CHICAGO — In the lofty skylit atrium of the early high-rise Railway Exchange is the pride of the Chicago Architecture Foundation: a 320-square-foot model of the city’s skyline and its famous skyscrapers.
But the visitors and locals gathering around it today aren’t heading out to see those. They’re here for something unexpected. This group is going on a tour of downtown hotels.
It’s not a conclave of travel agents, wandering conventioneers, or businesspeople who have gotten lost. They’re bona fide architecture devotees who have come from as far away as Amsterdam to see up close a trend that straddles history and hospitality:
As travelers increasingly tire of cookie-cutter chains, developers have been adapting iconic landmark buildings into singular hotels that are becoming destinations in themselves, preserving their original, distinct, and often quirky architectural flourishes and charm.
“Each one has a personality,” the volunteer docent, Delta Green, tells her little group as she leads them to and through a former chic athletic club, chemical conglomerate office building, central hub of an insurance company, and elegant onetime headquarters of a bank, all newly converted into hotels.
It’s a phenomenon that will sound familiar to people in Boston, where, after all, there are hotels in what was once a jail (the Liberty), the Federal Reserve Bank (the Langham), police headquarters (the Back Bay Hotel), and the customs house (the Marriott Custom House).
Now it’s taking root in other cities, propelled by generous tax breaks, the resurgence of downtowns, and changing traveler tastes — including competition from the likes of AirBnB and a rejection of the uniformity that many chain hotels once made their selling point.
There are or soon will be hotels in what was once a YMCA in Pittsburgh, the world headquarters of Duncan Hines in Ithaca, a furniture store in New Orleans, a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Savannah, a department store in Pittsfield, a sailors’ hostel in New York, a brothel in Seattle, the offices of banks and a movie studio in Los Angeles — even a synagogue in Syracuse. The eponymous Washington, D.C., hotel in which Donald Trump made several appearances during his presidential campaign is in the 1899 Old Post Office building; it opened in September.
“People don’t just want to go to the Travelodge any more,” said Garrett Karp, a Chicago Architecture Foundation program manager. “Part of the experience is actually staying in these buildings.” After all, Karp said, “That’s part of why people come here: because of buildings like these.”
Many landmark structures sat neglected before the hotel boom, he said. “There was this inventory of older buildings downtown that were standing empty because they weren’t profitable as office buildings.”
They might not have been profitable as hotels, either, but for the fact that owners were happy to unload them, cheap, and city governments to offer tax breaks for the expensive renovations. There are also federal tax credits for redeveloping historic commercial buildings.
Thanks to their locations and distinctiveness, these new hotels in old buildings also can depend on an important new source of income: restaurants and bars that attract not only guests, but locals rediscovering downtown hotels as the social gathering spots they once were.
There’s a wildly popular bar, for instance, in the 241-room hotel converted from the Chicago Athletic Association, built in 1893 by Chicago’s upper class as an exclusive men’s club (women were admitted beginning in 1972) whose founding members included A.G. Spalding of Spalding Sporting Goods, Cyrus McCormick of International Harvester, and department store magnate Marshall Field.
Behind the Athletic Association’s Venetian-inspired façade on Michigan Avenue, the bellmen wear letter sweaters and there are pool cues lined up behind the bar — it’s called the Game Room —on the second floor. Many of the original touches remain, including dark wood and massive fireplaces in front of which are comfortable chairs where the elite once smoked cigars and read up on the news.
As recently as 2008, the derelict building was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation among the nation’s 11 most endangered places. In a sign of the strength of projects like this, investors in the reported $125 million renovation included John Pritzker, son of the late founder of the Hyatt hotel chain. The city provided a $5.7 million tax break over 12 years.
“The trend in hotels is to get away from the standard three-meal restaurant and the standard exercise room and all that stuff that everyone expects at a hotel, which has become sort of overplayed,” the architect, Paul Alessandro, said. “So the industry has started to think about, what does your home away from home look like? Can it be something more than a hotel? Can it be someplace the local residents hang out? Can you find a way to activate these giant empty lobbies?”
The answer to these questions has so far been a resounding yes.
“These old buildings have a certain charm, a certain character to them already, and a hold a high place in the regard of local residents as well,” Alessandro said. “They become a way to kind of infuse this history, this memory — this feeling of luxury that you couldn’t build any more. And when somebody comes to a place like Chicago, they want to stay at a hotel that really evokes the city.”
That may be another reason why there are so many new hotels in historic buildings in Chicago. Around the corner from the Chicago Athletic Association is the 250-room Virgin Hotel in the old Dearborn Bank Building, built in 1928; the bank closed four years later, during the Depression, despite the squirrels chiseled into its façade by the architect brothers Cornelius and George Rapp to symbolize the squirreling away of money. The Hard Rock Hotel is in the 1929 art deco Carbide & Carbon Building.
The Chicago Motor Club has been restored (also by Alessandro) as a Hampton Inn, whose must-see feature is the original 30-foot-long John Warner Norton mural in the lobby — a map of the United States and its (very few) roads at the time the motor club building opened in 1929. And the 1923 London Guarantee & Accident Building was just reopened by Hilton as a hotel called LondonHouse, with a three-level rooftop bar high above the Chicago River.
All of these jewels welcome gawkers, even if they’re not staying. “They don’t mind if you come in and look around,” said Green, the docent.
A lot more doors like these are opening to guests and visitors alike.
In Los Angeles, a city not often thought of for its historic landmarks, several new hotels have found some: The new Freehand is in the 1924 Commercial Exchange Building downtown, the Ace in the 1927 United Artist Building, and the NoMad in the headquarters built in 1923 for the Bank of Italy.
The Ace includes an over-the-top Spanish Gothic-style theater designed in part by the silent film star Mary Pickford and now meticulously restored; the NoMad is a sister property of the hotel of the same name in New York’s North of Madison Park neighborhood, in the 1905 Beaux Arts former headquarters of National Cash Register and where guests enjoy, among other things, bathrooms with claw-footed, freestanding tubs. Also in New York, the Jane Hotel is in a former sailors’ hostel with original nautical flourishes
There are Ace hotels in New Orleans, too, in a high-ceilinged onetime art deco furniture store at the edge of the centrally located warehouse district, and in Pittsburgh in a 100-year-old restored YMCA building whose gym remains as a function space.
The new 21c Museum Hotel Lexington in Kentucky shares the 103-year-old former First National Bank Building in that city with a museum and cultural center. In Savannah, the Brice is in a onetime Coca-Cola bottling plant built in the 1860s as a livery.
The Argos Inn in Ithaca was once a 19th-century private club that later became the headquarters of the baking wholesaler Duncan Hines. The Hotel Skyler in Syracuse was formerly a synagogue built in 1921. And the new 45-room Hotel on North in Pittsfield, opened by the same company that owns the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, is in an historic former department store.
Historic spaces are also being converted into hotels in Seattle, where two are under renovation in the Pioneer Square neighborhood: the J&M and the Metropole, in two largely abandoned and even fire-damaged 19th-century buildings — the J&M a onetime brothel and much later a club where Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana played.
“It’s about getting away from the mundane of the large chains,” said David Steinbach, the 33-year-old chief hospitality officer of those Seattle projects, who also credits travelers’ experiences with AirBnB for this trend. “My generation for sure, when we travel, we want to experience the destination that we’re in. Those hotel chains are never going to go away, but people are looking for different options.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.