IOWA: Art and antiques amid the Iowa cornfields

Roberta Ahmanson grew up in Perry, Iowa, home of Hotel Pattee. She and her husband renovated and modernized the hotel.
(Kathryn Wilkens)
Special to The Times

The registration clerk was asking me a question. Her face blurred as my eyes locked onto the oil painting behind her, an image of a woman holding a child in her arms and standing in front of a red barn. I was surprised to find such beautiful artwork in a hotel lobby.

“I’m sorry. What did you ask?” I asked, refocusing on the clerk.

“Would you prefer down pillows or fiberfill?”

I chose down.

“Firm or soft?” she asked.

“Soft,” I replied, smiling.

Genuine art and my choice of pillows: This was shaping up to be a great stay.

The clerk handed me a welcome letter signed by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson Jr. I recognized the names of the multimillionaire philanthropists because I had lived in Southern California for many years.

But what connection did the Ahmansons have to a small Midwestern farm town, I wondered.

I had chosen the 40-room Hotel Pattee because it was billed as a “historic country inn” in the slice of Iowa my husband, Ralph, and I were traveling through in October on a road trip from California to Michigan.

I’d never heard of Perry, population 7,633, in central Iowa, but it wasn’t hard to find. After exiting Interstate 80, we drove 20 miles north through farmland, past acres of corn stubble and entered the quiet town.

The hotel was equally easy to find. The handsome brick Colonial Revival building decorated with colorful flags from many nations dominates downtown Perry.

Inside, a huge floral display and an Arts and Crafts interior greeted us. The lobby was a melange of textures: tile, wood, hammered copper, pottery and Persian carpets. Leather Stickley-style furniture surrounded a stone fireplace.

Our room wasn’t ready, so Ralph headed to the Inter-Urban Lounge, named for one of the trains that used to pass through Perry. But antsy from hours sitting in the car, I set off to explore the hotel.

I strolled around looking at the art as if I were in a museum. I was drawn to the photo-realistic watercolors of Steven Kozar and the rural scenes by Gary Ernest Smith, especially “Celebration of Life,” which shows a man standing in a freshly plowed field as he plays a violin. He looks happily out of place — like this world-class hotel in a tiny Iowa town.

The hotel, opened in 1913 by brothers Harry and William Pattee, had fallen into disrepair by 1993 and was put up for auction. Enter the Ahmansons, who bought the property for $38,000. Why? Roberta Green had grown up in Perry before becoming a journalist and meeting Ahmanson.

The couple invested $10 million to restore and modernize the hotel, which they reopened in 1997 as a monument to Perry’s history. It reflects the Ahmansons’ love of art: The works of more than 70 artists grace rooms, hallways and stairwells.

Sweetheart, get me rewrite

WHEN I called for a reservation a few weeks earlier, most rooms were booked. “How about the Telital Room?” the clerk had asked. “It’s decorated to look like a newspaper office.”

“Fine, whatever,” I had replied.

I wasn’t expecting much as we picked up our key cards and walked upstairs to the third floor, admiring more paintings and sculptures along the way.

But the room was a delight with its black-and-white color scheme, roll-top desk and lamp made from a 1920s-era telephone. Around the walls ran a frieze of clippings from the Telital, Perry High School’s newspaper, where Roberta had learned the tenets of journalism. The nightstand held a manual typewriter, and a high shelf on two sides of the room displayed vintage cameras, a radio and a fedora. A trench coat hung on a hook near the door; it wasn’t cloth but re-created in wood, sculpted by California artist Rene Megroz.

Through the open windows, we could hear the flags snapping in the breeze. The Telital is one of a dozen rooms with a view of Willis Avenue, Perry’s main street. Most of the others face a sculpture garden.

After an elegant dinner downstairs in David’s Milwaukee Diner, we returned to the room and found that the bed had been turned down and weighty terrycloth robes had been laid out.

We noticed details we hadn’t before — a CD player, data ports in all three telephones and twin sinks in the spacious bathroom. “Did you see the recessed nightlight by the toilet?” Ralph asked. “That’s a nice touch. And our ice bucket has been filled.”

I sank my head onto the soft down pillows and perused a book containing photos of the other rooms, imagining which I’d choose for our next visit. Maybe we’d sleep in the Quilt Room or the Needlework Room, which are filled with handmade art, or the Alton School Room as a nod to our teaching days. Maybe the Welsh or Cream ‘n’ Eggs rooms because I liked the cheerful yellow-and-white decor.

Others might choose the Japanese, African, Mexican, Bohemian, Russian or American Indian rooms to match their heritage or taste in decor.

For Arts and Crafts admirers, there’s the Gustav Stickley Room and the William Morris Room with furniture by English woodworker Christopher Vickers. There’s even a Marching Band Room, decorated in red, white and blue with a headboard made of bell lyre, saxophones and tubas welded together by Laguna Beach sculptor Rob Brennan.

One of the six suites is the New Orleans-inspired Louis Armstrong Suite, so named because the jazz trumpeter stayed at the hotel in 1954.

Next morning, I went downstairs early and chatted with Kevin Waters, who was staffing the front desk. Waters switched on lights in the cozy library so I could settle in with the Des Moines Register. Surrounded by books and art, I felt at home.



Midwest nostalgia


From LAX, Continental, United, American, America West, Northwest and Midwest Express have connecting service (change of plane) to Des Moines, Iowa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $259.

Perry is about 45 miles northwest of Des Moines. A hotel shuttle from the airport can be reserved for $50 one way.


Hotel Pattee, 1112 Willis Ave.; (888) 424-4268 (515) 465-3511, fax (515) 465-3909, . Six suites, $249-$309; 11 rooms with king-size beds, $179-$209; 13 rooms with two queens, $169-$199; and 10 rooms, each with one queen, $139.


David’s Milwaukee Diner, (515) 465-7370. Menus change weekly and include lobster, steak, chicken, duck and salmon. Main courses $18-$39.

— Kathryn Wilkens