Grant will help rehabilitate Motor Mill Inn, creating office space and lodging

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A $125,000 Iowa Rural Heritage Revitalization Grant will help rehabilitate the circa 1870 stone inn at the Motor Mill Historic Site near Elkader, allowing the structure to be used for meeting and office space as well as guest rooms for overnight accommodations. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

A $125,000 Iowa Rural Heritage Revitalization Grant will help rehabilitate the circa 1870 stone inn at the Motor Mill Historic Site near Elkader, allowing the structure to be used for meeting and office space as well as guest rooms for overnight accommodations.

 

Five grants totaling $600,000 were awarded to projects in the state, to help rural communities preserve their history and foster economic development through the preservation of historic properties. The grants are funded by the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service and administered by the State Historic Preservation Office, which is part of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. The department created the grant program last fall, after Iowa became one of just eight states to receive funding through the National Park Service’s Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grants program.

 

The inn project has been in the works since around 2019, said Clayton County Conservation Director Jenna Pollock.

 

“Motor Mill Foundation is pretty good every year about reviewing their goals and strategies—what they want to tackle in the short term and long term plans. The inn has really been sitting there as a project there was some hesitation on, especially after the flooding that occurred in 2008, which went to the top of the first floor windows. Just knowing any sort of preservation efforts of that structure would have to be done with flood proofing in mind, cost wise, I think it had kind of been written off,” she explained. “But now that the other structures are really coming along and doing well in their preservation efforts, we started looking at the inn not just to preserve it, but what purpose could it serve for the community.”

 

The plein air painters who visit Motor Mill, as well as similar groups, often inquire about a place to stay nearby. 

 

“That’s where the retreat center came from,” said Pollock. “We are limited in our ability for overnight accommodations throughout the whole county. It’s been a community need. This is very centrally located, which is a positive for this site.”

 

“We also knew the foundation felt it would be better to have their offices housed out of that facility, just in terms of controlling the traffic flow of visitors that come to the site,” she added. “So we brought Martin Gardner Architecture in for some preliminary ideas.”

 

The lodging use will be a throwback to the building’s original purpose. Constructed around the same time as the mill, the inn housed people if they needed to stay overnight while their grain was being floured. Pollock said it functioned as an inn for around 15 years before becoming a residence.

 

Rehabilitation plans include flood-proofing the main floor and installing new mechanical systems. The Rural Heritage Revitalization Grant is a bit different than a historic preservation grant, which would solely focus on preservation, noted Pollock.

 

“We know we need to make some accommodations. There are certain parts of the structure, like the first floor, we can’t go back to. It had a wooden floor, but we can’t put a wooden floor back in. We know there’s going to be a floor drain, and we’d like a poured concrete floor on that very first level just to make flood cleanup easier,” she shared.

 

The walls will also be bare bones, making any clean up easier. 

 

“The uses of that first floor, we’re keeping that kind of stuff in mind. We don’t want any fancy cabinets or heavy furniture. Everything has to be able to be lifted up to the second floor or moved to another building if we predict the river level is going up,” Pollock said.

 

On the second and third floors, the project will hone in on existing historic attributes that can be preserved. Aside from re-glazing and minimal touch-up on the woodwork, Pollock said all the windows are in relatively good shape.

 

“Everything second and third floor we’ll be trying to re-stain and treat the wood that exists. We think everything is in good shape,” she added. “The limestone itself is also really good. There’s just a small amount of tuck pointing we’ve identified that will have to happen.” 

 

Pollock said the blueprint of the Motor Mill Inn is historically significant as well, and is one of the aspects that can be preserved. 

 

“We really don’t have to make any major changes to the layout,” she stated. “Obviously, when the structure was first built, a lot of the mechanical systems were on the first floor, so we’re moving all that to the second floor for flooding concerns. We’re also adding forced air and an HVAC system to the building, just to alleviate some of the moisture issues that would otherwise threaten the integrity of the structure.”

 

The Motor Mill Inn project will cost an estimated $450,000, including $250,000 for building restoration and a $100,000 contingency. Another $50,000 will go toward architecture fees and $30,000 to furnish the space.

 

Along with the Rural Heritage Revitalization Grant, Pollock said other funding sources are also being pursued.

 

“We are planning to do a capital campaign and hoping to raise $100,000 locally to help us complete the project. We’re pretty optimistic,” she noted.

 

Once completed, the Motor Mill Inn will be available to rent online, similar to county park campsites. Pollock feels it will be a strong asset to the area.

 

“Recreation enthusiasts are going to be attracted to the site,” she remarked. “There’s so much to offer at Motor Mill. So many people just swing through for a tour of the mill itself, and I think this is going to take our tours and interpretation to the next level. It will really offer an immersive experience where people can spend multiple days hiking the trails, watching wildlife, getting on the river—a much more laid-back, this-is-northeast-Iowa type of experience.”

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