The Old Oaks Hotel
BY: RACHEL WUMKES
A common hobby amongst Americans today is taking the old and making it look new. Antiques are refurbished into modern pieces and placed inside sleek homes. Turning trash into treasure by upcycling used items has become like to game to the avid ‘do it yourself’ type. People obsess over the ways they can reuse items, transforming them into beautiful masterpieces to be enjoyed by the next generation.
In my job as a blogger for the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, I ramble often about progress. In fact, my end-of-the-year blog post utilized the word as a way to categorize 2022 for our community.
Progress is a term tossed about as a way to encourage change. We all know people who balk at the idea of change. New things can be scary. We become set in our ways, comfortable with how things are at the moment.
And we like it.
But without change, there can be no growth. No advancement. Not even an inkling of becoming the best version of ourselves. Just because something changes doesn’t always mean it’s for the worst. It’s simply a part of life.
Moving on, however, doesn’t have to imply we’ve forgotten where we came from.
The Snyder family in Clear Lake has embraced the need for change. They saw the potential for big things in and around the Surf District and decided to move forward. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. This family-owned business has a heart for Clear Lake history and the commitment to making things happen.
Thankfully, they weren’t alone in their progressive thinking. Mayor Crabb, Scott Flory and Creighton Schmidt with the City of Clear Lake stood behind their idea to enhance the Surf District area. The Surf Board of Directors (Jeff, Paul, Shane & Laurie) hopped on board with the project as well, encouraging the Snyder family to keep moving forward.
They just had to figure out how.
“With the Surf having recently been designated on the National Register of Historic places, we began to wonder how we could improve it,” stated Chelsy Snyder Anderson. “We soon realized there wasn’t much we could do beyond restoration of the building, so we shifted our focus to improving the area surrounding the Surf.”
And so, they purchased the Hilltop Hotel and Fiddler’s Lounge in the Surf District.
Their plan? To create a boutique hotel; a true destination for music lovers all over the world.
The Snyder family, however, isn’t necessarily ‘going into’ the hotel business. The North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum, the nonprofit which operates the Surf Ballroom, will own the hotel and a third party will manage and operate it.
“In the early planning stages, I pushed for something similar to a Hard Rock Hotel but with a Surf vibe,” Anderson said. “When the Destination Iowa grant became a possibility, my family and the Surf crew decided to put a piece of Clear Lake history back in its place.”
It’s a different kind of progress. One that takes it all the way back to the 1800s.
To the roots of Clear Lake.
Built in 1893, the Oaks Hotel was a premier summer resort in Clear Lake until it was destroyed by fire in 1922. It stood four stories high with 40 rooms available for rent. In a time where life was simpler, the Oaks Hotel was the lap of luxury for overnight guests at the Lake.
Once the Snyder family determined the Old Oaks Hotel would be reimagined in its original location, everything seemed to fall into place. Nothing forced, just natural.
The best part of having a Clear Lake family doing the demolition and rebuild, is the care and consideration that went in to every aspect of the project. Nothing was simply “tossed aside” or demolished.
Anderson shared how they went through every “themed” room of The Hilltop to salvage items with architectural significance. The furniture is shrink wrapped and stored until it is ready for restoration before being placed in the new hotel. Several truckloads of other random items recovered. Dishes, silverware, kitchen gadgets, blankets, shampoo and conditioner were donated to the Women’s shelter in Mason City. Other valuables in great condition, but not needed in the new hotel, were auctioned by I-35 Auctions.
“The previous owners of The Hilltop and the Allen family took great care of the hotel,” Anderson stated. “It was easy to see how it was booked solid summer after summer!”
Once demolition and any legal processes between the City and the Surf are squared away, Snyder Construction hopes to break ground in Spring of 2024 on the 45-room hotel. By the end of 2026, the hotel should be ready for its first guests.
So, what can we expect?
Well, an “official” name hasn’t yet been designated, but Andersen says they will likely keep The Old Oaks Hotel. With the 3rd party manager/operator, it’ll be called “The Old Oaks Hotel by ____.”
Expect an homage to yesteryear the moment you step foot in the lobby. It will definitely take you back in time to the late 1800s, but with a modern twist. As they re-imagine what the hotel would look like in today’s day and age, they plan to integrate momentous features from the original Old Oaks, mixed in with historical nods to the Clear Lake Chautauqua.
We are all shaped by our history. Each root buried deep into the ground holds a tiny piece of who we are.
The same holds true for our community.
Families have enjoyed The Hilltop for years. It was truly a place to relax, reminisce with friends and family, and just enjoy lake life. Being able to walk out of the rooms and take a dip in the pool, walk to a restaurant, stroll uptown, enjoy a concert at the Surf, or buzz over to the lake. I mean… how perfect? The Snyder family plans to honor that laidback vibe in The Old Oaks Hotel, merging qualities of the two for families and vacationers to enjoy for years to come.
And while we say goodbye to a piece of Clear Lake history, we get to say hello to something even better. A reimagined piece of the past brought back to life through the vision, perseverance and dedication of a family who lives and breathes for progress in Clear Lake.