The new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, with fetishistic throwback interiors by Roman and Williams, is part of a worldwide hospitality trend of turning neglected structures into alluring properties.

Chicago Athletic Association
Cindy's, the rooftop restaurant at the recently opened Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.
| Credit: Chicago Athletic Association

The last time I visited the Chicago Athletic Association, two decades ago, my date had to wear a dinner jacket. We were meeting my parents in the dining room of the private men’s club on Michigan Avenue, where my father was a member. Even now, the low lights, sumptuous architectural details, and tang of chlorine flicker through my memory. I can’t swear that any of the dishes were served in aspic, but the place had that feeling.

The club closed in 2007. The 1893 Venetian gothic building where Johnny Weismuller—the Olympian and actor who played Tarzan—once swam sat empty until last May, when it reopened as the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. Stopping by with my husband, daughter, and mother, I frankly dreaded what I would find. I knew that the architectural studio Roman and Williams had done the interiors. To my eye, their design work—as seen at the Ace Hotel in New York, a hipster haven of semi-ironic references—sometimes edges into cartoon historicism. I wanted more respect for my fancy, fossilized stomping grounds.

Nor was I encouraged by the news that a Shake Shack had opened on the premises.

What I saw was better than expected. Yes, the hotel’s interiors are a bit too cute with their many self-conscious sporting references, including guest-room table legs wrapped like the handle of a tennis racket. Cute is something Chicago design should never be. I was relieved though to see that the building has gained a true public spirit. This is partly a matter of accessibility, of course, now that all are welcome in the communal spaces. (Though it comes with some sacrifices, like the conversion of the 130-foot pool into an event space.) But the formality of carefully restored ox-size fireplaces and marble staircases didn’t dim the rosy glow of conviviality. My family ate hamburgers in the wood-trimmed Game Room near the pool tables and bocce court. My daughter and I played foosball. Jackets were not required.

Chicago Athletic Association
A guest room at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.
| Credit: Thomas Hart Shelby

The Chicago Athletic Association is one of more than a dozen historic properties in the city that have been, or soon will be, converted into hotels. And anywhere you go in the world these days, it seems you can find a quirky adaptive-reuse hospitality project. Care to stay in a former Turkish prison? Try the Four Seasons in Istanbul. A Hong Kong police station? How about the Tai O Heritage hotel on Lantau Island? A Mexican ice factory? Consider La Purificadora in Puebla.

Hotel conversions mean new lives for buildings that have outgrown their intended uses. Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy Airport and his late-1950s United States Embassy in London are both scheduled to become hotels, having been deemed too old-fashioned for modern air travel and diplomacy.

With tax credits or easy financing acting as incentives in many places, these projects channel money into landmarks that might otherwise fall to ruin. Starwood, for instance, recently unveiled plans to build a W hotel on the sites of a 12th-century convent and 19th-century hospital in the ancient Israeli port of Jaffa.

Such undertakings appeal to experience collectors (a.k.a. millennials), who would prefer to stay in an Episcopal-diocese-mission-turned-strip-club than a Holiday Inn. Major hotel chains are taking note and putting more of their branches in unique containers. Even buildings with undistinguished histories are finding exalted new lives. In Asbury Park, N.J., a long-derelict Salvation Army headquarters will next year become a luxe beach hotel known as the Asbury, the city’s first new property in half a century.

Still, questions about authenticity bubble up. Are vintage rail stations, courthouses, and department stores preserved only to become historical theme parks? Do entrepreneurs save buildings only to kill their souls?

In this business, character is a commodity to be manipulated for profit. It can be a Faustian bargain. But if hotel conversions aren’t a solution to rescuing old buildings, where will we go to see carved beams and sparkling mosaics, rare marble, and rich solid woods? Such details were once common in public spaces. Even if they are becoming spectacles like giant pandas, roped off for our delight, they are better off surviving in compromised quarters than wiped off the face of the earth.

Follow Julie on Twitter at @julielasky1.