Historic Boutique Hotels: Their Past, Present and Future
By John Tess President & CEO, Heritage Consulting Group | October 28, 2008
Hotels have evolved significantly. The early years truly were a boarding house or second floor over a retail space. This soon changed as aspiring communities all needed a first rate hotel in order to be taken seriously - particularly into the late 19th century with the maturation of train travel and into the 20th century with the rise of automobiles.
But the turn of the 20th century, these hotels were "modern" affairs with reinforced concrete construction rising 5 to 7 stories offering amenities as elevators, telephones and electricity. They featured a large and elegant lobby, often with a mezzanine sitting area. The hotel offered at least a few rooms with private baths; these were often at the corners of the building. Most rooms were semi-private, with a shared bath between rooms and a sink in each room. And not surprisingly, rooms located along the alley or light well were cheaper and simpler with access to a bath down the hall. The hotels also often featured a "sample room" where traveling salesmen could show their wares. And almost always, they featured one or more of the finer food establishments in the city. By the 1920s, changes in real estate financing made it easier to leverage development, creating a surge in hotel development. At the same time, the invention of steel frame construction allowed buildings to rise taller to 12, 15 and 20 stories.
By the end of the 1950s, our urban cores grew tired. The buildings were old and often dilapidated. The streets were dirty and congestion impossible. In contrast, populations sprawled to the clean, new, auto-oriented suburbs. This was true for hotels too. In the core, the buildings were reaching the ends of their depreciable lives. With aging technologies, aging infrastructure and aging finishes, many hotels began a downward spiral from first to second class to boarding and subsidized housing.
Just as the automobile fostered sprawl, it also fostered the rise of the garden-style motel. With roots to the 1920s motor courts, these are most often connected with the highway vacation travel. But with few exceptions, such as New York, most cities also became home to them - though often on the edge of the downtown. It was their auto-centrist orientation that defined these two-story buildings: Parking adjacent to the room, no common corridors, a small and efficient lobby, perhaps a breakfast/lunch restaurant and a large plate glass windows with view of the parking lot.
At the same time, the ease of travel in the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the convention hotel. The convention business was viewed as one mechanism for energizing a city's economy. These buildings were typically architecturally bland behemoths of 15, 20 or more stories with 300, 400, 500 or more rooms. They featured large flexible ballrooms, standardized operations and a self-contained orientation. Downtowns though continued to grow old and tired. They were fighting a losing battle to the clean, new and fresh suburbs, with tax dollars following.
The next decade however saw the beginnings of a "back to the city" movement. Young affluent suburbanites, often working couples, tired of ever increasing commuting, became urban pioneers. They moved back to blighted neighborhoods, reclaiming and repairing grand historic homes and buildings. Cities fostered this movement with urban renewal money and planning, while the downtown property owners created "clean & safe" districts to fight petty crime and ambiance. For its part, the federal government offered a plethora of policies and incentives both to cities and private investors. One such major benefit was the federal investment tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings.