By Rick Gion
Photo by Rick Gion
As you may have read, the Hotel Donaldson and the Hodo Lounge are transitioning to the ownership group that runs the Blarney Stone Irish Pubs in North Dakota. Although feelings seem to be mixed about this move, it’ll be good to see the iconic Downtown Fargo building alive again.
I’m not going to share any overly strong opinions in this column regarding the sale. I’m just going to write about some history, reflect on personal experiences and how the HoDo revolutionized Downtown Fargo.
I first entered the Hotel Donaldson in the late 1990s, due to some projects I had to do for an employer. Back then, it was a low-income, extended-stay hotel in need of much repair just like many old structures in Downtown at the time.
Historically speaking, the building was constructed in 1894 as a meeting hall for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. A third-floor addition in 1915 first housed a hotel. Look up Hotel Donaldson online at library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history for more interesting information.
When first checking out the building, I thought it was unique and could be turned into something quite spectacular. When the much-improved Hotel Donaldson opened in 2003, it was just that.
Before then, back in 2001, the lovely Karen Stoker funded a renovation of the Hotel Donaldson and set out to construct a vision. It was a huge undertaking, which wasn’t cheap. It was a brave venture for this area that proved successful. The remodeled building included a boutique hotel, a fine-dining restaurant and a hip cocktail bar.
The hotel rooms each featured creations from a regional artist and were furnished with up-scale items. Some of those artists are North Dakota’s most famous, including painter Walter Piehl, photographer Leo Kim and glassblower Jon Offutt, not to mention one of Minnesota’s finest, woodcut master Charles Beck. The rooms were first of their kind in North Dakota. That’s why the hotel was frequently filled for nearly 20 years.
Furthering the emphasis on local, the restaurant was the first in the area to utilize a farm to table concept. The philosophy was that the more local the ingredients, the better. Head chef Andrea Baumgardner was the primary director to lead the kitchen and design the menu. The food was some of the most unique in North Dakota,featuring items like bison, freshly made bread, and artful desserts.
Baumgardner now owns Bernbaum’s restaurant in Downtown Fargo, which has received national attention from the James Beard Foundation, Cooking Channel and Travel Channel. Needless to say, the HoDo housed talent on many levels.
I spent a lot of time at the HoDo Lounge when I was younger. I don’t drink that much anymore, but back then I was a regular. When the Lounge first opened, it featured a lot of good wines. Eventually, the booze selection grew to emphasize craft beers and specialty cocktails.
Well-known bar manager Jason Laub was the first in Fargo to feature craft whiskey drinks such as Manhattans and Old fashioneds. He could often be seen “smoking” the whiskey drinks with lit wood chips, which would make them taste unique and leave a great aroma in the bar. The talented bartenders at HoDo Lounge were usually the first in town to start local drink trends.
During warmer months, I spent a lot of time at “Sky Prairie,” the HoDo’s rooftop bar. Many sunsets were watched there with friends while sipping a cool gin and tonic.
Additionally, live music was a big part of the HoDo Lounge, especially on Thursday nights. The vibe in that place on those nights was irreplaceable. The room was alive. Many of you know what I’m talking about.
I also really enjoyed the live music during “Dale Days,” which was an ode to the late Dale Powers, the HoDo’s well-known manager. Bands used to play outside on Broadway for Dale Days, but rains often came so there was always a rush to bring the gear into the bar and finish the night there.
The Hotel Donaldson’s slogan, “Eat. Drink. Meet. Sleep. Art,” describes the place well, especially the word “meet.” I met some of the best people in my life at that establishment. And the HoDo always had a phenomenal staff. Many of those employees are great friends.
The HoDo was a special place that will surely be missed. It pushed Fargo to be better. I’m hoping the new ownership group continues that unique legacy for the building. The name may change, but a strong attempt should be made to keep a similar vibe.
September 15th 2023
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