Fly over at your own peril. From the mountains to the prairies, these pioneering independent hotels are not to be missed.
Sometimes we have a lot to say about a list of hotels. Sometimes the title and subtitle pretty much say it all. You’d think this list would be the latter, but no. There’s very little consensus on what constitutes “the middle of America,” which is different from “the Midwest,” which starts entirely too far east (Pittsburgh? Really?).
For those keeping score at home, we’re looking further west and defining the middle of America as landlocked states from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. This is the actual geographic center, where the people and the activity start to truly spread out. This is also a giant chunk of “flyover country,” a term that’s been criticized for being dismissive of the states it describes. I’ve always viewed it as being dismissive of the travelers who only see those states from above, flying from one coast to the other. They’re the ones who are missing out.
Used to be that, in terms of hotels, this part of the country was a desert of design. But the Brooklyn-style urban renewal that began in the aughts has extended from big cities to smaller ones, filling in the blanks along the way. Terrific hotels with serious personality can now be found throughout this great swath of land. A lot of them are boutique chains, like Kimpton, Indigo, Graduate, and 21c. But many, in the pioneering spirit of westward expansion, are independently owned and operated. These are those.
With America’s seemingly limitless supply of mid-century motels transforming themselves one by one into boutique hotels, the average small town is suddenly many times more likely to offer a stylish and thoughtfully designed place to stay. Salida, in south central Colorado, was just waiting for the arrival of a hotel like the Amigo, a 60-year-old structure redesigned in a minimalist modern-rustic style and a Southwestern accent.
Little Rock, Arkansas
An exquisitely-appointed late Victorian mansion, the Empress of Little Rock is a truly memorable boutique bed and breakfast. Originally the Hornibrook Mansion, this architectural statement rendered in Gothic Queen Anne style was the dwelling of one of Little Rock’s most successful late 19th-century saloon keepers. Opulent and octagonal, the Empress’s individually decorated rooms are joined by unique design flourishes.
Alpine Falls Ranch takes the classic mountain-lodge aesthetic that its name implies and simply executes it with commitment, with verve, and with a rare tastefulness. The landscape, after all, is the real star of this show, and the best approach a hotel can take is to complement it rather than distract from it. It’s a four-season destination, fit for skiing, fishing, biking, hiking, horseback riding, and on and on.
Des Moines, Iowa
It’s a unique name for what’s certainly the most unique hotel in Des Moines — the Surety Hotel is named for one of this century-old building’s historic tenants, and in its new form it pays tribute to the city’s past as well as the artists and creators that are key to its current evolution. The interiors are decorated in a handsome mid-century modern style, with original works by local artists.
Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins is an adventure town, located at the foot of the Rockies. It’s also, of course, a classic Old West town, and by the standards of Old Town Fort Collins, the 1923-vintage Armstrong Hotel is a relative newcomer. In advance of its 100th birthday it’s been thoroughly updated, brought up to modern boutique-hotel standards, with swanky, stylish rooms and a pair of highly regarded dining and drinking venues.
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City’s Crossroads Hotel is a beacon of hospitality amidst a collection of low-rise, historically protected brick buildings that comprise the Crossroads arts district. Its luxuriously appointed guest rooms are decorated in an industrial-chic style, with exposed brick walls and occasional exposed timber beams; a billiards table and a wet bar are the feathers in the caps of the adjoining Pendergast Suite and H.S. Truman Parlor.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
A proper boutique hotel is more than just an ordinary hotel with a bit of extra color applied to the décor — it’s essential to have some personality, a point of view, a style you can’t order from a catalog. Bradford House is what we’re talking about: 36 bedrooms in a well-preserved 1912 apartment house and a modern addition, decorated in a style that’s not just eclectic, but personal.
Emery Hotel’s lobby sets the stage: a novel skylighting system introduces natural sunlight into what Emery’s designers term an urban oasis. Green foliage shimmers in the light amidst classically flavored columns, and high-ceilinged rooms offer a bevy of natural light amidst contemporary furnishings, with some boasting views of the Minneapolis skyline.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Some American ski lodges prize physical comfort above all else, and strive to be as inoffensive as possible in their aesthetics. Others focus most of their efforts on atmosphere and design, and go light on the kinds of extravagances that make a hotel a luxury hotel. What’s rare is a hotel that does both — but Caldera House, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is exceptional in exactly this way.
Fargo, North Dakota
We’re as happy as anyone to see something like the Jasper in a city like Fargo. In a region settled by Scandinavians it’s perhaps not a shock to see a Nordic accent in the design of these handsome rooms and suites, or a touch of the Norwegian/Danish reverence for coziness. Standing some 18 stories above downtown, and containing 125 rooms and suites, it’s a substantial addition to the city.
It’s by the northern entrance to Yellowstone park that you’ll find Sage Lodge, along the banks of the Yellowstone River in the aptly named Paradise Valley. The style is modern-rustic and the comforts are as plush as the landscape is rugged; there’s no end of opportunity for outdoor adventure, plus a luxe spa and a pair of restaurants serving menus centered around meats and produce sourced from local ranches and farms.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
A 1936-vintage motor inn on the legendary stretch of road once known as Route 66 is now El Rey Court, a beautifully reimagined boutique hotel that is, in its new incarnation, one of Santa Fe’s most stylish lodgings. Its original architecture remains intact, and its adobe-and-timber construction is memorable; inside, it’s a very hip, very contemporary mix of local Southwestern color and modern art and design.
If there’s any place in Oklahoma that’s qualified to throw the word “glamorous” around, this is it. Tulsa’s Mayo Hotel, built in 1925 by architect George Winkler, has hosted illustrious guests from JFK and Charles Lindbergh to Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin. Later abandoned, the hotel sat in disrepair for nearly thirty years before major renovations preceded a grand reopening in 2009.
Hotel Deco XV is a rather monumental 1930s Art Deco building at Harney and South 15th Street — hence the XV — in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. But while the structure dates back nearly 90 years, what’s inside is hardly a period piece. It was converted into a hotel in the 1980s and it’s only by virtue of a fairly recent renovation that it is what it is today: Omaha’s first luxury boutique hotel.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
The Charmant Hotel is new, but the building it’s in has been here for generations; it’s a landmark that first opened as a downtown candy factory in 1898. “Charmant,” in fact, was the name of the brand’s premium line of chocolates. Now, after extensive renovation efforts, it’s opened its doors again as a stylish 67-room boutique hotel. Charming, indeed.