Suite Dreams: Midwest Boutique Hotels
Life is too short—and each destination too unique—to settle for generic lodging. Here’s how 10 hotels in the region are raising the bar (or building one on their roof) and wooing travelers.
If you're traveling for meetings or the kids' softball tournament, you'll take the basics in a hotel: safe location, clean linens, maybe a pool and free waffles in the morning.
But then there are the nights you want to remember, when you're not merely staying somewhere during travel, but traveling somewhere for the stay.
Enter the boutique hotel, a brand of hospitality that bucks chain-hotel predictability with artful details rooted in the place you're visiting. In these hotels, you'll rarely have the same experience twice, even at the same location. The Hotel Vandivort in Springfield, Missouri, for example, has 32 different layouts among its 50 rooms. In an age where everyone's buying into buying local, boutique-style hotels are catching on. More than 10 have opened since 2015 in large and midsize Midwest cities.
Most boutique hotels represent a splurge, but you're buying an extra level of homey, quirky or luxurious flair. On-site amenities may include bicycles (sometimes skateboards), farm-to-breakfast-in-bed cuisine and rooftop lawn games with craft cocktails. Styled decor taps local artists and history. The buildings themselves often revive historical properties. It all carves out a sense of place, as connected to the land as the baker down the street.
If a getaway where you may not even want to leave your room sounds right for you, keep reading to discover some of our favorite spaces across the Midwest.
The Charmant Hotel La Crosse, Wisconsin // 67 rooms (thecharmanthotel.com)
Savor free truffles at check-in inside a retired 1898 candy factory. The Charmant embellishes its legacy with a 24-hour gourmet sweets counter, framed candy tins decorating guest rooms and an elevator shimmering like a golden Willy Wonka ticket.
Relics of the Joseph B. Funke Candy Company breathe life into the interior with exposed brick walls and maple hardwood floors bearing scars from the production days. Even the breakfast menu sticks to the sweet theme, featuring a delicious grapefruit brûlée topped with sugar and torched.
The Charmant overlooks Riverside Park downtown on the Mississippi River. Find local eats, museums and galleries surrounding the hotel, or drive five miles east for sunrise or sunset at Grandad Bluff, a 600-foot mesa with a tri-state vista of the Mississippi River Valley.
Hotel Lincoln Chicago // 184 rooms (jdvhotels.com)
The Lincoln curates a quirky and colorful stay with staff sporting 1950s bow ties and furniture made of dresser drawers. Select a lake or park view with rooms and suites beside Lincoln Park. You can even treat your pooch with a swanky stay. The front desk keeps a drawer full of biscuits and offers pet-friendly guest packages with doggie turndown service (dog bed and water/food bowls waiting in the room) and a pup-happy meal.
Graduate Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, Michigan // 204 rooms (graduateannarbor.com)
This shrine to academia in the University of Michigan's hometown captures Wolverine pride with charm and depth. Tweedy accents merge Ralph Lauren with Bo Schembechler (the storied U-M coach waves at guests on an outdoor mural). Approach the front desk made of old wooden filing cabinets, lounge on plaid couches and jog your memory with formulas such as E=mc2 scribbled on blackboards. Room keys look like student IDs from famous Michigan alumni, including Iggy Pop, Desmond Howard and Gilda Radner, who all took classes across the street.
Hotel Vandivort Springfield, Missouri // 50 rooms (hotelvandivort.com)
The lobby restroom in this fancy spot has garnered a social-media following for flattering selfies. A fixture around the mirror diffuses light in a way that makes everyone look fabulous. More than 1,500 glamorous shots on Instagram include a #HotelVandivortBathroomSelfie hashtag. The glam extends to guest rooms with walk-in showers and an elegant-vintage aesthetic. Design themes play off the history of the revitalized 110-year-old Masonic temple the hotel occupies. Fittingly, it's located at the heart of a downtown that boasts its own recent renaissance. Pubs and every brand of cafe (from European-style to small roastery) fill the neighboring blocks. Walk next door to the historic Landers Theatre for live music or an indie film or stroll a mile east to Hammons Field, home to a Cardinals' minor-league baseball affiliate.
Brewhouse Inn and Suites Milwaukee // 90 rooms (brewhousesuites.com)
Beer claims center stage, literally, at the Brewhouse, where guest rooms and suites surround six enormous copper brewing kettles. This hotel transformed a historical Pabst Brewery complex into a steampunk-industrial-chic destination, where all suites have a small kitchen. Drink and eat in your room with The Beer Baron package, which provides a six-pack of PBR. (It also includes valet parking and tickets to the nearby Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion.) The home-turned-museum highlights deep connections between the Pabst family and Milwaukee history and culture. Sample local brews and food at Jackson's Blue Ribbon Pub under the same roof as the hotel.
Chicago Athletic Association Hotel Chicago // 241 rooms (chicagoathletichotel.com)
A boutique rehab at this historical men's sports club added five bars and restaurants with cushy guest rooms above Michigan Avenue. Liven up an evening of revelry in the Game Room bar, where fair-themed bites accompany shuffleboard, chess, billiards and an indoor bocce court. In Milk Room, guests slide into a pocket-size bar limited to eight people with a reservation and down payment. On the rooftop sits Cindy's, a see-and-be-seen hub centered on food, drinks and panoramic views of Millennium Park and Lake Michigan. For finer fare, Cherry Circle Room showcases the culinary mastery of Land and Sea Dept., which operates several lauded Chicago eateries. If you must leave the hotel, the famous "bean" sculpture sits just steps away across bustling Michigan Avenue.
21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati // 156 rooms (21cmuseumhotels.com/cincinnati)
Guests find themselves at the center of a contemporary art museum and perhaps unwittingly contributing to exhibits. Lines blur between art installation and play thanks to 4-foot yellow plastic penguins that staff and visitors move around the hotel. Don't be alarmed if one shows up inside your guest room or waiting outside a door. Other exhibits rotate, with some broaching adult themes-as expected with contemporary art-in a two-story museum surrounding the lobby. A wood-fire gastropub, Metropole, tops the city's lists of best restaurants. Wander less than a mile down Walnut Street to find a string of museums, food and drink stops, plus green space on the banks of the Ohio River bordering Kentucky.
The Kimpton Journeyman Hotel Milwaukee // 158 rooms (kimptonjourneyman.com)
Cozy seating scattered around fire pits defines The Outsider rooftop bar. This nook on the ninth floor features a birds-eye view of the Historic Third Ward, with lawn games like cornhole, shuffleboard and oversized Connect Four. Staff limits the crowd size via a rope line at the main-floor elevator. On street level, Tre Rivali feels more like a prime staple of fine dining than a hotel restaurant. Its list of house-made specials covers lamb chops, braised octopus, sorbets and warm Greek donuts. Guests will find life-size ceramic dog statues (and yoga mats) adding character to their rooms. And for local exploration, the hotel stocks each guest suite with a customized leather bag (locally made) with an itinerary of neighborhood highlights. Walk to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Lakeshore State Park and the Milwaukee Public Market, all within a mile of the hotel.
The Kimpton Schofield Hotel Cleveland // 122 rooms (theschofieldhotel.com)
It's only fitting that a stay in the heart of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame city would include a guitar. Request one at the front desk and carry it to your room or serenade your friends in the lobby. Cleveland history is woven into the hotel fabric with elements like sock-monkey-and-argyle-sweater carpet design honoring the garment history of the downtown core. Today a booming theater district, Progressive Field and Restaurant Row define the area.
Le Méridien Columbus, The Joseph Columbus, Ohio // 135 rooms (lemeridiencolumbus.com)
One of the world's most active art collectors opened this sophisticated space in early 2015. Multiple floors feature artwork from the personal collection of local businessman Ron Pizzuti, plus commissioned pieces by Ohio artists. Hotel guests can show their key cards for free access down the street at the hotel owner's larger gallery, The Pizzuti Collection, in Columbus' Short North Arts District. In the hotel, an open staircase that feels like it belongs in an art gallery leads to an impressive view above the lobby's marble floor, hand-laid in a pattern reminiscent of an M.C. Escher print. Guests can enjoy treatments in stone and marble private spa suites.
Stay Like a Pro
Get the most from your hotel stay with these tips from industry expert Bruce Claver, former luxury hotel operator.
Pick up the phone. A chat with a human before you even arrive can pay off in unexpected ways at small hotels (like landing a suite that's "unavailable" online but suddenly opens up with a cancellation).
Tell your story. "If you're coming in for a special occasion, mention it," Bruce says. A good luxury hotel tracks things like anniversaries or birthdays in a guest profile (sometimes with details as specific as when and how you take your coffee). Special occasions can land a bottle of champagne or cheese spread in your room. A more spacious suite with a view is common. "A hotel would be negligent if it was someone's anniversary or birthday and they didn't upgrade them when they have the vacancy," Bruce says.
Kindness is king. Learn names and treat staff as you would a friend, especially the concierge. This can set you apart as more than just another customer and tap into the most attentive service. "Some staff will even give you their personal cell phone number," Bruce says.
No ask is too big. Need a different pillow? The hotel may have a pillow menu. How about a razor? They will likely deliver one to your room if you call down and ask. Bruce has watched luxury hotel staff run out the door to Walgreens to buy an electric teakettle for a guest in need. "That's what sets them apart as a boutique from chains and bigger hotels."
Tipping the scales
Tip appropriately, says Cheryl Rosner, founder and CEO of Stayful, a discount booking app and online concierge for boutique hotels: "It communicates what you value." Tip the concierge in advance, especially before a special request: $5 to $10 per service. For others: bellboy ($1 to $2 per bag); housekeeping ($2 to $5 per night); bartender ($1or $2 per drink/cocktail); and 20 percent for spa services.
View 50 other enticing Midwest getaways at midwestliving.com/lodgings.