REUSE, RENOVATE, REDEFINE

There are obstacles to recycling historical buildings into hotels, but for many developers, the charms of adaptive reuse projects outweigh the challenges.

A Tower Deluxe King room at the Fullerton Hotel Sydney, which opened last fall in a building that dates to 1891.

A Tower Deluxe King room at the Fullerton Hotel Sydney, which opened last fall in a building that dates to 1891.

A Tower Deluxe King room at the Fullerton Hotel Sydney, which opened last fall in a building that dates to 1891.

In a 2018 video about the Fullerton Hotel Singapore, a male narrator intones: “Whenever I look at this building … I imagine this was my former playground.” The voice-over is matched to black-and-white photos of the Lion City during the era before — well before — the towering developments that now dominate the Singapore skyline were built.

Today it’s a high-end hotel, but when Robert Lim, the narrator, worked in the Fullerton Building as a postal clerk in the 1960s, his “playground” was a dimly lighted structure packed with government employees, and most of its rooms lacked air conditioning, let alone the amenities, fixtures and atmosphere associated with modern-day luxury hostelry. 

All that changed in 2001 when the building, once home to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development offices as well as the General Post Office, became the Fullerton Hotel Singapore. Decades after they punched their last timecards, Lim and other former Fullerton Building employees were invited to reminisce about their time there in several videos for Fullerton Hotels and Resorts. 

In the videos, several Fullerton alumni recall that when they had heard about plans for the conversion of the building — completed in 1928 and named Singapore’s 71st national monument in 2015 — into a luxury hotel, they couldn’t envision such a transformation. But among those involved in hotel development, there’s a subset of architects, interior designers and others whose mission is to convert such structures into chic accommodations. Buildings designed for now-obsolete endeavors, or which were purpose-built for a fading industry or whose need for physical space simply evolved, are increasingly reborn as hotels.

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The interior of the Fullerton Building in the 1940s.

The interior of the Fullerton Building in the 1940s.

Singapore’s Fullerton Building in the 1950s.

Singapore’s Fullerton Building in the 1950s.

The building, which dates to 1920s and was named a national monument in 2015, is today the Fullerton Hotel Singapore.

The building, which dates to 1920s and was named a national monument in 2015, is today the Fullerton Hotel Singapore.

The interior of the Fullerton Building in the 1940s.

The interior of the Fullerton Building in the 1940s.

Singapore’s Fullerton Building in the 1950s.

Singapore’s Fullerton Building in the 1950s.

The building, which dates to 1920s and was named a national monument in 2015, is today the Fullerton Hotel Singapore.

The building, which dates to 1920s and was named a national monument in 2015, is today the Fullerton Hotel Singapore.

New lease on life

As the Fullerton Hotel Singapore illustrates, the cavernous post offices of yesteryear can be ideal foundations for adaptive reuse. Opened in 2016, the Trump International in downtown Washington, less than a mile from the White House, is housed within the Old Post Office Building, completed in 1899 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Fullerton Hotels also repurposed another post office for its third property, the Fullerton Hotel Sydney, which opened last fall. 

According to promotional material from Fullerton, the Sydney building, completed in 1891, was in its heyday “the city’s rendezvous location, where Sydneysiders dressed to the nines to meet beneath the [General Post Office] clock,” and today continues to command “a prominent social and physical position in the city.” A stonemasonry specialist was tasked with cleaning the building’s facade — a chemical-free process that took 38,000 hours, according to Fullerton — and the second phase of the facade’s restoration process is underway.

A video about the Fullerton Hotel Singapore features interviews from Singaporeans who worked in the building when it housed the Lion City's General Post Office.

Railway buildings can also be well suited for adaptive reuse. Take the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis, which occupies the site of the country’s first Union Station, built in 1888 and a stopping point for presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Today, the property honors its heritage with 13 Pullman passenger cars that have been converted into 26 hotel guestrooms, which rest on the station’s original train tracks within the building.

Wisconsin’s Hotel Indigo Madison, which opened last year, has housed several businesses over its century of existence, starting out as a grocer’s warehouse before the Mautz Paint Co. took it over in the 1970s. Today, Mautz Paint signage can be seen behind the hotel’s front desk.

Converting the building was relatively problem-free, according to Neil Densmore, founder and president of the Great Lakes Management Group. Still, like most adaptive reuse projects, it brought its share of design conundrums.

“Massive structural concrete pillars throughout the building made the interior design a bit of a challenge,” Densmore said. “There are more than 35 different guestroom floor plans because of those pillars. We had to learn to work around those.”

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The lobby of Wisconsin’s Hotel Indigo Madison displays signage from the building’s former life under the Mautz Paint Co.

The lobby of Wisconsin’s Hotel Indigo Madison displays signage from the building’s former life under the Mautz Paint Co.

The lobby of the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, N.C., in what was once the headquarters of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (Photo by Cris Molina)

The lobby of the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, N.C., in what was once the headquarters of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (Photo by Cris Molina)

The lobby of Wisconsin’s Hotel Indigo Madison displays signage from the building’s former life under the Mautz Paint Co.

The lobby of Wisconsin’s Hotel Indigo Madison displays signage from the building’s former life under the Mautz Paint Co.

The lobby of the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, N.C., in what was once the headquarters of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (Photo by Cris Molina)

The lobby of the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, N.C., in what was once the headquarters of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (Photo by Cris Molina)

‘Great bones’

The challenges of adaptive reuse are familiar to Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, which, like Crowne Plaza and Hotel Indigo, is an InterContinental Hotels Group brand. Kimpton’s many adaptive reuse properties include the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, N.C., previously headquarters for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and said to have served as a sort of prototype for the Empire State Building; and Chicago’s Kimpton Gray Hotel, housed in the New York Life Insurance Building completed in 1894.

According to Ave Bradley, Kimpton’s creative director and senior vice president of design, historical office buildings have been a mainstay for conversion.

“We’ve been invited into adaptive reuse projects in places like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago, among others, many of which were former office buildings,” she said. “The oldest site we’ve transformed was the Hotel Monaco, Washington, D.C., which was the former Tariff Building, established in 1795.” 

And the fact that such buildings can be adapted to accommodate modern hoteliers’ needs is a testament to their workmanship, Bradley said.

“The buildings we find and work with, because of their age, come with a lot of character and architectural style and detail that were inherent to the time in which they were built,” she said. “Having great bones helps us put the initial canvas together.” 

That said, “with historic buildings, you never know what you’re going to find when you tear down a wall or rip out flooring,” she said. “Chances are, the exact path you’ve charted to convert old buildings will change as discoveries are made throughout the demolition and rebuilding process.”

Ave Bradley
‘You never know what you’re going to find when you tear down a wall or rip out flooring.’
—Ave Bradley, Kimpton

It’s a familiar scenario for Baltimore developer Marty Azola, whose firm specializes in adaptive reuse and preservation. Azola Cos. projects have included the Ivy Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property completed in 2015 that comprises a 19th-century mansion and two adjacent row houses.

“When you build a building from scratch, you start from the foundation up, layer by layer, and things go in a logical order: Pipes go under the floor before the concrete’s poured and ductwork [is installed] before the ceiling’s hung,” he said. “At the end of the job, you hang drywall and paint it. Well, at the Ivy, all the old stuff was already entombed in plaster and painted. So how do you run sprinkler pipes? How do you run HVAC systems without destroying the historic finishes?” 

During the Ivy’s design phase, it was decided that space originally allotted for parking would have to become functional space. And complicating matters further, “that whole area was built on a riverbed — who knew?” Azola said. “So we’re digging in the backyard, and bad dirt’s coming up. All of a sudden we’ve got foundation problems to deal with.

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The atrium lobby at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis, which occupies the site of the country’s first Union Station, built in 1888.

The atrium lobby at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis, which occupies the site of the country’s first Union Station, built in 1888.

The tea room at the Ivy Hotel, which comprises a 19th-century mansion and two adjacent row houses in Baltimore.

The tea room at the Ivy Hotel, which comprises a 19th-century mansion and two adjacent row houses in Baltimore.

The atrium lobby at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis, which occupies the site of the country’s first Union Station, built in 1888.

The atrium lobby at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis, which occupies the site of the country’s first Union Station, built in 1888.

The tea room at the Ivy Hotel, which comprises a 19th-century mansion and two adjacent row houses in Baltimore.

The tea room at the Ivy Hotel, which comprises a 19th-century mansion and two adjacent row houses in Baltimore.

‘Historic conscience’

Ultimately, all of the renovations would have to strictly adhere to preservation standards, Azola said. “My role [with the Ivy] was what I call the ‘historic conscience’ of the job,” he said. “We’d have hundreds of people on the job at any given time, and all of a sudden a big hammer drill comes out and somebody’s blowing a hole in a historic wall. You screw up one thing irreversibly and you lose … millions of dollars [in tax credits] on one mistake.”

Concerns over such financial consequences don’t end when construction is completed; there’s also the cost of maintaining a historical structure and thereby retaining those crucial tax credits.

Few buildings are likely to surpass the lineage of El Convento in Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan neighborhood. The property is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World and, as its name suggests, was originally a convent. Completed in the mid-1600s and closed in 1903, the building’s fortunes waned over the ensuing decades until 1962, when scions of the Woolworth family of American retail magnates turned the site into a hotel that attracted guests such as New York socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, for whom a suite is named. 

Today, El Convento takes great pains to pay homage to both its religious roots in the 17th century and its hotel heyday in the mid-20th century.

“Other hotels can remodel or change something without a problem,” said Adrian Mercado, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “Here everything has to be done accordingly so that the essence and the history of the hotel plays a part. Choosing a color to paint one wall is a hassle; you have to be respectful to the history that goes with it.

Adrian Mercado
‘Other hotels can remodel or change something without a problem.’
—Adrian Mercado, El Convento

“It is a lot of maintenance,” he continued. “Compared to other hotels that are 58 rooms, we have a huge engineering and maintenance department.”

Because of the building’s historical value, it sees significant foot traffic from tour groups making their way through Old San Juan, so “you’re painting over the same spot every two months,” Mercado said. “It’s withstood the test of time: hurricanes, earthquakes, you name it. But it requires a lot of upkeep.”

And apart from maintenance, there is the continual need to strike a balance between preservation and contemporary comforts, especially when it comes to refurbishment. 

“It’s a mix and match,” Mercado said of the hotel’s current decor. “Last year we were remodeling the hotel, and we had two options for the rooms. It was either whole new bedroom sets or keeping our antique furniture, toning down the colors, reupholstering, giving it a few touches and then redoing the bathrooms, as well. We decided to keep our good, midcentury furniture.” 

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A guestroom at El Convento in San Juan, which dates to the 1600s.

A guestroom at El Convento in San Juan, which dates to the 1600s.

A guestroom at El Convento in San Juan, which dates to the 1600s.

A guestroom at El Convento in San Juan, which dates to the 1600s.

‘Something new from something old’

On the subject of midcentury aesthetics, few adaptive reuse projects have made more extensive use of aspirational, “Mad Men”-era imagery than New York JFK’s TWA Hotel, previously the TWA Flight Center terminal.  Minibars offer Tab soft drinks and Etch A Sketches, and signage throughout the hotel bears a proprietary typeface, Flight Center Gothic, hand-drawn from the sketches of the building’s designer, Eero Saarinen.

According to Tyler Morse, chairman and CEO of MCR/Morse Development, owner-operator of the 512-room hotel, despite the structure’s Jet Age trappings, the terminal was “virtually obsolete on its opening day, May 28, 1962, because it was sized for 100-passenger prop aircraft, not jets. The structure’s inflexibility prevented modifications to adapt to the changing aviation industry.” The building was abandoned in 2002 until opening as the TWA Hotel last year.

The property abounds in nods to its history, including a 1958 Lockheed Constellation operating as a cocktail lounge and over 2,000 TWA uniforms, flight journals and other artifacts on display throughout.

“I met with [former New York] mayor Mike Bloomberg at the beginning of this project, and he looked at me across the breakfast table and said, ‘You’re crazy. Don’t do this,’” Morse recalled. “But I was drawn to the magnificence of the TWA Flight Center.”

Indeed, the allure of history is central to the adaptive reuse ethos. Looking ahead, “I believe more developers would be keen to take on projects with adaptive reuse, allowing them the opportunity to create something new from something old,” said Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, general manager of Fullerton Hotels and Resorts. “Therein lies the challenge and the appeal.” 

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