I was a little nervous during my first meeting as a member of Iowa City’s Historic Preservation Commission a few years ago. After we voted to adjourn, I breathed a sigh of relief — I hadn’t made a motion at the wrong time and didn’t seem to screw anything up.
And then a former commissioner asked if he could talk to me. The anxiety came rushing back. “You are Bob and Leona’s grandson, right? How’s your grandmother doing?”
I was relieved, and I knew what he’d say next: “My first job was at the Highlander.”
These types of conversations have been familiar to me for as long as I can remember. My grandparents, Bob and Leona McGurk, were among the original owners of the Highlander, a mid-century mecca for Iowa Citians looking to let loose for a night. Later my parents, aunt and uncle joined my grandmother in owning and operating it.
The Highlander Supper Club opened in 1967 in what was then the outskirts of Iowa City, adjacent to the newly completed I-80 intersection with Highway 1. Supper clubs were popular Midwest restaurants where guests would dine out for a special occasion or just a Saturday evening out. A few years after the Highlander opened, the owners completed their plans for a full-service facility that included the club, an inn, a coffee shop, a convention center with meeting rooms, ballroom space, a lounge, hotel rooms and an indoor pool. For decades it was the home of to-dos large and small, including I-Club events, celebrity golf tournaments, car shows, weddings, bridal showers, retirement parties and birthday celebrations.
It seems like everyone has a memory of the place; when people find out my relationship with the Highlander, the stories come pouring out.
“I waited tables there in college; we had a fun crew.”
“My parents got married there.”
“My spouse and I had our first date there, and then we got engaged there.”
“I met Hayden Fry in the Supper Club.”
“My parents always took us there when they came to visit me in college, and I could bring just one friend.”
“I was the front desk clerk who got to check in some famous person.”
“My first job was banquet set-up.”
“I swear I had the best dance moves on that dance floor.”
“Oh, those cinnamon rolls. That epicurean salad.”
The Highlander is the newest Iowa City Historic Landmark, joining such special places as Old Settler’s Cabins at City Park, Grant Wood’s house on Court Street, the Old Economy Advertising Company/Union Brewery on North Linn Street and Old Brick. As the Historic Preservation Commission chair, I’m excited that Angela Harrington, the current entrepreneurial owner of Highlander Hotel, asked the commission and the City of Iowa City to designate the building as a local landmark.
Some longtime residents might find it odd that a place that peaked during their lifetimes has become “historic.” Some newer residents might be discovering the gem in Iowa City’s northeast corner for the first time.
I’ve got my own set of memories from the Highlander. It’s where I learned what it meant to own a business. When I was young, I remember asking my grandma if she got a parking spot right up front — she owned the place, after all. She told me in a way that a grandma does, “No, I park in the back, so our customers can have the best spots.”
It meant that home football weekends were work weekends for my parents, starting with early Friday morning I-Club breakfasts. It meant during the week of the Amana VIP Golf Tournament — Iowa City’s own version of the Masters, which attracted the likes of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Arnold Palmer and Gerald Ford to Finkbine Golf Course — that my folks would leave for work before I was up and not come home until after I was asleep. But we always got some goodies from the week; my gym bag was an Amana VIP gym bag well into my 30s. As dignitaries came through, I’d anxiously await my parents arriving home, worn out but happy to tell us what it was like to meet former President Ford.
I remember special lunches with my grandma in an otherwise empty Royal Scott coffee shop. My Cub Scout den made pizza in the kitchen. And birthday parties, even in December, were poolside. The pool bar menu even had a grilled cheese named after me when I was a kid: “Kevin’s Favorite.”
Technically, when it comes to historic preservation, something can start to become historic when it reaches 50 years old, so the Highlander fits the bill. But more importantly, it preserves a place that feels like part of our community’s history. That history is just a little closer to home for me.
It keeps that sense of place for those who tell me what it meant to them — those first jobs, special dates, weddings, pre-football I-Clubs, post-football meals and poolside parties.
While the building has changed over the years — for example, the long, steep steps that used to go to my grandma’s office are now stairs to a stylish penthouse suite overlooking the giant indoor pool — I still get the same feeling when I walk in from under the portico. The place looks better than ever, with Harrington creating a chic-meets-shag, retro-revival atmosphere. The artwork and murals are lively. The rooms look fun and inviting. The old ballroom looks stately and ready for new events. Uniquely Highlander features are still there, such as the mural and autograph wall that used to be my grandfather’s office.
So if you haven’t ventured out to the Highlander Hotel yet, go relish some old memories or make some new ones. Next time I’m there, I might even special-order a grilled cheese.
Kevin Boyd lives in Iowa City’s Northside, chairs the Historic Preservation Commission and won the Iowa City Public Library’s 2020 Local History Trivia Quiz. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.