Revamping Tradition for a New Audience
Fort Collins' Armstrong Hotel gets a facelift
A landmark of Fort Collins since 1923, the Armstrong is the city’s oldest functioning hotel. For being so historic, though, there’s nothing stagnant about this place. After slowly deteriorating in the 1970s and closing for a few years in 2000, it was revived by Steve and Missy Levinger. Now under relatively new leadership after being purchased by Crystal Creek Capital in 2017, the Armstrong is making strides in a new direction to serve a different type of clientele. This kicks off with a full property restoration lasting until April 15, to feature a lobby expansion as well as an interior refresher to mirror the history and atmosphere of Fort Collins. We sat down with General Manager Aaron Black to talk about the Armstrong’s evolution in the heart of Old Town, and how it manages to remain an icon.
COLORADOBIZ: What prompted this restoration?
AARON BLACK: From the outset, Crystal Creek Capitol felt there was a lot of potential in the Armstrong and also that there was further evolution that could benefit the business, and it was prepared to take those steps. The entire market is evolving in Fort Collins, and to stay current, it was necessary to look at how things have changed and what we could change to stay relevant.
Where the previous owners did the best they could to resuscitate the Armstrong after its dormant period, the type of traveler has really changed and become more sophisticated over the last 15 years. That was recognized by the market as a whole, with the building of the upscale Elizabeth Hotel about three blocks from us, and certainly gives us great confidence as owners that the world clearly perceived that the upscale traveler wasn’t being a well-served as they might be in Old Town.
CB: Who have your clientele grown to be over the years?
AB: People choose the Armstrong because they want to get a flavor of Fort Collins that they can’t get in any other way but by being down in Old Town—putting on flipflops and walking outside to enjoy the businesses around the building. That skews towards a person who’s having more of a sophisticated traveling experience, who wants to have access to something that’s a little bit special.
CB: What are the three biggest changes that potential customers can be on the lookout for?
AB: Starting out 93 years ago has certain physical limitations, so there were some basic enhancements that were key that bringing the hotel forward 15 years. The previous owners put it together on the fly and wanted to make it feel homey and casual, but more sophisticated travelers who put a premium on being downtown are going to want Wi-Fi, fridges, coffee makers and to feel like they’re in a special environment. We’re enhancing a lot of rooms because their structure came without closets and upgrading various touchpoints and amenities that give it a little more of a plush, luxurious feel.
Next, we took back some of the ground floor footprint to create a much more comfortable, functional lobby experience. The owner of the Chocolate Café decided it was a good time to wind down his business, and that started a bunch of balls rolling: Muggs took over that space and gave us back the space they would no longer be using, which we’re using for admin offices.
The current hotel vogue is to have tiny rooms and then a shared common space that lets travelers co mingle. At 93 years old, we’re already blessed with small rooms, so we can program that extra lobby space and give it local life and flavor by bringing in parts of the community, like proprietors or musicians to give people opportunities to showcase themselves. It’s a very enthusiastic, energized time — all the tenants are wanting to capitalize on what we feel the future of Fort Collins is going to be.
CB: What role did the hotel play in the development of its area over the years and what role does it play now?
AB: The Armstrong has reflected the community in different ways over its 95 years. The fortunes of the hotel probably mirrored the growing pains of Old Town, where parts of the city thrived while other parts suffered. When I talk to people who can speak to what Old Town was like 20 to 25 years ago, they say it was a roughshod place and that downtown had lost its luster, but clearly the leadership of the city realized that you’re only as strong as your heart is and refocused on taking care of the vibrant center of town. When you have an Old Town district like ours, which is such an authentic reflection of many older towns in the US and the West, you realize you have a precious commodity, something you can leverage to create energy.
About 15 years ago when the Levingers re-opened the Armstrong, it was kind of an eclectic, artsy area — it hadn’t yet hit its stride in terms of restaurants. But businesses and commerce have realized there’s an energy and vibrancy to being in the hearts of these towns, so when you have companies in Old Town reach national prominence, like New Belgium and Otter Box, but they see the importance of staying where they began, you start to see the market change. It’s getting more sophisticated, and that’s what this evolution of the Armstrong is preparing us to address.
CB: What is the Armstrong’s draw for people today? What part of its history or vibe does it capitalize on most?
AB: If you can say that a building has spirit, I’d say the Armstrong’s is a comfortable confidence. When you’ve been in business 95 years, a lot of things have changed around you, but you’re still strong and going, a little more worn but smarter as well. It’s kind of an icon, not in the sense of being unattainable or standoffish, but having been continuous through the history of town.
CB: Your slogan is “Bringing the 20s to the 2020s.” Being an outstanding local example of early twentieth century hotel architecture, how much of the Armstrong’s original structure and decoration is trying to be kept intact through the restoration process?
AB: That’s the piece that we understand we benefit from exclusively, so everywhere we can, we maintain the elements that are unique but still functional. The tin ceilings, leaded windows, our attractive terrazzo floor in the lobby that was hidden for years, all are pieces that make us unique and historic. Those are pieces we want to enhance to make sure everything is set for another 93 years.
As we find elements that have been damaged, we have to decide whether it’s something we repair and bring to the twenty-first century or leave even if it’s less than functional and say that this is part of us: we’re 90 years old and we’re a little worn, but worn is comfortable. Maybe we need those little chips and cracks in the floor because it speaks to who we really are — we’re a wonderful neighborhood hotel in a town where the train runs right through the center, and we’re not trying to hide what’s unique to us.