Retro-revival of Highlander Hotel sheds light on historical past

The Clarion Highlander Hotel will undergo a “retro revival” and be renamed the Bohemian after renovations.


Emily Wangen

The Clarion Hotel and Highlander Conference Center is seen on Wednesday. The hotel is set to undergo $5 million in renovations in December.

Rin Swann, News Reporter

A typical night at the Iowa City Supper Club in the 1970s consisted of records playing in the background, warm and hearty food, and retro interiors. With the renovation of the Clarion Highlander Hotel, the whimsical scene of this era is coming back.

The Highlander Inn and Supper Club first opened in 1967 as a popular supper club destination, with a 90-room hotel and 1973 ballroom addition.

In the many years since, the now Clarion Highlander Hotel has operated at the intersection of Interstate 80 and Dodge Street. However, a recent contract by Angela Harrington will see both the name and interior renovated.

The renewed boutique hotel will be renamed the Bohemian with a retro-revival that gives the rich history of the hotel a platform.

Harrington is the owner and operator of Hotel Grinnell, a hotel renovated from a junior high school originally built in 1921 in Grinnell, Iowa. It was there that Harrington transformed classrooms into hotel rooms and a gymnasium into a ballroom. Certain nods to the schoolhouse history remained, such as a blackboard in every room.

This acknowledgment of history is something she intends to continue at the Bohemian, Harrington said.

“At the Bohemian, there will be a record player in every room and a vinyl lending library in the lobby,” Harrington said. “So those kinds of special touches that really tells the story of Iowa City in the 70s, is going to be really, really fun.”

The entirely cosmetic reconstruction, Harrington said, will cost a little under $5 million including acquisition and is paid for through a bank loan and private equity. Renovation will begin Dec. 20 and will encompass the lobby, guest rooms, and courtyard.

The old supper club will be leased to another tenant, while the 450-person ballroom will remain part of the hotel.

During the renovation, the hotel will remain open with one quarter of the guest rooms being renovated at a time. The interior is slated for completion by May 1, while the exterior may be completed over the summer.

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“I think they kind of understand the market and that they’re a niche product. They’re catering to a different kind of traveler and I think they understand from what they’ve done in Grinnell how to attract that traveler in a crowded market,” said Iowa City Economic Development President Mark Nolte.

Iowa City has seen a recent boom in hotel supply compared to demand, with hotel supply at 19.4 percent and demand at 4.4 percent in 2017, according to a press release from Hotel Grinnell. The Bohemian avoids adding more rooms to the market by renovating existing ones, the release suggested.

“In a way, they’re not new rooms being added to the inventory, they’re just going to be upgrading the place which will make it more appealing for certain,” said Iowa City Economic Development Coordinator Wendy Ford. “It won’t change the supply. It will change the quality of the supply, but how much of an effect that has on the whole picture remains to be seen.”

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