An earlier post, Northern Hotel, Part 1: “Modern in Every Respect,” covered the hotel from when it opened in 1905 until approximately 1920. This post will take the landmark hotel, at Walnut Street and College Avenue, through four renovations, to what it is today.
As told in the previous post, The Oil Bonanza of the 1920s, the discovery of oil near Fort Collins, Colorado in late 1923 brought a flood of investors and speculators into the city. Hotel rooms were in short supply and on January 16, 1924 the Northern began an enlargement of the hotel. The biggest change was the addition of a fourth floor but the most exciting change may have been the addition of two elevators to the facility.
Below is an image of the Northern after the fourth floor was added, probably taken shortly after it was completed.
While researching our book, Fort Collins: The Miller Photographs, Barbara Fleming and I had a chance to interview Bette Anne Martell. Her father, Ace Gillett, at one time owned and operated both the Northern and Armstrong Hotels in Fort Collins. Bette Anne grew up in the Northern Hotel. She told us a story about the elevators. It seems that Bette Anne’s mother thought she had found the perfect man for her daughter. When the couple were in the elevator, Bette Anne’s mother turned off the power, giving the couple some time to get to know each other. It worked and Bette Anne Gillett married James Martell.
Here is a street view of the Northern, with four floors. By this time, Fort Collins was an automobile city. Though it is hard to see, the last building on the west side of College Avenue is a gas station. You might be able to see the driveway into it. Gas stations had come to the main street of Fort Collins.
My guess is that this image is a little later than the first photograph of the Northern, maybe from around 1930. I’m sure that someone who is a car-person could date this image pretty closely. For me, the big difference is the addition of the large vertical “Hotel” sign on the Northern. Below is a comparison of the signs in the two images.
For years the Northern Hotel billed itself as the premier hotel in Fort Collins. In 1936, the owners decided the building required a face lift and it was remodeled in the art deco style that was popular at the time. In art deco, rectangular forms were arranged in a geometric fashion, broken up with floral or geometrically patterned accents. Below is an image of the building circa 1943.
The result was an updated, fashionable show piece for Fort Collins. The portico was gone from the College Avenue entrance and a new vertical sign was in place. The hotel continued as the place to stay in Fort Collins. Then the hotel received three blows that were crippling.
First, after World War II, train traffic slowly declined. Passenger train service to Fort Collins ended in the early 1950s. The prime reason for the location of the Northern Hotel was gone but the hotel continued thanks to the increasing automobile traffic on 287, the main north-south route through Colorado.
The second blow was the interstate highway system and the completion of I25 in the late 1960s. The interstate reduced automobile traffic in downtown Fort Collins but the Northern still kept going. The third blow was a fire in 1975 that left the two upper floors unusable. Once again, the hotel was remodeled, trying to maintain the marketability of the commercial first-floor. This renovation introduced a continuous row of arched openings as shown in the 1981 image below and continued to house popular restaurants and other retail businesses.
Finally, in the 1990s the Northern closed its doors. In March 2000, the Northern Hotel was classified as a “certified historic structure,” since it contributed to the Old Town Fort Collins Historic District. The certification made a renovation eligible for tax credits. Between the tax credits, grants, and other funding, construction was underway in September 2000. A lot of work was done inside the building to get the upper floors usable for senior housing but the key to the successful renovation was making the commercial areas on the first floor attractive to potential businesses.
A big decision was to restore the lower levels to the 1930 period design. It was a great decision and had immediate marketing appeal. Below is a recent photograph of the Northern, complete with the return of the 1930’s signage.
I’m sitting in the Starbucks in the Northern Hotel as I finish this post. It seemed appropriate. I didn’t live here in the 1990s but I’d guess that tearing the Northern down was a viable option. Saving this wonderful but expensive building obviously required a number of businesses and organizations to work creatively together. As one who loves the old buildings of Fort Collins, I appreciate their efforts.