In With The Old: New hotels give old buildings fresh identities

9780156453806“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” –Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

To wit: the more we travel, both for business and leisure, the more we learn about the outside world, and, for Calvino anyway, the worlds inside ourselves. Relocation, then, serves as an opportunity to reinvent. And reinvention is not only practiced among travelers; it’s also a booming trend among hoteliers.

The Hatt Mill Building, a former Napa Valley warehouse and feed store, now plays host to the high-end Napa River Inn. On the Salmon River in Altmar, NY, the Tailwater Lodge, an upscale fishing destination, has displaced an old elementary school. The hoteliers behind Hotel Maison in Yakima, WA have given a late 19th century Masonic Temple a modern-in-moderation makeover.

You can call it character, you can call it uniqueness, you could even call it spirited (in fact, some of these gems are said to be haunted), but these independent hotels, reinvented like hundreds of others in small towns and major cities across the country, are anything but boilerplate. And for the business traveler, they are a special reward for the otherwise standard “TSA routine, taxi from the airport, all-day meetings, dinner with the client, taxi back to the airport, flight home” hustle to which they’re accustom.

The business of the business

Beyond cashing in on the architecture and history that gives these repurposed buildings their independent vibe, hoteliers also find it can be far less expensive to remodel an old building than to build a new one. The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive program encourages private sector investors to reuse historic buildings by granting 20 percent tax credits for rehabilitation financing. And when the monies saved from a 20 percent credit are reallocated, travelers see an aesthetic boon. By opting out of the chain hotel model, the independent hoteliers who take advantage of the tax break not only preserve a sense of heritage, but also provide their guests with a more custom, more homey, often times more upscale experience.

Here, eight reinvented independent hotels


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The Buccaneer, St. Croix, USVI

From a Maltan knight to a Danish dignitary, from sugar cultivation to cotton farming and cattle ranching, the property’s ownership and history (not to mention any non-European claims) dates back to 1653. In 1947, the Armstrong family, who had owned and operated the cattle estate since 1922, opened The Buccaneer with eleven guest rooms on the picturesque Estate Shoys. These days, the hotel wins “World’s Best” accolades and plays host to the likes of Vice President Joe Biden and conservative die-hard Bill O’Reilly, though not likely together, sipping the cool rum drinks The Buccaneer has come to be known for.

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Hotel Skyler, Syracuse, NY

In 1921, local Syracuse architect Gordon Wright designed the Temple Adath Yeshurun. The building later housed a performance arts center called Salt City Theatre, which reportedly hung large “Jesus Christ Superstar” signs indelicately promoting their annual musical production. In recent years, the synagogue-turned-theatre has taken on a new identity as an upscale hotel that meets the high standards of the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum rating system. Between sophisticated energy management systems, green housekeeping practices, locally sourced construction materials, and the upcycled stained-glass windows that color the common areas, the Skyler’s most environmentally friendly element is the reuse of the structure itself.

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Mill Street Inn, Newport, RI

In the mid 19th century, the wealthy residents of Newport, Rhode Island rode in on a wave of riches from trading in the Far East. By 1900, many of the nation’s most affluent had built “summer cottages” in town, including the Vanderbilts, who commissioned famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to construct a 125,339 square foot juggernaut of a cottage called The Breakers. J.D. Johnston, builder and owner of the original Mill Street Inn, which at the time stood as a woodworking shop, is said to have worked with Hunt and perhaps hammered a few nails at The Breakers. Johnston’s shop burned down in 1890 and was promptly rebuilt with brick. The building was used for millwork until the 1980s when the current owners purchased and converted it into an all-suites hotel. A renovation in 2007 saw an emphasis on modernity while retaining the building’s historic charm.

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Napa River Inn, Napa, CA

The Napa River Inn’s history runs deep, down to some of its original bricks which were shaped from Napa River clay. And the tongue and groove White Rock maple floor boards in the Captain Albert Hatt Suite, named after Albert E. Hatt, who ran a shipping and merchant business on the property in the late 19th century, came from the building’s original 1880s roller skating rink, which Hatt railed in from Chicago. The Napa River Inn was built with architectural attention on keeping the past in the picture, and in 2000, the Inn welcomed its first guests. The Inn stands as an emblem of the renaissance of scenic downtown Napa, where restaurants, nightlife, wine tastings abound.

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Tailwater Lodge, Altmar, NY

Operating out of a former elementary school, the Tailwater Lodge, a sportsman’s dream, now offers an environmental education by arranging guide services fishing on the Salmon River and nearby Lake Ontario. While the Lodge is great for a leisure weekend out of the city, it’s also a unique setting for a corporate retreat. After a day on the water, guests return to their rustic yet upscale-urban rooms to unwind before a fine meal at the highly rated on-site restaurant and bar—miles ahead of the assorted horse parts that Lunch Lady Dora used to serve up at Altmar Elementary.

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The Priory, Pittsburgh, PA

In 1888, twenty-five Benedictine monks and priests lived at 614 Pressley Street. Nearly one century later, historic preservationists Edwards Graf and his wife Mary Ann bought the hulking building and converted it into a hotel: The Priory. In 2011, the Graf family unveiled seventeen new guestrooms, a bar called Monk’s, a fitness center, and a business center. The Priory also boasts one of the region’s premier ballrooms: the opulent Grand Hall, which is set in the adjoining former church.

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Hotel Maison, Yakima, WA

Known as “Fruit Bowl of the Nation,” Yakima outgrew its infrastructure when its population more than tripled in ten years at the outset of the 20th century, a time when many took Horace Greeley’s “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country” to heart. In 1911, a group of Yakima Freemasons built a seven story Masonic Temple, the tallest building between Seattle and Spokane at the time. Today, the Yakima Valley is still an agricultural hub and full of diversity. And the century-old Masonic Temple has been converted into Yakima’s first boutique hotel. The landmark property offers high-end amenities and comfy accommodations for the rare moments guests aren’t out enjoying area wineries and breweries in Yakima’s 300 days per year of sunshine.

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Quiet Creek Inn, Idyllwild, CA

Outside Los Angeles, Quiet Creek Inn began as a dude ranch in the 1800s, reaching its height between the 1940s and 60s. In fact, one of horses that played the talking horse on the popular 60s TV show Mister Ed is buried on the premises. In the 1980s the ranch added several cabins designed by architect Robert Priefer to complement the existing ranch style. The original hitching post, now wrapped in honeysuckle, remains to the left of Cabin One. And to gallop further down the trail of history, reports of a Cahuilla princess spirit still walking the hills in full regalia circulate among locals. Today the property frequently hosts small to mid-size businesses for retreats, corporate workshops, and getaway incentives for sales staff. Quiet Creek offers an intimate setting close to San Diego, Los Angeles, or Palm Springs and allows full-property rentals.

Everything old becomes new again

In Calvino’s postmodern literary travelogue, the youngish explorer Marco Polo dialogues with the aging Mongol emperor Kublai Khan about his far-flung travels, detailing the many cities he’s visited with seductively rendered physical and metaphysical descriptors. While each city—one with spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, another with earth instead of air—differs from the next, common themes emerge.

In Clarice, a city with an oscillating history of decadence and decay, with populations and customs changing over the centuries, everything old becomes new again, over and over again.

“The capitals could have been in the chicken runs before they were in the temples, the marble urns could have been planted with basil before they were filled with dead bones. Only this is known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them.”

So it goes: A 19th century Benedictine monastery finds an afterlife in the form of a premier hotel in Pittsburg. An old dude ranch with a roaming Native American spirit becomes a quiet, forested inn in the California hills. And a small property on a tiny island in the Caribbean—whose inhabitants have ranged from hunter-gatherers to pirates to sugarcane farmers—accumulates histories of Danish royalty and cotton industry before standing today as a luxury resort.

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