The latest hotel entrepreneurs are taking over long-standing buildings, giving new openings a sense of history.

By Alex Van Buren
April 24, 2016
Courtesy of Old No 77

For a while there, it seemed like every search for a boutique hotel resulted in slick-design this and oontz-oontz that. But nowadays there’s a different trend afoot. Instead of the most cutting-edge materials and severe looks, rooms are tricked out with the original bones of a century-old building, or wooden floorboards with nicks and scuffs. In New Orleans, the “brand-new” Ace Hotel is in an Art Deco edifice built in 1928. Down the street, the Old No. 77 hotel makes the Ace look like a baby by comparison: Its 1854 façade sports 2015-era fittings. In Oklahoma City, the 21c Museum Hotel chain will open a space in a 100-year-old Ford Motor Company assembly plant this summer—hot on the heels of its Lexington spot, situated in the century-old Fayette National Bank Building.

Is it possible that the hottest new hotels are actually old?

Jeremy Levitt, co-owner of Parts and Labor Design, an interior design firm that revamped the Old No. 77 hotel (as well as Savannah restaurant The Grey, perhaps the most beautiful restaurant we’ve ever seen), notes a general trend of entrepreneurs taking over old buildings. “We have a lot of people coming to us saying ‘We have this old warehouse … or trading post, or tobacco warehouse, or firehouse, or library.’” Old spaces are pragmatic as well as inspiring; an old building already has rooms in place. But the old also brings a sort of timelessness to the table, he says. “It’s the same thing with fashion, revisiting earlier eras—60s, 70s, 40s—it sort of recycles itself.”

As to why an exposed brick wall so compels us in the first place, Levitt says, “It’s an old way of building; it’s a new way of building. I think it’s just really nostalgic no matter which way you put it.” Old brick is so beautiful, he thinks, in part “because it feels so handmade; the older it is, the more hand-done it feels. There’s such an amazing old-world quality to brickwork; there’s texture and depth and color variety.” Levitt loves how much warmth it lends to a space. “You put a rug on the floor, and a sofa, and you have yourself a really comfortable [space]. An old brick wall goes a very long way.”

Molly Swyers is chief brand officer of the 21c chain; seven of the company’s eight hotels occupy old buildings. The impetus, she says, is in part a desire to revitalize urban spaces, such as downtown Louisville or other cities, with unoccupied historic buildings. When asked to dial into the specific charms of these spaces, she conjures the marble in the foyer of the hotel in Lexington, which was once a bank.

“When you walk in and see that historic fabric, and it’s beautiful, you think about the history of the building and its former use as a bank.” On an emotional level, she says, “it almost takes you to an aspirational place, because it’s thought of as something that’s very luxurious or high-end. It may cause you to stand up a little straighter and think, ‘Oh, I’m in a very special place.’” The mind starts lingering on the history of the location, she says: “the soul of the building, if you will.”

Crucially for design aficionados, new elements are present in their hotels, too: Swyers quotes her architect Deborah Berke, whose design refrain for 21c is “The old looks better in the presence of the new.” At 21c, contemporary art is a major focus in the renovated buildings.

At the Old No. 77, brick walls, huge old windows, and wooden floorboards mingle with “pieces that aren’t overly modern but are still a little newer and comfortable and interactive,” Levitt says. Perhaps the ceiling in one room featuring a patchy old brick wall also has a ceiling painted cornflower blue, with red pipes as accents, and a yellow mid-century chair. The thing about that brick wall, he points out, is that “it’s so recognizable that it’s easy to design around.”

Is the era of the sleek, modern hotel with a rooftop club and zero old touches over? Hardly, Levitt says. “I think there is a beauty to innovation. … There’s always a place for modern design that pushes the envelope.” He namechecks Carlo Scarpa and Frank Lloyd Wright as examples. “Back then, it may have seemed innovative and crazy, but today it’s paved the way. … Any form of design, modern or nostalgic, works if it’s done tastefully.”

Alex Van Buren is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.