Highlander Hotel

Hotel Renovation Iowa City / 2020

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When Angela Harrington bought the old Clarion Hotel and Highlander Conference Center in Iowa City, IA, she wanted to transform it into an urban resort with an independent attitude and a luxurious feel. That posed a significant challenge with an aging venue that Google described as a “straightforward business property featuring modest quarters, a casual restaurant & meeting rooms.”  Recognizing the importance of the hotel’s roots in the community, Harrington decided to restore its original name, and give it a unique, bohemian chic look that celebrates the 60’s and 70’s elegantly. One of her most successful strategies for increasing the hotel’s elegance factor was to replace the flat mineral fiber acoustic ceiling tiles with new decorative thermoformed ceilings from Ceilume.



The original Highlander Supper Club opened in 1967, and its success led to expansion into a full hotel in 1971, with a banquet hall added in 1973. Apart from hosting vacationers and business travelers, the venue also served the local community as the site of many family dinners, weddings, parties and other life events. Its gradual decline over the decades hadn’t erased those memories or the place The Highlander had in the hearts of people who’d grown up in Iowa City and were now raising their own families there.



Angela Harrington wanted to make the hotel into a luxurious getaway for both far-flung guests and locals alike, and give it back its old place in the local culture.  It would have a style of its own, appropriate to the “independent, freethinking mindset” she perceives in Iowa City. Once again named The Highlander, it was not to be a throwback to the 60’s, but more a celebration of it, accented by period psychedelic artwork on the walls and eye-popping op-art objects among the furniture, with a logo of a hand flashing the peace sign.  However, with the local hotel market already well developed, acquiring funding for another hospitality project was not easy, and she had to stretch her creativity and entrepreneurial skills to achieve her vision, making a $5 million renovation budget look and feel like much more.
The idea of getting more decorative value from the ceilings came early on, as Harrington began renovation of the ballroom. Like most of the public spaces of the hotel, it had a suspended T-bar grid ceiling filled with flat white mineral fiber tiles. “I wanted the ballroom to be really elegant,” she recalls, “classy and also classic. The existing ceiling was horribly stained, because the ballroom roof had leaked terribly. Figuring out what the heck to do with the ugly, horrible grid ceiling led to me to thinking about a coffered look.” 



After searching online, she saw Ceilume thermoformed panels and contacted the manufacturer. Very soon, she had samples to try out. “It’s a really great product,” Harrington says, “and they really walk you through it very quickly, ‘make sure you get this type of tile for that kind of grid.’ They were just amazing. It wasn’t just the price, that’s just the baseline, but they made it so easy.”
It was early 2020, and the Covid-19 pandemic had delayed manufacture and shipment of a wide array of goods coming from China, but Harrington learned, to her delight, that Ceilume’s panels were made in California and readily available. “In just a few days I had tiles on their way to me. An amazing experience, just fantastic. I wish they made headboards and beds.”
The ballroom ceiling is a dramatic array of black Ceilume Westminster coffers, divided into large square sections by flat, white soffits. The color scheme echoes the black chairs and white tables of the room below it. Where the previous, nearly featureless white ceiling felt oppressively low and endless, the recessed expanses of dark coffers increase the sense of height and apparent volume of the room, adding air and grandeur to the space.



After solving the ballroom problem, she remembers “I wondered if I could do that with the pool.”  The property boasts the largest hotel pool in Iowa City, surrounded by a wide deck. It is the physical centerpiece of the hotel, with two floors of guest bedrooms opening onto it on two sides, and the Snack Shack on the third side with a “penthouse” guest suite above it. The pool’s vast open area – about 70’ x 70’ with no support columns – had a suspended grid ceiling. “There were a lot of holes in it, it was cracked and there were breaks. It was gross,” Harrington comments. “It had a WalMart feel. It was like the least sexy pool experience you could imagine.” 
Replacing the flat ceiling with the bubbly motif of white Roman Circles thermoformed panels seemed like a natural to her, especially since Ceilume panels are impervious to water and highly resistant to staining by pool chemicals. However, the cost of putting scaffolding over the pool to install them would have added $50,000 to the price-tag. Instead, Harrington found an innovative, affordable installation method when the fourth wall of the pool area was opened up to install large garage doors. A bucket lift (“a giant bucket lift,” says Harrington) was drawn up outside the building, reaching its bucket in through wall openings and up to the ceiling over the pool.
The lobby bar was remade into the Highlander Lounge, with a white bar top, wood tables, armchairs in leather and rich, deep colors, and a ceiling of Ceilume’s black Westminster coffer panels, a funky and relaxed atmosphere for chilling with brightly colored drinks. The hotel’s workout room was brightened with white Roman Circles panels in the ceiling, echoing the pool area.



Above the pool’s Snack Shack is the hotel’s premiere accommodation, the luxury Penthouse. To give it that extra measure of elegance, Harrington upgraded the ceiling with white Westminster coffer panels, the only guest room featuring a luxury ceiling.



The renovated hotel re-opened for the July 4th weekend in 2020, celebrating its new status as an independently owned hotel. Despite the pandemic, it became extremely popular, transforming from the lowest-rated Iowa City hotel on Trip Advisor to it top-rated venue, with 94% Excellent reviews. The pool is the biggest draw, with locals buying day-passes for a pool-and-room to celebrate birthdays or just have a day-trip. The décor and ambience figure prominently in customer comments, an unusual factor in online reviews, indicating the success of Harrington’s individualist design and attention to detail that went right up to the ceiling.

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    When Angela Harrington bought the old Clarion Hotel and Highlander Conference Center in Iowa City, IA, she wanted to transform it into an urban resort with an independent attitude and a luxurious feel. That posed a significant challenge with an aging venue that Google described as a “straightforward business property featuring modest quarters, a casual restaurant & meeting rooms.”  Recognizing the importance of the hotel’s roots in the community, Harrington decided to...

    Project details
    • Year 2020
    • Work started in 2018
    • Work finished in 2020
    • Client The Highlander Hotel
    • Contractor Owner acted as general contractor
    • Status Completed works
    • Type Swimming Pools / Fitness Centres / Hotel/Resorts / Bars/Cafés / Interior Design / Building Recovery and Renewal
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