Two years ago, the Hotel Maytag in Newton was a wreck.
Its second-story grand ballroom had been divided into 26 different offices covered by a drop ceiling. A hundred rooms and apartments were deteriorating. Rotting sewer pipes were leaking into the movie theater.
“I remember walking into (the ballroom) and pushing up ceiling tiles in these little bitty offices and looking up 15 feet and seeing plaster flaking off the ceiling and pipes running through it,” said architect Andrew Lorentzen of RDG Planning and Design. “It was almost cruel how much it had been damaged and ignored and thrown away.”
That’s a far cry from how the hotel looked when it opened on Newton’s town square in 1926.
It was built by F.L. Maytag, who owned the locally based industrial giant Maytag Corporation, and designed by architect Henry Raeder of Chicago.
Its design was heavily influenced by famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, and its finished brick, terra cotta panels, classical motifs of shields and garlands, and classical columns were both elegant and understated in a way that reflected the community’s small-town values.
“Fred Maytag had traveled all across America and around the world, and he knew that Newton wanted and needed a hotel of this stature,” Newton Community Development Director Erin Chambers said. “So he commissioned Henry Raeder to design it for the people of Newton and the guests who visited.”
When it opened, the hotel boasted 100 rooms, plus fifth-floor apartments, radios in each room, a grand ballroom/banquet hall that seated 366 diners, a coffee shop and the Capitol Theatre. Many people believe it was the first air-conditioned hotel west of the Mississippi River.
As Newton’s main event hub for the next 40 years, it hosted dances, wedding receptions, graduation ceremonies and more. Locals say the legendary actress Judy Garland once performed in the ballroom.
In the mid-1960s, however, the ballroom closed. The hotel changed owners numerous times during the next four decades. The grand spaces were chopped into apartments, offices and commercial space.
“It was really underutilized and not cared for very much,” Chambers said.
When Whirlpool acquired the Maytag Corporation — the heart and soul of Newton — and closed the local factory in 2007, city leaders knew they had to rejuvenate the community through quality-of-life efforts and adaptive-reuse of historic properties.
Around 2015, they turned their attention to rehabilitating the hotel, which looms over the downtown square across the street from the 1909 Jasper County Courthouse.
They first contacted a Cedar Rapids firm to rehabilitate it, but those efforts stalled. Undeterred, they bought the building, retained Lorentzen as the project’s architect, and sold the property in 2017 to former state senator Jack Hatch’s company, Hatch Development Group.
“(Newton’s city leaders) knew they had a building that they had to renovate or take down,” Hatch said. “It was not only sick but it was dying. Pipes were bursting and electrical outlets were beyond repair. It was deteriorating, (but) at the same time they needed it because it’s the largest building in their downtown (with) a theater, restaurant and office space.”
Hatch secured $16 million for the rehabilitation, including support from the city of Newton, Main Street Newton, and historic preservation tax credits from state and federal agencies, plus his own personal investment.
Once they started digging into the project, Hatch and Lorentzen knew they were going to be doing a total gut job — replacing the HVAC, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, plaster, ceilings, flooring and sprinkler system.
“But you could see, once you started yanking down tiles and opening this thing up, this is a spectacular space,” Lorentzen said. “That’s what always got us excited about this. We knew that if you scrape off 30 years of neglect, this thing is going to be amazing. This is a great building.”
Lorentzen said the building’s construction quality exceeded his expectations with reinforced concrete in the beams, columns, ceilings and floors, and PyroBlock fireproof walls.
“This building was built to last and endure,” he said. “(It’s) constructed to last not 100 years, but maybe 200 or 300 years with maintenance.”
He also praised the building’s interior features, citing the first-rate quality of classical plaster detailing, moldings, wood wainscoting and terrazzo floors in the ballroom, dining room, lobby entrance and movie theater.
“It has a level of detail that was high but not opulent — an accessible level of finish, not luxurious, but appropriate to the time and place,” he said.
So far, work crews have rehabilitated the Capitol II Theater, which is now open. The Midtown Café re-opened on Easter weekend. Eventually, the building will also house 45 apartments and other commercial businesses.
They expect to complete much of the work in time for the 2019 Preserve Iowa Summit to be held June 6–8 in Newton. But they said it will require the sustained effort of hundreds of craftsmen, trade workers and others who have been on the job site for the last few years.
“Those people are going to have to continue to do that for thousands or more person-hours to complete this job,” Lorentzen said. “In a few months, it will be done, and for the first time everyone who’s worked on it will walk through and be like, ‘Wow, we did something amazing here.’ ”
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs