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Hotels with a history. Developers get creative with grain silos, banks, and warehouses

By Randolph HarrisonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1985



Families traveling during the holidays may decide to bypass the usual motel accommodations to check into a one-time bank, warehouse, railroad station, or even a grain elevator. That's because there's a trend under way to turn non-lodging, nonresidential structures such as these into handsome hotels. Along with accommodations, travelers staying in these historic structures get a bit of nostalgia as they're taken back to an era when buildings were constructed with imported marble, ornate ironwork, and intricately carved wood.

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What's the impetus behind this conversion move that turns old-time buildings into hostelries?

``Because of many cities' ongoing renaissance, it is becoming more difficult to find well-located sites for new construction or renovation of any kind,'' notes Christopher Leinberger, president of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., a real estate consulting firm headquartered in Beverly Hills, Calif. ``To get the right location, developers are becoming more and more creative, whether it's for a hotel, office, or residential project.''

This emerging conversion trend enjoys many of the same practical advantages that have made the restoration of older hotels so popular, particularly substantial tax advantages.

``The conversion projects can qualify for the investment tax credit if the cost of the renovation exceeds the price of the building,'' notes Thomas Tarantino, a financial adviser in Philadelphia.

``The investment tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in a taxpayer's bill,'' he explains. ``For properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the credit can equal 25 percent of the renovation cost. For other non-landmark properties more than 30 years old, this credit can be 15 or 20 percent. With the investment tax credit, a developer can often recover the entire equity invested in a rehabilitation project in just one year.

``The Treasury Department wants to curtail these provisions as part of its efforts to simplify the tax structure,'' Mr. Tarantino continues, ``and developers are pushing ahead with all kinds of renovation activity in case that happens.''

Besides these considerable financial opportunities, hotel-conversion projects offer the advantages of architectural charm and well-known landmark buildings. What guest, for instance, doesn't feel impressed when entering Boston's richly embellished Hotel Meridien, which occupies the city's former Federal Reserve Bank Building?

At a cost of $33 million, Meridien created 346 modern guest rooms in the 1922 Renaissance-revival, granite-and-limestone structure, which was modeled after the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome. The Federal Reserve Bank's imposing reception and meeting rooms were meticulously restored and adapted to hotel purposes.

The hotel's Julien Lounge was once the reception room for the governors of the bank. Beneath the gilded coffered ceiling, corncobs and cornucopias embellish the tall doorways. A 1923 N. C. Wyeth mural of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Robert Morris decorates one paneled wall. A mural of Abraham Lincoln and Salmon P. Chase graces another.

On a less imposing note, the East Bay Inn occupies merchant prince Edward Padelford's 1853 cotton and spice warehouse along Savannah's historic and still-bustling waterfront in Georgia. Shaded by moss-draped oaks, the three-story inn has 28 rooms, complete with four-poster beds, period furnishings, and 19th-century moldings. In the high-ceilinged lobby is a collection of Savannah pottery, porcelain, and ships' models, plus some bottles and china fragments that were excavated during construction of the h otel's parking lot.

To enhance its antebellum ambiance, the East Bay Inn opened Padelford's 1853 Restaurant on its ground floor. ``The restaurant serves only 19th-century recipes,'' says Savannah-born general manager Kirk Moore, author of three books about Southern decorative arts and gardens.

Given the right location, almost any kind of historic building is a candidate for conversion to a hotel. The 54-room Alexis Hotel near Seattle's waterfront occupies a 1901 office building that later became a parking garage. And in Akron, Ohio, the late-19th-century mills and silos of the original Quaker Oats cereal factory have been converted into the Quaker Square Hilton.

In Scranton, Pa., a hub city in the coal era, what used to be the DL&W (Delaware, Lackawanna & Western) train station is now the Hilton at Lackawanna Station. The original six-story structure has been retained, along with original tile mosaics, leaded stained-glass ceiling, and brass chandeliers and doorknobs. The hotel is listed in the National Historic Register.

This new renovation trend, of course, is not without its problems, such as those related to the cost and difficulty of transforming an office building, warehouse, or other structure into a hotel.

``Being the first to ever convert a grain silo to a hotel, we had to develop new methods to cut and remove the thick concrete walls for the hotel windows and doorways,'' explains Ted Curtis, architect for the Quaker Square Hilton. ``We had dozens of surprises and consequent field adjustments during the construction.''

Of the 36 original grain silos in the Quaker complex, the outer 26 were used for the 200 hotel rooms, all of which are circular.

Once a hotel is operating, the renovation difficulties don't seem so bad in retrospect.

``I love to see out-of-town guests admire the cast-iron 1853 columns in the lobby or the elaborate ceiling plasterwork in the third-floor guest room which originally was Edward Padelford's office,'' notes Mr. Moore, manager of East Bay Inn.

``It's even more satisfying when present-day Savannah residents come up and say, ``I had walked past that warehouse for 20 years, and until you folks opened the hotel, I never realized just how beautiful it was.''