With its white brick exterior, blue canopy, and tall neon sign boasting AAA approval, the MidTown Hotel on Huntington Avenue looks much like it did in 1961, when the 159-room hotel opened its doors. In what has become a neighborhood of swank hotels and sleek skyscrapers, the MidTown remains a retro reminder of a simpler — and more affordable — Boston.
But maybe not much longer.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which owns the land on which the MidTown sits, is putting it on the market. Whoever acquires the property is likely to raze the old, if well-maintained, hotel, replacing it with something far grander than a place where you can still get a room for under $200 on a Friday night.
It’s the latest, and potentially largest, in a string of real estate moves the church has engineered around its Back Bay campus over the last 15 years, highlighted by upgrades to Christian Science Plaza and ongoing construction of the city’s largest condo tower at One Dalton Street — an $850 million, 742-foot-tall spire where penthouses could go for $40 million.
The contrast between One Dalton’s opulence and the MidTown’s modest curb appeal is striking, defining two distinct eras of the city, just around the corner.
When the hotel, originally called the MidTown Motor Inn, began checking in guests nearly six decades ago, the Christian Science Plaza across Huntington wasn’t yet built, and the Prudential Center was under construction up the street. Together, those projects helped to knit together the Back Bay and South End. The Druker Cos., the veteran hotelier and developer that built the MidTown, hired the city’s best interior designers to decorate its extra-large rooms. They also built a Schrafft’s restaurant and an outdoor pool. Boston Mayor John Collins and Massachusetts Governor John Volpe were on hand to mark the hotel’s opening. Before long, the MidTown was the center of a scene.
“There used to be fashion shows there. We’d have pre-symphony lunches,” said Ron Druker, who was in grade school when the MidTown opened and runs it today. “We really operated it to be a factor in the social fabric of the city.”
Over time, however, bigger, better, and more expensive hotels went up in the neighborhood, from Druker’s Colonnade to the Mandarin Oriental. Soon, they’ll be joined by a Four Seasons, which will occupy the lower floors of One Dalton. But amid all the upscaling, the MidTown persevered.
“We get a lot of families, especially during Red Sox season,” Druker said. “A lot of people from Europe and Asia. It’s a remarkably affordable property in a great location. That’s one of the reasons why it has been successful.”
The hotel didn’t expand to keep up with its fancier neighbors, in large part because Druker’s lease with the Christian Science Church was set to expire in 2016. With property values soaring, it was widely expected that the site would eventually be put on the market. That time has come.
The church has hired real estate brokers and advisers and is seeking ideas — and a buyer — for the parcel, which covers more than an acre along Huntington Avenue. A new lease could sell for $55 million to $80 million, one person familiar with the site estimated, depending on the site’s potential zoning. That’s not far-fetched — Carpenter & Co. paid $65 million in 2014 for the much smaller One Dalton site, after it had been permitted for a skyscraper.
The church hopes to choose a developer later this year, said Jack Train, its director of real estate assets, but it has no preconceptions about what should be built there. The only stipulation is a general one: Whatever replaces the hotel must add to the vitality of the church’s campus and the neighborhood, he said.
“There are really bright minds out there that are going to compete for this,” Train said. “We are going to require the finalists to come in with pretty detailed plans that show what their intentions are. There are so many things it could be.”
That vision will likely be something much larger than the two-story MidTown. Several taller buildings bracket the site, and the Boston Planning & Development Agency recently approved a 32-story tower atop the Huntington Theatre, one block to the west. Train said the church could also imagine open space on part of the land, something to complement the vast plaza across the street.
And while the economics would seem to make it unlikely, there is a chance the MidTown Hotel could survive in some form, at least for a while. Druker plans to bid on the site and, should he win, he says he would likely keep the hotel open while planning a new project, which could include a hotel. Should someone else win the lease, Druker said, he’ll talk with them about keeping the doors open while a new project is in the works.
Meantime, Druker’s MidTown will remain — as its website promises — “comfortable and convenient,” offering rooms for less than $200 a night.Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.