotary dam and the Mississippi roll on by. Log onto http://www.hotelblackhawk.com/ to see and learn more about this amazing landmark. If you stay, be sure to take advantage of the historic tour!