IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Travel back in time at restored, historic hotels

For a growing number of travelers looking for a more authentic hotel experience, or longing for a sense of place, a  restored historic hotel may be the answer. TODAY Travel editor Peter Greenberg  highlights the older hotels enjoying a great renaissance.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

There’s an old saying that if you can’t remember the past, you’re doomed to repeat it. But when it comes to hotels, if you do remember the past, and have the money and vision to do the work, you can restore it — and that’s a win-win for heritage, hotels and guests.

And in some cases, with former historic office buildings, banks, and yes, even prisons, developers have been able to convert them into hotels.

In almost every case, what gets preserved are high ceilings, natural light, fireplaces, wide hallways, stained glass windows and last but not least — history brought back to life. Welcome to the world of the restored hotel.

In cities and towns all across America, from Boston to Wichita, Kan., from Manhattan to Milford, Pa., from Arizona to Milwaukee, older hotels are enjoying a great renaissance as these buildings with history are being lovingly restored.

And for a growing number of savvy travelers looking for a more authentic hotel experience, or longing for a sense of place, a restored historic hotel may be the answer.

In some cases, these older hotels had been abandoned or closed — many had been shuttered for as long as 30 years. In other cases, they had once been prisons, or hospitals. Still others were within days of the wrecking ball when they were saved, completely restored and brought back to their original glory.

The history of a property is perhaps the most valuable marketing element of a hotel. Conversely, there’s the tragedy of what can be lost if a hotel is not properly restored or preserved.

One important distinction between a renovation and restoration: Every single hotel — at least once during its history — undergoes a necessary renovation, when furniture, furnishings, bathrooms and fixtures are replaced and electrical wiring or materials are brought up to fire codes.

But a restoration is much more than that. It’s when a hotel and its history are not just celebrated, but brought back to life.

In fact, it is not uncommon for the restoration of a hotel to reach $100 million. In the 1980s, the restoration of the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the old Union Station in St. Louis (the historic train station and hotel) was one of the largest restoration/conversion projects. And the Hotel Del Coronado in California has spent $225 million over the past 10 years for restoration, renovation and development.

But it's not always about size — it's the preservation attempt itself.

Consider the story of the small, 16-room Fauchere in Milford, Pa. The hotel was first opened in 1852, by Louis Fauchere, the Swiss-born, French-speaking master chef at New York City’s Delmonico’s restaurant. The guestbook contains such notable names as Robert Frost, President Theodore Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, Henry Ford, the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, and film pioneer D. W. Griffith.

It was run by the Fauchere family until it closed in 1976, and it stayed closed and essentially abandoned for 25 years. In 2001, Milford businessmen Sean Strub and Richard L. Snyder purchased the hotel and began to restore it. The owners adhered to rigorous U.S. Department of the Interior historic restoration guidelines.

The restoration has reused as much of the original historic fabric of the building as possible, including the marble floor in the front hallway. Restoration of this Italianate structure hotel took five years and the total cost of the restoration was $8 million; it finally reopened in 2006, with room rates ranging from $275 to $350. And downstairs, they opened a small restaurant with a signature dish that was anything but restored — sushi pizza.

Out west, in Scottsdale, Ariz., there’s the legendary Camelback Resort, part of the Marriott chain. John F. Kennedy, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Bette Davis were regular guests. As the original hotel — spread out over 125 acres — got older, and as the land it is on became more expensive, the decision was made not to tear the hotel down, but to restore it. In this case, the challenge was made more difficult because the original buildings were made of adobe.

During the 1930s the original adobe was made of clay, with sand and straw serving as bonding agents. While some of the large original bricks were salvaged, most of the salvaged material was in the form of small pieces that were rehydrated, repacked and reshaped by hand.

During the restoration, the crew uncovered intricate original woodwork, a beam signed by the original contractor and two circular windows that were thought to have been removed long ago. The restoration plans integrate these windows.

Sometimes a hotel’s history has nothing to do with its being a hotel. Such is the case with the Liberty, in Boston. The hotel was once the Charles Street Jail. It was completed in 1851 by Gridley James Fox Bryant, known for being Boston’s most accomplished architect, and Louis Dwight, a successful Yale-educated penologist who was passionate about advocacy for prison reform.

As a jail, it had its own history.

It housed some of Boston’s most infamous inmates: Boston Mayor James Michael Curley and Frank Abagnale Jr., the cunning forger played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can.”

When they restored the building, they turned it into ... a hotel. In the process, the architects consulted with historians and conservationists from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Boston Landmarks Commission, the National Park Service and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The owners referred to the original architectural drawings in order to adhere to the same vision of prison architecture as in the mid-19th century.

The building draws from Romanesque and Renaissance forms, has circular wood “ocular” windows, four radiating wings, each with large, three-story arched windows that are flourished with French design, as indicated by voussoirs, or wedge-shaped stones that form the curved parts of an arch. The good news: These windows yielded light “four times as great as that in any prison yet constructed.”

The original architect had initially included a cupola, or domelike structure, in his design, which would have allowed more light into the rotunda but it was reduced due to financial constraints. In 1949, it was completely removed. During one of the renovations, the cupola was rebuilt based on Bryant’s original design.

In the conversion, the developers were able to save just about everything: The jail’s granite exterior and expansive interiors have been largely unchanged. The 90-foot central atrium was preserved and stands as a focal point of the hotel — complete with catwalks. And then there’s Alibi, the hotel’s first-floor bar, which is ironically located within the jail’s former “drunk tank,” complete with original iron-bar doors and blue stone flooring.

In Wichita, Kan., locals know all about the Broadview.

The hotel, located along the banks of the Arkansas River in the heart of Wichita, first opened in 1922. At the time, the standard price for a room with a bath was $2.50, and for each additional person, it was $1.50. These classic rooms came with Murphy beds. But the hotel was really famous for its ballrooms, chandeliers and marble-floored lobby. Al Capone, Charles Lindbergh and FDR all stayed at the hotel.

During Prohibition, the locals also knew about the Broadview’s speakeasy.

The owner built the hotel over tunnels that were used to smuggle alcohol. During Prohibition times, “booze and the women” secretly passed part of the river to enter the speakeasy, a basement club that could seat 600 people.

In recent years, the hotel was considered a candidate for the wrecking ball. But a decision was made not just to save it, but to totally renovate it.

And while the Broadview’s speakeasy was well known, the hotel contained a number of surprises that were revealed during the restoration.

The lobby chandeliers were the most lavish discovery during the restoration. When the “drop ceilings” were removed, large, beautiful chandeliers that had been hidden for years were revealed. Also, when the lobby floor was polished, a unique marble pattern was discovered.

In Milwaukee, Wis., a 100-year-old warehouse was saved, restored for $29 million and turned into the Iron Horse Hotel.

In 1907, William Berger commissioned the Milwaukee architectural firm of Buemming and Dick to build the warehouse for the Berger Bedding Company. The building was divided into the factory (today’s hotel) and the warehouse (Smyth, located behind the building’s firewall). The building was a bedding company until 1927. Then it became a cold storage until 2005, when the decision was made to save the building. The new Iron Horse Hotel will be opening this summer.  It’s the first hotel that will cater to motorcycle enthusiasts, and features:

  • Just a few revs away from the new Harley-Davidson Museum, the hotel offers covered motorcycle parking, a bike wash and in-room storage for boots, helmets and leathers
  • The hotel’s exposed beams and timbers are 300-year-old hemlock. They had to be removed, and local carpenters-in-training fashioned them into benches that are located in each guestroom
  • Each room has original artwork that resembles industrial spills created by local artists. Materials include aluminum and motorcycle parts.
  • The building’s boiler room now houses the hot tub/chilling pool room — right in the old boiler pit. Dubbed The Boiler Room, it still has the original firing door and the hotel’s hot tub is located in the building’s original boiler room
  • Native Americans referred to the train as the “iron horse,” and the hotel is located on railroad tracks; current pop culture also refers to the motorcycle as the modern iron horse, so that’s how the hotel became known as The Iron Horse Hotel

Last but not least is the restoration of a New York City landmark, the Plaza. Construction began on the first Plaza Hotel in 1883, and it opened in 1890. It was demolished in 1905 to build an even bigger hotel, which was completed in 1907 for $12.5 million.

The Plaza was then bought and sold about seven times over the years by entities including Donald Trump and a Saudi Arabian prince. It was closed again for extensive restoration in 2005. The restoration cost $400 million and took two years.

The installation of the spectacular 1,800-square-foot laylight, or stained glass ceiling, of the Palm Court at The Plaza is an integral part of the restoration of this landmark space, which included everything from reinstating the original floor, wall and decorative finishes, to the re-creation of the room's plaster-and-glass cornice; however, re-creating the magnificent ceiling proved a daunting challenge. There were no plans, no color charts, and no color photography — only a few black-and-white photographs for the contractors/architects to consult. The ceiling’s historic restoration was based on the retrieval of shards of colored glass from the original ceiling, archival data and architectural records.

Playing forensic detectives, stained glass experts used the same idea behind the MGM colorization process to create a game plan for reconstructing the ceiling. Specialists took black-and-white photos of the remaining stained glass shards, along with written histories, to figure out how the color tonalities in the old photographs translated to how the re-created ceiling should look. At the Plaza, the restoration of the public rooms was just as important — perhaps more important than the guest rooms. And it shows. Eloise, the legendary fictional child of the Kay Thompson books, who cavorted through the Plaza, may just live again.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at