The Redevelopment of Landmark Buildings as New Hotels
By Dirk Lohan Principal, Wight & Company | November 04, 2018
Anyone who travels frequently becomes more and more discerning and selective about their hotel choices. You get tired of the long corridors with identical rooms on both sides. The only identifying element of your room is the number on the door, everything else is the same and not very memorable. Once in a while you stay at a unique and special hotel and you remember it because it was different in architecture and design.
As I continue to travel regularly around the world, I have noticed a trend in newer hotel developments that reuses historical buildings which in their original life were not built as hotels. The design of hotels is especially suited to fit into older buildings which have lost their original purpose as the various functions of hotels are quite flexible and don't need to be the same all the time. What distinguishes them from other new developments is that they are notable landmarks in their city or country. They can be of any architectural age and style, but modern society does not want them to be torn down to make way for new buildings.
In the United States, the Landmark movement has grown in recent decades to the point where almost everybody recognizes the importance of preserving the iconic buildings of prior periods. Every city and state today have landmarks organizations who identify and protect the buildings that are worthy of preservation. And, would you believe it, quite often it is the hotel function which is adaptable and flexible enough to come into an older building whose original purpose is no longer needed in our times. So it is, that we have hotels in buildings that were created as banks, embassies, palaces for nobility, railroad stations and even office buildings of the modern period.
What distinguishes these hotels from others is that they are unique and not standard and often their interior design is created to accentuate and emphasize the architectural style of the original. Let me describe a few of these hotels and why they are special and appreciated by the discerning guest.
Hotel De Rome, Berlin, Germany
The city of Berlin lay in ruins only 70 years ago and most of the classical architectural monuments were destroyed and so was this building of the former headquarters of the Dresdner Bank. It was built at the end of the 19th century as a symbol of the wealth and power of the largest bank in Prussia. Of course, it is located in the very center of the reunited Berlin, in close proximity to museums, the Royal Palace, the Opera House and the Brandenburg Gate. After the reunification of Berlin, this abandoned and forgotten ruin was rediscovered as having possibilities for redevelopment. Its imposing stone architecture has been repaired where possible, rebuilt where necessary, and today it is a five-star hotel with large rooms, high ceilings, beautiful public spaces, and a roof terrace that is very popular. There is simply no way a new hotel could exhibit such grandeur and majesty.
The Langham, Chicago, Illinois, USA
This hotel occupies one third of the former IBM building located on the Chicago River. The building was designed by Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1970 as a 55-story office building. As a major example of the modern architecture of Mies van der Rohe, the City of Chicago eventually declared it an official landmark structure which means that the exterior curtain wall cannot be modified or changed. However, it was possible to convert the office floors into hotel rooms. The Langham Chicago has quickly become a successful five-star hotel and has been named the finest hotel in Chicago. The original building's 5 ft window module forced the typical room width to be 15 ft wide and the office lease span of 40 ft gave the rooms a depth which is significantly more spacious than regular modern hotel designs. A ballroom, a pool and high-end spa, a restaurant with distinctive food offerings, and a bar area overlooking the Chicago River and the Loop, are popular meeting places today. The aesthetic of the hotel is decidedly modern, in keeping with the Mies heritage, but not overly so where "less is more".
Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland
Ashford castle, an iconic Victorian castle, located near Cong on the shore of Lough Corrib in Ireland, has been repeatedly expanded over the centuries and converted today as a five-star luxury hotel. It was originally built in the 13th century as a medieval castle with fortified towers and has been enlarged and modified over the centuries by generations of owners. To my knowledge there is no castle, nor landmark hotel anywhere else, that combines so many architectural styles into one contiguous building. Its appearance today is a charming potpourri of medieval, Victorian, French Chateau, Neo-Gothic, and Renaissance architectural styles. In recent years it has undergone major renovations and today is considered one of the finest hotels in Ireland. Obviously, an 800-year-old castle has a long story to tell about the people who lived there, from various noblemen to the Guinness Family, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, as well as John Wayne to film the "Quiet Man" also starring Maureen O'Hara. The extensive and beautiful grounds of the estate formed the backdrop for much of the action in the film. In 2012, Ashford Castle was voted the best resort hotel in Ireland and the third best in Europe by Conde Nast Traveler.
After the year 2000, the hotel went through some difficult times and it changed hands several times but ultimately, its fortunes were reversed with an investment of 47 Million Euros to restore the property and building. The 83 rooms and public spaces are decorated in the Victorian Style and exude a warm and comforting ambiance for the traveler who wishes to get away from it all.
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, India
Probably one of the most spectacular hotels in the world is the Taj Lake Palace situated in the middle of a lake. The Palace appears to be floating on water as one cannot see any land surrounding the building. The Palace was erected in the 18th century by the local Maharana (king), the 62nd successor of the royal dynasty of Mewar. The original purpose was a summer palace for the royal family. Eventually, over the decades, the enormous building fell into disrepair and abandonment. Time and weather destroyed the black and white inlaid marble floors and walls and many of the Indian decorative ornaments.
During the 1960's another successor of the same family decided to convert the palace into Udaipur's first luxury hotel. And what a place it is. The guests are ferried back and forth by an elegant speed boat from the ancient land based royal palace, and the level of luxury and splendor is simply unparalleled. Former guests include Queen Elizabeth, Jaqueline Kennedy and many other celebrities. A number of films used the hotel as locations for their scenery sets and vistas including the 1983 James Bond movie "Octopussy". I also have stayed there, and I am grateful that we moderns can enjoy the creations of other cultures and epochs.
Palazzo Manfredi, Rome, Italy
The smallest of this selection of notable landmark hotels, Palazzo Manfredi, is also the most recent. Directly opposite the Colosseum and built on the archeological remains of the gladiator arena. It might not be everybody's preferred place to rest for the night when you are aware of what went on more than 2000 years ago in these old walls. However, this small, 18 room, hotel is a fascinating place and seems to be breathing with the weight of ancient history. More than any other example, Palazzo Manfredi raises the eternal argument between those who wish monuments to be rebuilt to recall their original glory, and those who wish to preserve the building fabric as the physical evidence of history with all its erosion, modifications, and war damage.
The developers and architects of such historical structures have available multiple choices from Reconstruction, Conservation, Restoration, Renovation and Repair, all of which should be considered and sometimes combined into a sensitive solution that expresses not only the historical original but tells us today the story of the decades or centuries which have shaped the building in question.
These hotels, and many others in historic buildings, are not just offering rooms to travelers. They are adaptive renovations which offer unique travel experiences in unbeatable locations. Repurposing historic buildings on the one hand, offers the travelling public one of a kind experiences, while at the same time preserving architectural icons in the midst of our cities and countryside.
Preserving the best of the past, is a responsibility of civilized society and it is gratifying to see that the hotel industry, its operators and investors, are taking up this challenge and are creating new and unforgettable experiences as they are saving history. In a wider sense, these hospitality developments are related to the world-wide effort to create a more sustainable human environment. I hope this genre of hotel design will continue to grow and add new dimensions to our travel options.
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