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Becoming a destination

Auditorium revival adds hotel to Solon. Palmer House Stable and Literary Hotel to provide unique package.

SOLON– “You have to offer an experience that people will talk about years later,” Al Wells said.
And Solon is ready to step up to the plate.
Wells, owner and operator of the Palmer House Stable, and partners Bill Wittig and Bruce Hudson, are knee-deep into the renovation of the abandoned St. Mary Auditorium in Solon.
When complete later this year, the Auditorium Lofts and Commons project with its second-floor hotel, will add another missing element to the community.
“We have an authentic stable,” Witting said. “It’s original. And now we are going to add the hotel to it, that is authentic and original and unique. You put those two things together and it’s really going to play well.”
The historic auditorium at 130 S. Dubuque St. was built in 1915 but has been unused since 2006 and the construction of the new St. Mary Catholic Church and its addition.
Wells, Wittig and Hudson, as Prairie Equity Group LLC, are converting the structure into a mixed-use development with The Literary Hotel (with accommodations for 32 people in 11 rooms), ground level commercial and 10 apartments on the third floor.
The original maple flooring from the auditorium will be featured in The Literary Hotel’s guest rooms, which also utilizes the exposed brick of the original structure.
“Now every room has a different feel,” Wittig said.
The partners went through three different financial studies of the project before coming up with the idea for the hotel, which will work hand in hand with the various events offered at Palmer House Stable.
“When we look at the revenue side of the projections, the motivation to have the second floor be a hotel, that was all driven by the stable wedding events and the potential of other conferences and events, not just weddings,” Wittig noted.
Since 2013, the Palmer House Stable hosted over 235 weddings, Wells said. Based on a $15,000 total wedding package, he estimated around $3.5 million volume in business to Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Solon vendors.
“Which is kind of impressive for Solon,” he noted. “We’re bringing anywhere from 120 to 200 people to experience Solon– that’s over 37,000 people since 2013.
“And not only do they experience it, they use the restaurants and services here, even the hardware store.”
The vast majority of the weddings, upwards of 90 percent, are for people outside of town, he added. Many have a link to the University of Iowa. Some are from Illinois and like the reasonable pricing, the central location and the proximity to an airport, he observed.
The guests come from all over the world, Wells said.
“We’ve had Indian weddings, South Korean weddings, and people have come from those countries and have been here,” he said. “It’s a very unique situation, I think.”
The Stable hosts about four marriages a year in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and just as many for dog lovers.
“We’re open, everyone’s welcome,” Wells said. “Plus, we’re rustic, that makes a difference.”
Previously, wedding parties used the Heartland Inn in Coralville for its free shuttle service, but more recently the Stable struck up a partnership with The Bohemian, formerly the Highlander Inn, on Highway 1 in Iowa City.
The option of The Literary Hotel, along with conference space built into the ground floor of the Auditorium Lofts and Commons, will only broaden the appeal of the stable, Wells said.
It’s opened up smaller, intimate weddings on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with four-hour packages people are jumping on for 2022 bookings, he reported.
“They’re ready to reserve practically the whole second floor (of the hotel) for two nights,” he said.
Wells thinks the business will also feed off Solon’s growing popularity as a destination.
The Literary Hotel will have a variety of different room styles to fit the needs of people coming to spend time in Solon, with beach bikes and kayaks to rent.
Prairie Equity Group is working with Good Vibes Café to provide a coffee kiosk for the hotel and to cater a bicycle-friendly carryout meal for a day at Lake Macbride beach.
There will be no restaurant in the building.
“We don’t need one,” Wells said.
“You can walk a block and have whatever kind of restaurant you want,” Wittig added.
The amenities Solon offers will be a benefit to attracting not only customers for the hotel, but residents for the third-story loft apartments.
The 10 two-story apartments will be a lot like the loft at the stable, with the living room, dining room, kitchen and half-bath on the main level, and the bedroom and bath upstairs. Two units will offer a bedroom on the main level.
The ground floor of the Auditorium Lofts and Commons will house the hotel lobby and front desk, along with men’s and women’s bathrooms and four commercial spaces for lease.
There will also be a cooperative working space with conference room, desks, mail and phone service, which can be used by hotel guests or rented by the public.
“So, if a small business is operated out of their house right now, if they want professional appearance– mail, phone and conference room to meet– we can provide it,” Wells said.
The building will also provide a landscaped courtyard with gas grill and seating for use by guests and residents.
Wittig estimated the demolition is almost 80 percent done.
The elevator pit has been dug and poured, the underground sewer and water upgraded, and all of the underpinnings of the existing column footings are done, he reported.
Crews will soon be erecting new second-floor columns and third-floor structure steel, and as soon as the weather gets a little warmer, trenches for the underground sewer and water will be poured, he said.
Woodruff Construction, of Tiffin, is the general contractor for the project.
Wittig and his partners would love to be done in August, but the contractor is concerned it will be more like mid-October. It’s hoped they can meet in the middle with a phased opening of the first floor and hotel by Sept. 1.
Steps to the Dubuque Street entrance of the building forced the main entrance lobby to Short Street, but also facilitated the placement of the elevator and kept the exterior intact.
Wells found photos of the original Dubuque Street entrance, and the developers have revised their plan to match it historically.
It’s just one more detail that keeps the connection with the community by updating and repurposing a significant building in the history of Solon.
A responsible developer needs to balance profits with environmental and social dividends, Wittig suggested.
“Long term economic impact and prosperity depends on our ability to preserve and improve the quality of life and health of the environment within our communities,” he observed.
A project the size of Auditorium Lofts and Commons requires a substantial team of engineers, consultants, construction crews, investors, architects, accountants and partnerships with city and state government, Wittig said.
“There’s this monumental chain of people that you build and they’re all important,” he said.
Without a grayfield award from the Iowa Department of Economic Development and participation in the City of Solon’s tax abatement program, the project may not have moved ahead, he said.
The value of the property will increase from $300-400,000 to the $4 million range, he said, and the tax burden could have throttled cash flow without the added investment.
As it is, Wittig expects the auditorium to be a building he shows off to his grandchildren.
Wells knows the project will attract more people to town for weddings and other events and he’s looking forward to the adventures those families will have.
“It’s the craziest business that I’ve run into,” he said. “Amazing stories. Every wedding we’ve had has just been an absolute pleasure.”