Jeff Popenhagen wants those who come to the Amana Colonies to stay longer, and he’s pretty confident Hotel Millwright is exactly the way to do it.
“We used a preservation strategy many historic (facilities) have used,” explained Popenhagen, the Amana Society’s director of marketing, during a press event Wednesday. “When a function of a building becomes less optimal, we look for a way to find a business that can come in and bring the building back to life.”
Although the hotel has been operating since early in the month (and the textile mill more than 100 years before that), the facility celebrated its grand opening Oct. 21, the fruition of a conversion years in the planning.
Below an event space mill workers operate machines during the grand opening at Hotel Millwright, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in Amana, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
Remodeling a mill
“The history of weaving in the Amana Colonies goes all the way back to Germany,” said David Retting, the executive director of the Amana Visitors Bureau.
The Community of True Inspiration, the religious group that founded the Amana Colonies, first arrived in New York state while fleeing religious persecution. After a time in Buffalo, they moved further west, bringing the tradition of wool weaving with them and building what is now the Hotel Millwright as a textile mill in 1855.
Although the edifice has been largely repurposed, its original intent has not been lost.
On Wednesday, while dozens celebrated the hotel’s opening on the second floor of Amana’s historic weaving building — a 7,000 square foot event center called The Merino Loft — textile workers were still using the first and third floors of the building.
“There’s a lot of synergy between the hotel and the mill,” said hotel general manager Nicole Warner.
Although the need for what was once 13 buildings has diminished over the years for a variety of reasons, new blankets, bags and other materials are still being made. It’s in those portions of the building still dedicated to weaving that bed scarves and other accent pieces for the hotel are made.
Those walking the halls of the hotel will see a variety of equipment from its past life. Things such as fans, drills and other industrial-era machinery furnish the space, displaying its history. Historic photos — both inside and outside the guest rooms — indicate what function that part of the building served in bygone days.
The lobby, for example, used to be a boiler room, and the Electric Thread Social Club is where the physical mill itself met the water.
Although all 65 rooms at the pet-friendly hotel are unique, there are five different types of accommodations. These room options extend from the standard rooms (the Amana King and the Amana Two Queen) to the Tapestry and Craftsmen Suites, respectively — a pair for furnished three-room spaces located in the same building separate from the hotel proper.
The rest of the hotel boasts a number of indoor and outdoor spaces for renting events as well as a fitness center, a restaurant, two bars and other amenities.
“It is truly repurposed,” Warner said.
The ‘lifeblood’ of the Amana Colonies
Although the Amana Visitors Bureau was founded in 1965, Retting says the collection of German colonies relied on tourism much earlier. According to Retting, people came the Amana Colonies for tourism even in the early 1900s.
“(There would be) trainloads of people coming from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City to see this different, communal style of living,” he said.
Through the first third of the 20th century, the Amana Colonies operated as a church-led commune. It was in 1932 — a point referred to by Amana residents as “The Great Change” — when the community opted to adopt a more capitalistic model, leading to the creation of the Amana Society.
“To say that tourism is a lifeblood of this community is probably an understatement,” Retting said. “We have approximately $20 million worth of revenue brought in by tourism to the colonies every year … Without tourism, we would be looking at a very different place here in the Amana Colonies.”
Now that the Hotel Millwright has been completed, Retting projects at least six more years of expansion of various activities in the Amana Colonies.
These projects include bike trails reach to Iowa City and Marengo — which should complement the hotel’s planned bike rental program — and a general focus on eco-friendly outdoor activities that highlight the history of the Amana Colonies in a similar fashion to the Hotel Millwright.
“The customer (we have now) is different than the customer we had in 2000. And that customer is different than the customer we had in the ’70s and ’80s,” Retting told those gathered on Wednesday. “People want more festivals; they want cultural events.”
The expansion of Amana’s festivals has already occurred. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Amana Colonies have introduced Autumn in Amana, a series of ongoing weekend events created in part to spread out the typical Oktoberfest crowds.
Although Oktoberfest is planned to be reincorporated next year, the series spanning eight weekends is one Retting believes could be continued into the future.
Whatever comes next, Amana organizations plan to work with the Amana Heritage Society so as to help highlight the history that makes their community unique.
“We want people to rediscover the Amana Colonies,” Popenhagen said, “and I think this is going to be the vehicle to do that.”
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at [email protected] or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.
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