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An Icon Restored: A Night at the Hotel Blackhawk PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Devin Hansen   
Tuesday, 11 January 2011 14:34

I’d read the reviews of the restored Hotel Blackhawk – all the fawning and fanfare. So I wanted to see if the fuss was warranted or just a bunch of civic cheerleading. My 15th wedding anniversary seemed like the perfect excuse for a stay, along with the discounted $79 room rate for locals that ended the next day on December 30. I also have an empathetic respect for people that put their heart, mind, and money into restoring dilapidated buildings, as I had done once with an abandoned cinema. I believe Amrit and Amy Gill of Restoration St. Louis deserve a lot of credit for taking such a risk with the Blackhawk, especially after others had forsaken the downtown-Davenport landmark.

So I went to the Hotel Blackhawk about an hour before my wife was to arrive, enough time for a few drinks at the “belly-up” bar in the lounge. It was designed to encourage folks to stand rather than sit by removing the chairs on the side of the bar that opened up to the lobby and having sparse seating along the other three sides. And I have to admit: This magical feng shui worked. It was open and welcoming, and its proximity to the check-in allowed me to sip on a Templeton Rye while watching the line diminish.

I tried to get our room key before my wife showed up, so I could surprise her with a bottle of Brut and a dozen roses in the ice bucket, but I didn’t have the credit card that we used to reserve the room; it was in my wife’s purse. Half-joking, I asked woman behind the desk if they took cash. She ignored me. I don’t know if it was my lack of credit, the bag filled with wine bottles clinking at my side, or my insistence on getting a room with a hot tub at the discount rate, but she made me feel like some kid on prom night trying to scam a room. I will say she was the only one during our entire experience that raised my hackles. The rest of the crew was very cordial, even when the experience was occasionally below expectations.

So waiting at the bar for my wife and her plastic, I brushed off the rudeness and admired the grandeur of the lobby – my bourgeois side right at home, and my indigent side feeling like royalty. The last time I’d seen the place was in 1999 as a young writer for the River Cities’ Reader when I toured the deteriorating building for a possible photo shoot. I remember the flaking paint, rodent droppings, and rusty toilets. (I was not surprised in February 2006 when there was a meth-lab fire on the eighth floor.) Now it has been resurrected with meticulous care and a $36-million attention to detail. It has giant glass revolving doors that even a grandmother could handle, posh chairs surrounding a wooden table with an extravagant flower arrangement, golden sconces pushing light across the freshly painted walls and arches, and the two crowning jewels of the lobby: a custom-made skylight depicting images of Iowa, and a one-piece rug that covers nearly the entire lobby floor. It reminded me of the Peabody in Memphis or the atrium of a Caribbean cruise ship.

Still waiting for my ever-late wife, I ordered another rye and perused the menu. Wild boar? Lamb-shoulder ravioli? Wild-mushroom dumpling? The selections were comparable to any other fine-dining restaurant in the Quad Cities, and I definitely plan to go back just to eat. But for that night we needed a sure thing, and that’s always Le Figaro in Rock Island.

My wife finally arrived, and after a quick exchange of cards and flowers, we checked in with a different front-desk clerk who turned out to be much friendlier. We were given two plastic keys, only one of which worked, and got into our seventh-floor room. Inside we found a bed too soft for reality, a huge high-def television, a hot tub, a tiny television built into the bathroom mirror, a glass-walled shower big enough for four, and a balcony with a stunning view of the river, as well as other people’s guest rooms. (I strongly suggest closing your curtains at night.) There were also the requisite coffee maker and small bottles of shampoo, but only one towel per person. The two robes made up for it, though – plush and worthy of stealing.

We had a great dinner at Le Figaro, and then headed back to the Blackhawk for dessert. We found a couple seats at the bar and ordered the only dessert they had that night, a strange, ugly creation that neither of the two bartenders could accurately describe. One called it a chocolate terrine with cinnamon cream topping; the other said it was angel-food cake with an ice-cream center and chocolate ganache. To me, it looked like an ostrich egg covered in motor oil, but whatever it was, it tasted great.

We ordered a couple nightcaps and toured the rest of the hotel. Our first stop was the famous Gold Room, and based on its reputation, we thought we’d be walking into some grand ballroom worthy of a Viennese Waltz. What we found was a room with intricate, beautiful architecture but a size that was surprisingly small – anti-climatic even. I’d seen bigger halls at the local VFW. It had been described as a destination for “princes and presidents,” and I can only imagine their disappointment.

We then toured the first floor and warmed ourselves by the modern gas fireplace near the entryway. On the second floor, we stumbled on some corporate meeting rooms that were outfitted with the proper technology and comforts. We rode to the top floor to admire the view, which was east down the Mississippi and stretched for miles. Had the bowling alley been open, we would have tossed a game, but it was still under construction. And we never did find the heated pool, the fitness center, or the game room, as the signage was still lacking – another early oversight that we expected would be quickly fixed

Back at the room, we ordered room service for our late-night munchies, and despite all the exotic options on the menu, my wife wanted French fries. I reluctantly agreed, and they were delivered quickly and warm. The next morning’s breakfast, on the other hand, took more than 90 minutes to arrive – without a discount, just a quiet apology from the woman carting in our order. We had a Swiss-cheese and mushroom omelet that would have been good if it were remotely warm and home fries that were soggy, but the bacon was Iowa good, with the thick, white fat seared a perfect pink.

We reluctantly left the Blackhawk, our brief reprieve from the reality of three kids and deadlines. We stepped back in time for a night without losing all the creature comforts of the 21st Century. Fifteen years of marriage deserved a special night, and despite the minor glitches, I feel we got it. We could have had a similar experience at Jumer’s Casino & Hotel, but it was neat to revel in the history of a place where so many people had exchanged their vows and celebrated romantic milestones. It had its faults, but nothing that can’t be fixed. We’re lucky to have this icon resurrected. Let’s hope it stays that way.

For more information on the Hotel Blackhawk, visit

Devin Hansen is a freelance writer from Rock Island, currently finishing a biography of former U.S. Representative Lane Evans. His Web site is

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