Around any corner in the brand new HotelRED, there lies an equal chance of seeing traditional painted drywall as there is rough, gray concrete, complete with indentations where structural beams run through. In another context, exposed concrete walls might make an interior look hastily put together, under-planned or unfinished. 

HotelRED is none of those things – especially not hastily put together. In fact, approval and construction of the hotel was a wrought and drawn-out process. 

“When someone has a new idea – often even if it’s a good idea – people react badly to it just because [they think], ‘This is my identity here. My world. And somebody is going to just do something different with it.’ So I think there was some of that here,” said Ald. Sue Ellingson, District 13, the district where HotelRED stands.

The recent history of the lot at 1501 Monroe St. is complicated, and, for some, emotionally charged. But presented here are the basics, as told by Brad Ricker, past president of the Vilas Neighborhood Association and resident of that area since 1979.

Local architect Bob Sieger bought the property back in 1994. He operated several businesses there including a bar called the Copper Grid. Over time, Ricker said Sieger acquired a reputation for “always pushing the boundaries of what was allowed, of how many people he could have in there” and for other things, like constructing a house that appeared to be a student residence where neighborhood ordinance called for long-term family homes. Sieger did not respond to phone or email messages regarding this story.

In 2006, Sieger proposed tearing down the businesses along that strip and developing condos, which Ricker remembered as “eight or nine stories tall – way too tall for the neighborhood.” 

A Wisconsin State Journal article from that year describes a seven-story building, and later articles refer to a six-story project. That sentiment was echoed throughout the neighborhood and the project was reborn in late 2007 as a 48-room hotel.

The headlines from articles about the hotel in 2008 tell the story. In a month-and-a-half-long period that summer, they go from “Monroe-Regent project gets go ahead” to “Hotel plan hits another snag” back to “Monroe St. Hotel Plans OK’d.” Three full years and a change in ownership would lie between that optimistic headline and HotelRED’s soft open a few weeks ago.

But someone must have been doing some work during that time, shown simply by the hotel’s unique detail and intricate furnishings. Although the connection wasn’t made explicit by general manager Jason Ilstrup on his guided tour, those exposed concrete walls and polished cement floors immediately bring to mind the famous hulking, utilitarian, concrete structure just across the way.

In fact, HotelRED’s proximity to Camp Randall and the University of Wisconsin informs much of its design. For instance, rather than the typical paint-by-number landscapes and weirdly-realistic pictures of running horses found in hotels, the wall space above the beds is decorated with pieces from a company called Bespoken Art. Owner Mike Erikson recorded audio clips of phrases like “Red Dreams.” The wavelengths and frequencies of those clips were then printed in bold red and white and shipped to the hotel for display.

Ilstrup and Erikson also stressed the hotel’s connection to Madison at large. 

“Travelers these days want to go to a city and immerse themselves in that city, so we’re trying to offer that to guests that come out here,” said Erikson. Ilstrup listed the details: coffee from Barriques, a custom flavor of chocolate from Maurie’s, New Glarus beer, and conference rooms named Regent and Monroe.

In all, it’s a triumph – the rare place that manages to pull off in practice the high-concept buzzwords all hotels use in promotion. So, when Ilstrup and Erikson called HotelRED “a luxury boutique hotel” multiple times within a matter of minutes, it came off as a mission statement rather than empty posturing. HotelRED is indeed unique, down to the red ceramic bowl sinks and the balconies with views of the stadium and Capitol.

Of course, to some extent, the character of a hotel is determined by its guests. In the eyes of its surrounding neighbors, HotelRED’s big test will be game day weekends. While they were generally positive on the hotel, Ricker and Ellingson expressed concern it could turn into, as Ellingson put it, “four floors of drunk people hanging off the balconies.”

For now, though, those worries must be forgotten, because the current Vilas Neighborhood Association president, Jon Standridge, and a few others were spotted enjoying a beer and looking over documents down in the lobby lounge late in the afternoon a few weeks ago. His presence there would have been surprising had I not just taken the tour; in fact, it seemed rather natural. 

After all, the HotelRED stood vacant and unused for two long years. It’s now nothing if not complete.