In the category of places to visit within two hours of the Twin Cities, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was one of the few we hadn’t yet seen. And in the last few years, we had heard the small city was undergoing a bit of a renewal with redevelopment projects in the downtown, including a beautiful arts center and park; a highly acclaimed music festival that draws 20,000 people; and — not new but important — college students, who always lend energy to a town.
A motor lodge reborn
The Oxbow Hotel is one of the city’s new projects. Finished in 2016, it turned what had been the Green Tree Inn — described by an Oxbow staffer as a “rent-by-the-hour kind of place” — into a 21st-century version of a motor lodge. The Oxbow’s vibe tends toward friendliness and fun with nods to mid-century design, to the city’s affinity for music, and to all things Wisconsin. When we stayed, the hotel was full of youngish people, who seem to be the target audience.
The Oxbow has two buildings — the main hotel constructed in 1947 and the motel style annex constructed in 1961. Based on rates, it looked like the rooms in the main hotel might be a little more desirable, but one of us grew up taking road trips with her family and staying in lots of roadside motels, so we couldn’t resist booking a room in the annex. We had visions of parking right in front of our room’s outside entry, but — happily, we suppose, for the Oxbow — the parking lot was full when we arrived, and we had to leave the car across the street.
The architectural renovations of both buildings are tasteful, and the landscaping adds to the hotel’s inviting nature. The original buildings continue to show through, and one of the most prominent features remains the surface parking lot in front of the annex. But design elements featuring wood, tall grasses, and murals soften and warm the space.
We came for the room
When we choose a hotel, we spend at least some time figuring out the kind of room we want to book. As we’ve discovered, the particular room can make a big difference in a stay (see our entry on The Curtain in London). Nostalgia was clearly driving our choice of rooms at the Oxbow, and while our room had been updated with boutiquey features like a craft booze mini bar, a record player (with a curated collection of records available for check-out), and furniture and art from local designers, the bones of the 1961 motel were intact. It was still a cinder-block cube of a room with the recognizable features of a 1960s motel: air conditioner below the window, sink outside the minimal bathroom, a few shelves and a hanging rod tucked in the corner.
Despite feeling a little claustrophobic in the tight quarters and waking up in the middle of the night to a damp room with a slightly musty smell, we both appreciated what the Oxbow was trying to do with these rooms. They are motel rooms plain and simple, but they are motel rooms with personality, and that personality comes through in all of the room’s features.
One of the Oxbow’s challenges — in fact, a challenge of any hotel — is keeping the rooms looking pristine through cycles of guests. Three years in, our room was showing some wear. The mural on the wall, which looks like a topographic map and was one of our favorite features, had some scratches and dents. The white tile in the bathroom could use a good scrub and some re-grouting, and paint on the ceiling was starting to peel (possibly a result of the damp conditions). For the Oxbow to deliver on its vision will take constant effort.
We’ll come back for the public spaces
For many hotels, it’s as much about the public spaces as it is about the guest rooms. This is certainly the case for the Oxbow. The lobby’s couches are tucked around a fireplace and provide a nice space for reading or having a coffee. The gallery was quiet when we were visiting, but the room is lovely, and we lingered at each of the paintings on show. But the hotel’s spotlight public space is surely its restaurant and bar, The Lakely. We visited in summer and had a quiet dinner on the patio before the evening’s jazz performance started.
- Oxbow Hotel
- Location: Eau Claire, Wisconsin, near downtown
- Our stay: 1 night, August 24, 2019
- Room 6, The Annex
What we ate, what we did
- Walking tour of Eau Claire: downtown, Water Street, UW campus, 3rd ward
- Galaudet Gallery
- Drinks at The Informalist
- Dinner at The Lakely
- Coffee at ECDC
One thought on “Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA ~ The Oxbow Hotel”
Part of the rejuvenation of Eau Claire is due to the work of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) whose success in the music industry has really helped the city. His summer music festival (The Eau Claires festival) which ran three consecutive years, was a briliant event – unlike any other festival, attracting national acts (Mavis Staples, Paul Simon, The National, Sturgill Simpson, The Indigo Girls) as well as the best of local musicians, including Sean Carey (S. Carey) who teaches at UW Eau Claire and often plays at the Lakely – you might have heard him. Sadly the festival is no longer happening. We never missed it. Justin’s devotion to his town has lead to some really cool things going on there. I believe he is/was an investor in the Oxbow and his records may be in every room, I think they were when we stayed there. Thanks for this!