When Sandra McDonald bought the place, the plaster was falling, electric wires were rotting and her dream of restoring the Argo Hotel one room at a time was turning into a nightmare.
“It was an 'oh my gosh,'” she said of the overwhelming undertaking.
That was nearly 20 years ago, before McDonald transformed the Crofton, Neb., hotel to its original purpose. The Argo celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012.
And while it's not the oldest hotel in the state — several others were built in the 1800s, according to the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism — the Argo offers an unusual trip down memory lane because it was renovated to resemble how it looked when originally built.
The Argo's story starts when builder Nick Michaelis attended a Crofton town board meeting to inquire whether city leaders thought Crofton needed another lodging option. It already had one called the Castle Hotel.
City leaders thought there ought to be another hotel for the busy railroad town and gave Michaelis the go-ahead for the project, volunteering to furnish water and sewer systems.
By mid-March of 1912, he completed the two-story rectangular building with a red brick facade and a flat roof. It served mainly passengers and railroaders that traveled on a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad line that went through the town several times a day.
The Argo was advertised as “a modern hotel with electricity” because many buildings at that time didn't have it, McDonald said. It cost $1 for a night of lodging and $1.50 for a meal.
“It was very busy here and some people said their fathers or grandfathers slept on the floor because the rooms were full,” she said.
Michaelis owned the hotel until 1922, according to the Argo's application to the National Register of Historic Places, and ownership changed hands twice until 1924 when E.A. Hoig and his family bought it and renamed it the New Meridian Hotel.
During Hoig's ownership, a young Leslie Brooks lived at the Argo with her grandparents. A picture of Brooks, who was a Hollywood movie star during the 1940s, still adorns the Argo's menus today.
After 16 years in business, Hoig sold it to Joe Wiebelhaus for $10,000 and it was converted into a sanitarium — the only medical facility in the area. The sanitarium was a significant employer with 15 workers on its payroll.
Sometime during the early 1960s, Dr. Charles Swift, a local physician, purchased the Argo for his private home and clinic. He divided the main level in half, turning one side into living quarters and the other into examining rooms. When he died in 1992, it sat empty.
McDonald, a Crofton native who at the time was living in Arizona, and her late brother Jerry Bogner bought the Argo in 1994 for $12,000. They had just nine months to shine the diamond in the rough bright enough for the grand reopening of just the restaurant set for New Year's Eve.
The reopening of the Argo Hotel, which can accommodate about 26 people, didn't happen for six more months.
“Structurally, it was sound as a rock,” she said. But the interior was in bad shape.
They knocked out a wall Swift had put up in the lobby. They peeled back a ceiling he had lowered on the main floor, exposing the original tin ceiling. They removed and sanded the doors back to their original state, and a fire marshal installed a sprinkler system.
“It was unbelievable what we had to do to get this place back together again,” McDonald said.
Today, with hundreds of people floating in and out of its oak double doors each year for dinner or a night's sleep, a hundred years looks good on the Argo.
Its preserved history is notable, too. The Argo is one of only three second-generation “longitudinal style” hotels in northeast Nebraska. The two others are in Thurston and Dixon Counties.
Nebraska, with 29 hotels on the National Register of Historic Places, has a lot for its population, said Jim Gabbert, a historian with the National Park Service. In comparison, he said, the state of New York has 46.
The Argo's past is a big part of its appeal, Crofton Mayor Wendell Strom said.
“You'll see cars there from all over,” he said, noting that the Argo helps draw people into Crofton who may be in the area spending time on the nearby Lewis and Clark Lake. “It's definitely good for Crofton.”
And though the city's growth has declined since the Argo was built — its estimated population then was about 1,000 and today it's about 750 — Strom said the community has shifted from a railroad town to one where the largest employers are farm equipment dealer Kayton International Inc. and the schools. Crofton's main street has a number of restaurants, a grocery store and lumber yard.
“It may be a small community, but the business community here is thriving,” Strom said.
McDonald said she keeps up by choosing a project each year to tackle. Last year, she converted some of the smaller shared back bedrooms into suites. They cost $10,000 a piece. She estimates she's poured more than a half a million dollars into renovating the building.
“They're expensive to do,” she said, “but it makes me feel good that it's done.”
As the Argo enters its second century, McDonald said she has plans for its future, noting that she'll continue taking reservations for the main dining room Thursday through Saturday nights and bigger groups by reservation.
Her project for 2013 is to focus on the downstairs speakeasy lounge. It's currently used for private parties and a nightclub, and McDonald wants to transition it into a date-night destination where couples and groups can have both late-night dinner and drinks.
“The hotel through the years has been a metamorphosis,” she said. “It keeps changing. We keep changing and perfecting the old building.”
Twenty-nine Nebraska hotels are on the National Register of Historic Places. Some, like the Argo Hotel, have been restored and are functional, while others sit vacant or may have been torn down since listed. The hotels and the year built:
» Argo Hotel, Crofton, 1912.
» Arrow Hotel, Broken Bow, 1928.
» Blackstone Hotel, 302 S. 36th Street in Omaha, 1916.
» Clarke Hotel, Hastings, 1914.
» The Commercial Hotel, Verdigre, 1900.
» Flatiron Hotel, 1722 St. Mary's Ave. in Omaha, 1911-1912 (originally for commercial/office use; converted to hotel within two years.)
» Frederick Hotel, Loup City, 1913.
» Golden Hotel, O'Neill, 1913.
» Harder Hotel, Scribner, 1901.
» Hartington Hotel, Hartington, 1917.
» Hendee Hotel, Cozad, 1879.
» Hill Hotel, 509 S. 16th St. in Omaha, 1919.
» Hotel Capital, 139 N. 11th St. in Lincoln, 1925.
» Hotel Chadron, Chadron, 1890.
» Hotel DeFair, Hyannis, 1898.
» Hotel Norfolk, Norfolk, 1926.
» Hotel Wilber, Wilber, 1895.
» Hotel Yancey, North Platte, 1929.
» Hotel Yancey, Grand Island, 1917-23.
» Keystone Hotel, McCook, 1922.
» Lincoln Hotel, Franklin, 1918.
» Lincoln Hotel, Scottsbluff, 1917-18.
» Miller Hotel, Long Pine, 1895.
» Paddock Hotel, Beatrice, 1924.
» Pavillion Hotel, Taylor, 1887.
» Phelps Hotel, Big Springs, 1885.
» Prague Hotel, 1402 S. 13th St. in Omaha, 1898.
» Sanford Hotel, 1913 Farnam St. in Omaha, 1916-17.
» Wheat Growers Hotel, Kimball, 1918.
Source: National Register of Historic Places
Greater Nebraska hotel facts
>> The state has 610 lodging facilities outside of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The count includes 439 hotels and motels, 118 bed and breakfasts and 53 guest ranches.
>> Three lodging facilities were selected for Heritage Nebraska's 2012 Destination Places, Hidden Treasures and Fading Places. They were Bennington's Oft-Gordon House, Broken Bow's Arrow Hotel & Suites and Crofton's Argo Hotel. The compilation chose museums and historical sites that serve tourists with high-quality interpretation, services and offerings of special events in the state.
>> Rowse's 1+1 Ranch in Burwell was selected as one of the 50 premier ranch vacations worldwide by Top50Ranches.com for the past two years and is recognized by the Dude Ranchers Association as a top ranch vacation destination.
>> River Inn Resort in Brownville is the only floating B&B in Nebraska. It's on the Missouri River.
>> Fourteen lodging facilities have been certified by Greener Nebraska, and 11 of those are outside of Omaha and Lincoln. They are Arbor Day Farm and Lied Lodge & Conference Center and and Whispering Pines Bed & Breakfast, all in or near Nebraska City; Burchell's White Hill Farmhouse Inn in Minden; the Cabin at Honey Creek in Peru; Crystal Key Inn Bed & Breakfast in Newman Grove; Eagle Canyon Hideaway in Brule; Fairbury Executive Suites in Fairbury; Green Acres Motel & RV Park in Red Cloud; Our Heritage Guest Ranch in Crawford; Sandhills Guest House Motel in Atkinson; and Sleep 4 Le$$ in Sidney.
>> The Lied Lodge & Conference Center has earned the Code of Sustainability recognition from the International Association of Conference Centers each year since 2009. Receiving the association's highest platinum-level certification for 2012, Lied Lodge adheres to 55 environmental tenets in water conservation, recycling programs, air quality and sustainable food sources. It also has won the American Hotel & Motel Association's Enviro-Management Award. Sources: Nebraska Tourism Commission and Heritage Nebraska
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