“So a biker walks into a hotel…”

August 6, 2009 at 10:31 am


Paris. London. Hong Kong. Milwaukee?  Recently Craig, Kat, and I had the pleasure of staying at the Iron Horse Hotel, which we agreed was one of the best hotels we’ve spent a night in. Opened in October last year, the Iron Horse was founded by real estate developer Tim Dixon and is the first upscale hotel geared for business travelers and motorcycle enthusiasts alike, which makes sense given that Milwaukee hosts many conventions and is home to Harley-Davidson. Its name comes from the term Native Americans used for the train as it crossed the prairies, and today the Iron Horse is located alongside a historic yet active railroad.

Once a mattress factory, the architecture (lofted industrial beams, reclaimed woods) amenities (motorcycle rentals!), and food offerings (a fancy restaurant as well as more casual pub fare) are executed perfectly within the realm of Ralph Lauren Americana meets Restoration Hardware meets high-end biker. The overall effect was unexpected (a bedside bench upholstered in cowhide), luxurious (bathrooms half the size of my apartment), and thoroughly embodied a new notion of biker-chic luxury that could only be at home in Milwaukee.

What I find particularly compelling about the Iron Horse is how it manages to cater to two unexpected segments (bikers and business travelers) and addresses the frequent traveler’s fatigue with cookie cutter “stylish” business hotels. It feels like a return to place/locality and the specific things that make a city special and authentic.  For example, look no further than the Ace Hotel whose bottom-up spread from Seattle, Portland, Palm Springs, and finally New York, is grounded in expressing a quirky aesthetic particular to each of those cities. The Ace Hotel’s expansion contrasts with the generic chic of thousands of boutique chain lobbies playing light house music across the country (W Hoboken, anyone?).


In a city not known for design innovation, the creativity of the Iron Horse hinted at the larger landscape of things to do in Milwaukee. “Gateway” experiences like these can shape one’s experience and expectations of a city—earlier this year I went to Detroit and loved it; the success of my entire visit hinged upon an extremely detailed Design Sponge-authored guide by local blogger Sweet Juniper that recommended furniture stores and historical architecture sites unfamiliar to most locals.

DESIRES (don’t laugh), the hotel management company that manages the Iron Horse, just opened Moonrise, a sister hotel in St Louis, with a retro-modern mid century decorating theme so it will be interesting to see if their formula of bringing local flavor/heritage will be as successful there as the Iron Horse has been for Milwaukee.


Entry filed under: Business, Design, Inspiration, Marketing.

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