Northern Hotel, Part 2: The Place to Stay in Fort Collins

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.

The Northern Hotel c. 1925

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.

North College Avenue and The Northern Hotel c. 1930

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 Northern Hotel c. 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 Northern Hotel c. 1960

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.

The Northern Hotel 1981

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.

The Northern Hotel 2016

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.

Northern Hotel, Part 1: “Modern in Every Respect”

There has been a hotel on the southeast corner of College Avenue and Walnut Street since 1879. At first it was the Commercial Hotel, which moved there from Mountain Avenue and Mason Street, apparently to be closer to the train terminal. When the long time owner of the Commercial Hotel, D. M. Harris, died in June 1904, a group of investors bought the hotel and began to renovate it. Their goal was to make the hotel “modern in every respect.” They renamed it the Northern Hotel and the brick, three-story, 75 bed hotel opened in the fall of 1905. Here is what it looked like circa 1913.

Northern Hotel, c. 1913
Northern Hotel, c. 1913

In this photograph, College Avenue is still dirt (it will be paved in 1916), it takes a bridge to get across the gutter, the ladies are all wearing dresses or skirts, the men and boys are wearing hats, and the road is shared by a horse on the left side, bicycles in the center, and an automobile at the right edge. Cars and horses shared College Avenue from 1902, when Judge J. Mack Mills brought the first automobile to Fort Collins, a 1902 Curved-Dash Oldsmobile.

Here is an enlargement of the bottom-right portion of the image.

Possible Curbside Gasoline Pump
Possible Curbside Gasoline Pump

While it isn’t perfectly clear, I believe the object to the left of the automobile is a curbside gasoline pump. When automobiles first arrived in Fort Collins, they got their gasoline from stores that kept barrels of gas in their basements. The driver would take a pail, dip it in the barrel, and pour the gas into the car’s tank. Obviously, this caused many accidents. Soon gas pumps became available and what better place to put them than in front of their stores, right at the curb.

As more and more cars came into the city, the curbside pumps started to cause traffic backups and service stations began to take their place but curbside pumps remained a downtown feature for many years. I’ve looked at a lot of Fort Collins street scenes and this is the first curbside pump I have spotted, so “Yea!”

Here’s a different view of the Northern Hotel.

Northern Hotel, c. 1916
Northern Hotel, c. 1916

The road is still unpaved but there are a lot of cars. Because there are so many cars in the photo, I’d guess that this photograph was made a few years after the first image. Of course, it’s also possible that some car related event was happening that got our early drivers out in force. The Northern would have made a good gathering point for a road rally of some kind. It’s impossible to count the cars, certainly there are a dozen or more, and one horse and wagon going by.

Northern Hotel Main Entrance, c. 1916
Northern Hotel Main Entrance, c. 1916

This enlargement shows the main entrance and the Northern Hotel sign. The Northern Hotel entrance portico and the deck above it would remain a fixture in downtown Fort Collins for some years. I like building signs and I’ll show how the Northern sign changes over the years in Part 2 of this post.

Northern Hotel Sign, c. 1916
Northern Hotel Sign, c. 1916

The Northern Hotel also had a painted sign on the south end of the building, with the word “Northern” in script. It is just visible on the right side of the main photo. Here’s an enlargement of it.







Finally, let’s look at two color images of the Northern Hotel.

College Avenue, c. 1907
College Avenue, c. 1907

This street scene, with the Northern on the left side, is probably the earliest of the images I’ve shown. The trolley has arrived and one of the big Woeber electric cars, provided by the Denver & Interurban Railroad, in 1907 is center in this image. Since there are so few automobiles in the photograph, I’d guess it was taken right around 1907.

The second colored image was made years later.

Northern Hotel, c. 1918
Northern Hotel, c. 1918

The road is paved and the new lights on College are in place. The new street lights were installed when the paving was done in 1916. There were many discussions between the business leaders and the town fathers on which lights to install. The decision was between the 5-globe post shown here and a single bulb post. One gave more light and was considered more aesthetically pleasing, the other was cheaper to buy and to run. In this case, beauty won.

This particular postcard has a postmark of 1918. I would guess that this is about the date the image was made. It also has this short printed description on the back:

“Northern Hotel, Fort Collins, Colo. Built out of red pressed brick and fully modern. This is one of the best hotels in Northern Colorado.”

In Northern Hotel, Part 2, I’ll show how the Northern expanded to four floors and then to an art deco style.