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Martin Hotel ballroom restored to glory
The Martin Hotel ballroom gleams after its restoration to its 1917 glory. The historic ballroom is available for activities from a Christmas tea to weddings. (Submitted photo)

The Martin Ballroom, a longtime fixture for political and high-society events, has received a new and improved look. An aggressive remodeling project was recently completed for the ballroom and it brings back memories of the grand old dame of downtown hotels.

Sheriffa Wright of Downtown Partners said a number of organizations have used the ballroom for activities. During the holiday season a Christmas tea was held for people who might be interested in booking an activity in the ballroom.

"We had our first wedding in the ballroom on Dec. 28," Wright noted. "The United Way also held an event on Jan. 23."

Most recently the Siouxland AIDS Coalition held its fifth annual Celebration of Hope fundraiser on Feb. 15.

Back in November of 2001, the Sioux City Council gave developer Lew Weinberg the go-ahead to remodel the historic ballroom at the Martin Building. The old second-floor ballroom, which is about 4,000 square feet, was completely gutted before the restoration process began.

"We used a kind of 1917 style, like the building, and used the same restoration people who did the Orpheum," Weinberg said of the remodeling.

Care was taken to restore the ballroom to its grand appearance. Period light fixtures and carpet design were chosen and colors were kept as true as possible to what might have been used in the early days of the hotel.

The elevated stage has been retained and it has a full sound and advanced lighting system. The pillars feature gold-leafing on a light blue background. The carpet is reminiscent of the Roaring '20s, in a deep holly leaf green, rimmed in cranberry.

However, accommodations needed to be made for progress. There is a complete, modern kitchen on site and the ballroom is handicapped accessible. To ensure climate control, the mezzanine area had to be covered to hide the air conditioning and heating ducts.

An article in the Aug. 19, 1944, Sioux City Journal reported that a hotel had occupied the northeast corner of Fourth and Pierce streets since the mid-1870s. The first hotel there was called Hubbard House, after Judge A.W. Hubbard, Sioux City's first congressman. In 1887, the hotel changed names and owners to the Booge Hotel after Sioux City meatpacker James E. Booge.

The newspaper reported that the hotel name was again changed, to the Mondamin, in 1895. Fire destroyed the Mondamin on Jan. 31, 1912, and at that time, the Martin family acquired the site. The current Martin Hotel was completed in 1917. E.C. Eppley of Omaha, president of Eppley Hotels, purchased the building from the heirs of the Martins in 1944.

At one point in its history, the Martin was affiliated with the Sheraton hotel chain and was the city's busiest and fanciest hotel. The Sheraton Corp. of America acquired the Martin Hotel and the Warrior Hotel in June 1956. Six weeks later, the names were changed to Sheraton-Martin and Sheraton-Warrior. The corporation remodeled both hotels in 1958.

Lennon Kelly was a neighbor to the Martin Hotel. From 1949-74, he was one of the owners of radio station KTRI, which had offices in the Commerce Building at the southeast corner of Sixth and Nebraska streets.

"I remember the Democrats would hold their county conventions in the ballroom," he reminisced. "Possibly, such groups as Rotary and Kiwanis would hold meetings there as well."

Political figures chose the ballroom for visits to Sioux City, including a future president of the United States.

In September 1960, U.S. District Court Judge Don O'Brien was running for Congress and Sen. John F. Kennedy agreed to come to Sioux City for a rally. O'Brien escorted Kennedy and his sister Eunice Shriver from the airport to the Sioux City Auditorium where a standing-room-only crowd waited. The next day, the future president spoke at a breakfast in the Martin Ballroom.

"I've got the picture of Kennedy speaking on the wall in my office," O'Brien said. "He's standing at a podium which says 'Sheraton Martin Hotel.'"

O'Brien is also in the photo, seated to the side, after introducing JFK.

"The photo was taken by Mrs. John Naughton, long since dead," O'Brien remembered. "She was a good family friend and wife of state Rep. John Naughton, who served for three or four terms."

In 1974, the Kennedy charisma reappeared in Sioux City as Massachusetts Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy hit the campaign trail for Rep. John Culver of McGregor, Iowa, and other Iowa Democratic candidates.

Kennedy signed autographs and posed for photos at a $5-per-person rally and luncheon at the Martin Ballroom.

Since it was a "ballroom," dances were popular activities for Siouxlanders at the Martin.

"I remember in the 1950s, there were probably four to five dances each week," said Kelly. "I had a membership in The Hundred Club, which was a dance club that promoted social dancing. The club held a number of dances at the Martin Ballroom."

The Martin closed in 1963, and several years later developers opened the apartment complex. Electrical problems closed the apartment area in the late 1970s.

In 1982, developer Robert Krueger announced the old Martin Hotel would be transformed into the Martin Towers. The project included the renovation of the 280 hotel rooms into 80 one-bedroom apartments on the upper six floors and was completed the following year. It was designed for low-income elderly and the handicapped.

The following year much publicity was given to a comparatively unknown mural by Iowa artist Grant Wood, which was discovered at the Martin. The mural, hidden behind wallpaper for decades, was on all four walls of the Corn Room on the Martin Hotel mezzanine. Running about 50 feet, the mural portrayed scenes of rolling farmland and shocks of corn. Sioux City attorney Alan Fredregill paid $80,000 for the mural at a 1995 auction and donated it to the Sioux City Art Center.

In 1985, there were plans to remodel the bottom two floors of the Martin Tower into a shopping area. An out-of-town firm was interested in establishing a restaurant on the first level with the same marble floors from the hotel restaurant.

The rest of the development, including a portion of buildings immediately adjacent to the east side of the Martin Tower itself, was to be developed into retail space around a central atrium. There would be room for 10 to 17 shops. The proposed plans never became a reality.

Weinberg, through Pierce Street Partners LP, remodeled apartments on the third through eighth floors. Those apartments are similar to those in the Cameo and Call Terminal buildings. The apartments are managed by Oakleaf Real Estate Management which is responsible for 700 units in three states.

Wright said the ballroom could be reserved by community groups as well as by tenants for potlucks, dances or other group activities. Downtown Partners sponsored a Business After Hours event in conjunction with the Sioux City Chamber of Commerce.

Individuals interested in more details about the ballroom or apartments can visit Oakleaf's Web site at http://www.oakleafrealestate.com or call Wright at Downtown Partners at 252-0014.

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