When the Statler Hotel, now the Park Plaza, opened in 1927, it was the largest hotel in New England and the first in the country to offer in-room radios. For decades, the union property was the epicenter of Boston’s Democratic political scene, frequented by presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, who sat under Baccarat crystal chandeliers at events in the hotel’s opulent Versailles-style ballroom.
But over time, travelers complained the historic property had descended into what one called “hotel hell,” with peeling wallpaper, cigarette-holed blankets, and faulty air conditioning. Now, the once-grand Park Plaza slipped in the rankings to a lowly 71st among 77 Boston hotels on the travel website TripAdvisor.
Now a new owner, Sunstone Hotel Investors, is in the middle of a massive $95 million lobby-to-roof renovation to transform the outdated property into a modern hotel with historic charm.
Sunstone chief operating officer Marc Hoffman is well aware of travelers’ criticisms of the hotel — “The worst hotel I have ever stayed in,” a TripAdvisor traveler wrote in 2003; “Avoid like the plague,” wrote another — but is not put off by the work required to restore and modernize the landmark hotel. “That’s why we bought it,” he said.
“What we are shooting for is what I would refer to as a transitionally modern [hotel], which is not ultra-modern but a feel that embraces the historical character of the hotel,” Hoffman said.
Sunstone purchased the property for $250 million in 2013. Hoffman said the California company was drawn to the Park Plaza’s ideal Back Bay location in a thriving hotel market.
Industry experts say hotels are booming because more people are traveling to Boston, from business travelers in the flourishing biotechnology and technology industries to university-bound guests and convention visitors. An influx of international tourists is also arriving at Logan Airport.
Occupancy rates in Greater Boston climbed to 75 percent last year. Average daily rates hit $176.84, up more than 7 percent from the year prior. Analysts expect the hotel market to continue to perform at record levels over the next few years.
Prompted by the strong economy, dozens of hotels have completed recent renovations as a way to raise rates and compete with other properties. But the Park Plaza renovation is much more expensive than even the $50 million Hotel Commonwealth makeover and other big projects.
“That’s a major investment in the property,” said Matthew Arrants, executive vice president of Pinnacle Advisory Group in Boston. “It’s indicative of the strength of the market and the improvement of the location.”
The money Sunstone has invested to renovate the Park Plaza reflects the sheer size of the job, rejuvenating an old property with more than 1,000 rooms and covering 769,000 square feet. Much of the investment will go into infrastructure projects badly needed after years of neglect.
Sunstone began the project last year by installing a four-pipe heating and air conditioning system, a $10 million upgrade from the previous system where guests had limited control of the temperature in their rooms. Other improvements include new roofs and updates to the exterior of the building and elevator system.
Workers rebuilt the space that once housed the bar Whiskey Park into a sleek 5,500-square-foot Strip by Strega eatery from the Varano Group. A new gym will occupy the basement.
To the dismay of some travelers staying at the hotel, renovation work continues around them — including a major overhaul of the lobby. A 28-foot dark granite bar will be the new focal point of the space featuring a white ceramic floor.
Intricate millwork along the walls will be refurbished and repainted. All three entrances, the banquet rooms, and the ballrooms also will be updated.
This fall, Sunstone will begin to rehab the guest rooms, bathrooms, and corridors of the 14-story hotel with modern touches. The rooms will be totally refurbished, from wallpaper to carpeting, and furniture will be custom-made.
Sunstone will replace the dated decor with 60-inch televisions that sync with streaming services, LED lighting fixtures and chandeliers, and luxury Serta mattresses designed specifically for the hotel. The bathrooms will feature new subway wall tiles, ceramic floors, quartz counters, and high-end fixtures.
Sunstone expects to finish the job in the summer of 2016.
The hotel was built by Ellsworth Milton Statler, one of America’s first hoteliers and a developer known for state-of-the-art amenities.
Boston’s elite flocked to the hotel’s glamorous opening gala, wowed by the Spanish Renaissance motif, gold-leaf coffered ceilings, and floor tiles imported from Spain. The radio system broadcast the evening’s entertainment: four orchestras and performances by a soprano and a quartet.
As a hotel with a union workforce, the Park Plaza was the place Democratic politicians rested their heads while in Boston, and it was a popular campaign party spot on election nights.
Its famous guests included the likes of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Barack Obama, and Fidel Castro, as well as cinema greats Judy Garland and Spike Lee. Microsoft founder Bill Gates slept there, as did legendary athletes Muhammad Ali and Larry Bird.
“It was a premier hotel, and it always had that cachet about it,” said Paul Sacco, president of the Massachusetts Lodging Association. “It’s one of those classic Boston hotels with an incredible heritage.”
But the Park Plaza became expensive to maintain.
Saunders Hotel Group bought the property in 1976 and owned it for 20 years. Given the enormous size of the hotel, the company couldn’t afford major renovations, said Jeffrey Saunders, chief executive of the Boston company.
“The reality is that we did keep reinvesting large amounts of money back into the property, but no amount of renovation without having a huge capital investment would really allow the hotel to get to the point where it could compete with a new product,” Saunders said.
Over time, guests noticed the hotel was falling behind.
During the current renovation phase, room prices have dropped to as low as $189 a night. Even so, recent reviews range from “yuck” to a slightly more favorable “work in progress.”
“It’s definitely no longer a luxury grand dame anymore,” said Kelsey Blodget, managing editor of the professional hotel-review site Oyster.com. “Even though this hotel has a name, there are lesser-known hotels that have nicer rooms for the price. Across the board, it needs the overhaul.”