Making the Grade

Entrepreneur converts old school into luxury hotel

In 2009, the self-described ‘serial entrepreneur’ Angela Harrington arrived in Grinnell, Iowa, wanting to reinvent herself. After the economic crash the previous year, the Denver, Colo., native moved to Grinnell and accepted a position with the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, her first marching orders from the board required tapping into her entrepreneurial past and would result in one of her, and Grinnell’s, proudest accomplishments.

“In small towns, the community development, chamber of commerce and convention and visitor’s person is all the same person – which in Grinnell was me,” Angela said. “My first task was to establish an events center that could support weddings, conferences and conventions. It was all on me.”

That directive resulted in the award-winning and nationally recognized Hotel Grinnell. But the road to making the property what it is today was anything but easy. It took eight years to secure financing, one for tax credits and another year of construction. During that decade, it would be understandable if Angela had stepped away or given up. But the thought never crossed her mind.

“I would say that I am tenacious with a capital T,” Angela said. “Once I set my mind to something, there has got to be a way.”

With the help of the community and Iowa state government leaders, Angela was able to create solutions to all the problems she encountered along the way, something she doesn’t think would have been possible in other states or big cities.

“It is easy to make connections in Iowa. Easy to get to know city council members or city managers,” she said. “In my case, I was able to make a difference and be impactful because there weren’t a lot of barriers to reach the people who could help.”

Such help and support lead to the opening of the first woman-owned hotel in the state, which quickly grew to be a popular destination hotel filled with rich history and reminders of its past. Built in 1921, the building in which Hotel Grinnell is housed served as a public school until 1978 when it closed and became office space for the city. For the next 30 years, the building was rarely used and began to deteriorate.

Hotel Grinnell

When Angela arrived, she saw the building as a diamond in the rough and had a vision of turning it into a luxury hotel – something she believed Grinnell deserved.

“It felt like the hotel was the missing piece,” she said. “Grinnell had all of the trappings of a big city. Despite all of the setbacks, I had my sights set on bringing a great hotel to this town and was determined to figure it out.”

Angela did just that and the rest, as they say, is history – something that makes the hotel one-of-a-kind. There are intentional nods to the building’s old school days in every room. These details include hotel registration forms printed on notebook paper, wooden red apples and guest rooms with chalkboards. The hotel’s on-site bar and patio is named The Periodic Table, the ballroom floor mirrors a basketball court and some furniture is made from old lockers.

In addition to the scholastic past, Angela wanted the hotel to be sexy. Staying with the theme, men’s neckties are used as “do not disturb” signs and guests receive room key card sleeves that resemble hall passes.

Her favorite thing about the hotel is that not one of the 300 pieces of art is duplicated in the building – a curation she jokingly said “nearly killed her.”

In the end, Angela said all the hard work that stemmed from her first ask back in 2009 was worth it.

“All of the awards we have won, both locally and nationally, have helped put Grinnell on the map,” she said. “It felt like the recognition has given legitimacy to the cool factor that is Grinnell. It gave brick and mortar to a place people all over the world could come and stay.”

Angela has since extended her passion for merging history with hospitality to other communities across the state.

In Iowa City, she revived a beloved Supper Club and transformed it into the Highlander Hotel, a full-service resort complete with the area’s largest indoor pool. In Des Moines, she’s giving a former Motor Lodge a new life as the MoLo hotel, which will maintain its mid-century modern vibe and Hollywood glamour. And, in Newton, she’s spearheading the reopening of the Maytag factory’s doors as the Wringer Hotel, a boutique hotel that celebrates the building’s industrial legacy.

Published June 5, 2024

Additional Stories

The best move you’ll ever make

The life you’ve always wanted is in Iowa. What better time than now to start living it?

Connect with an Iowan