The Armstrong Hotel opened on April 7, 1923, on the northwest corner of South College Avenue and Olive Street, to serve the auto-tourists who were flooding westward as cars became cheaper and more reliable and roads more accessible. The Armstrong joined the Northern Hotel (see links at the end of this post) in lodging the tourists and business people visiting Fort Collins. Below is an image of the hotel shortly after it opened.
The Armstrong was built by investor Charles G. Mantz and his wife, Caroline. It was named after Caroline Mantz’s father, Andrew Armstrong, a pioneer builder of Fort Collins. The original plan called for a two-story building but, auto-tourism was growing so fast, Mantz added a third-floor, delaying the opening a few weeks. When it opened, the Armstrong was the tallest building in Fort Collins.
The ground floor contained the public rooms, including two dining rooms capable of seating 182 guests, and a number of retail businesses. The two upper floors sported 40 guest rooms. Below are two close-ups of the retail space.
The lobby entrance to the hotel was originally on the southeast corner of the building, behind the brick column, just as you enter Mugs Coffee Lounge today. You can see the sign for the Billiard Parlor running below the hotel windows but, I think, it was located in the basement of the hotel, accessed by the stairs on Olive Street.
The lonely car in the photograph is a 1922 Buick. Notice the little boy in the passenger seat. A barber shop sign runs below the windows but, again, I think it was in the basement. If you go back to the south end image, you can see the barber pole on the Olive Street side. Smith’s Sweets and what looks like a hat shop complete the retail line-up along College Avenue.
Here is another early photograph of the hotel.
Sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s, an effort began to get the Armstrong Hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two arguments were made for its inclusion in a 1996 cultural resources survey. The first argument was an historical significance argument. “The Armstrong Hotel is historically significant for its direct association with the boom in automobile tourism that reached its zenith in the early 1920s, as well as for its role in the development of the College Avenue commercial district of Fort Collins.” The second argument was based on architecture. “The Armstrong Hotel is an outstanding local example of early 20th century hotel architecture, and it retains much of its original physical integrity.”
Examples of early 20th century commercial architecture are typically modest buildings, with patterned masonry surfaces, parapets at the roofline, and large rectangular windows arranged in groups. You can see in this photograph how well the Armstrong meets the architectural criteria of an early 20th century commercial building.
The effort was successful and the Armstrong Hotel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in August 2000.
As you can see in this close-up, the Armstrong is decorated in flags and banners, probably as part of a July 4 celebration. Smith’s Sweets is gone and Fishback Photos has taken its place. Fishback was a long time Fort Collins photographer, moving into the Armstrong in 1928 or 1929 and staying at that location into the mid-1960s.
This postcard was probably used by the hotel to advertise the Armstrong. Interestingly, nothing is mentioned about the accommodations of the hotel. The postcard is aimed at potential visitors coming to enjoy the Colorado outdoors. The small map features Rocky Mountain National Park and the words say, “A convenient base from which to make one, and two-day mountain and fishing trips.” The back of the card advertises the Armstrong as the “Gateway to Estes Park and [the] Poudre Canon,” and mentions trout fishing and big game hunting. There is no doubt who the Armstrong saw as their customer base.
Two changes are obvious in this image. First, a new sign is in place on the front of the building. It might have been the reason for a new photograph of the hotel. Also, a conical roof has been installed over the corner entrance.
The brick for the Armstrong is laid in a modified Flemish bond, consisting of five rows of red bricks laid lengthwise and a sixth row that alternates lengths of red brick with the ends of black bricks. The black brick is also used on the sills and lentils of the windows and for a decorative strip that extends above the third story windows. You can clearly see the decoration on the next image.
It’s hard to miss the two cars in this photograph. On the left, is a 1957 Cadillac and, on the right, is a 1957 Corvette convertible. Also, the hotel sports another, much larger sign, which advertises “Family Rates.” Another big change is that the lobby door is now in the center of the building, right under the sign, and the Fort Collins Finance Company has taken over the corner position. Also, Fishback Studios now has a neat camera sign and Larry’s Coffee Shop is at the north end of the retail space.
You can see the black brick decorative line across the top of both the College Avenue and Olive Street facades. Also, there are four white cartouches, two on each of the College Avenue and Olive Street facades. A cartouche is a painted or low relief decorative element often used on commercial buildings of this period. Though I haven’t looked at them with binoculars, I’ve read that they have a floral or leaf design.
Except for a short period during WWII, when the building served as a barracks for the soldiers taking classes at CSU, the building functioned as a hotel without interruption. But changes were coming. In the 1950s, the interstate highway system opened and I-25 took a lot of traffic and tourists from College Avenue and, during the 1960s, the city’s business center was shifting to the south, taking some of the hotel’s business customers. The Armstrong’s business dropped off and the hotel began to fall into disrepair. One article in the 1970s said it was “shabby, with dirt cheap rooms . . . and a rough crowd.”
In 1973, the hotel changed names. It became the Empire Motor Hotel. In 1979, it changed its name again and became the Mountain Empire Hotel. It also changed its business model and began renting its rooms as apartments. Below is a Fort Collins Archive photograph of the Mountain Empire Hotel.
By the mid-1990s, the hotel was described as a “flophouse” and it closed in the year 2000. It looked as if the long history of the Armstrong was over but along came Steve and Missy Levinger.
The Levinger’s bought the hotel in 2002 and began an almost two-year renovation project. On the outside, they repointed the brick work and replaced and repaired the windows. All their efforts were aimed at taking the hotel back to its best years. They installed new awnings to match the awnings they saw in historic photographs and they installed a reproduction of an earlier Armstrong Hotel sign. The sign required a special waiver but I’ll cover the sign and the interior changes in Part 2 of this post.
In June 2004, the Levinger’s reopened the Armstrong as a boutique hotel. Below are two photographs of it that I took in 2008.
The awnings are striped and you can see similar awnings in the 1928 photograph by Sanborn and the sign is similar to the sign in the 1936 advertising postcard.
The renovation won several awards, including the Colorado Governor’s Award for Downtown Excellence. Recently the Levinger’s sold the hotel to a group of investors from Jackson, WY and it remains to be seen what the future holds for this wonderful building.
Next Sunday, in The Armstrong Hotel: Part 2, I’ll cover the Armstrong signs and share images of the interior of the building. Also, time permitting; I’m going to update a post I did on an 1877 photograph of Fort Collins by James Shipler. I recently received some information on the image from a Shipler family member that I think you’ll find interesting.
Finally, below are the links to the posts I did earlier on the Northern Hotel.