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Hotel Restoration Becomes a Worldwide Trend

September 21, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

In the unforgiving economic climate of the travel industry, one item has apparently outpaced all others--the construction costs of hotels. On the average, it costs a staggering $200,000 per room to build a hotel.

As a result, many hoteliers are looking at their existing properties and making a wise decision.

They are lovingly restoring the hotels.

For the owners, the cost of restoring and renovating their hotels is often less than half the cost of building new ones. And for guests, the return of the grand hotels can be a definite plus: larger guest rooms and bathrooms, more thoughtful design, thicker walls, and last but not least, a distinct sense of history and charm.

Throughout the United States a growing number of historic hotels are being restored. Lincoln Hotels Corp. has specialized in refurbishing some grand old hotels in San Antonio; Little Rock, Ark.; St. Paul, Minn., and Philadephia.

Part of Renovation

In St. Louis the 550-room Omni International hotel is brand new, but it was built as part of the city's $140-million Union Station renovation. The hotel's lobby is the depot's wonderfully restored Grand Hall, with carved ceilings.

The Equinox, a 216-year-old resort hotel (and national landmark) in Manchester Village, Vt., that had been falling apart for 13 years was lovingly restored to a tune of $20 million.

Texas can boast substantial hotel restoration. San Antonio has five beautifully restored hotels. Dallas has three. And Galveston boasts hotels such as the Tremont House (a 19th-Century counting house).

In Seattle, extensive work has been done to restore the 76-room Sorrento hotel. And part of the once tumbledown waterfront has been turned into the Alexis Hotel. Perhaps the most extensive restoration in Seattle belongs to the Olympic, a 62-year-old landmark brought back to life with a $60-million restoration.

In Hawaii, Sheraton has tried to keep the old pink palace, the 166-room Royal Hawaiian, the way it was with a $4-million face lift. Built in 1927, the hotel retains much of its original wicker furniture and room design.

Each Room Photographed

"We have so many repeat guests here," spokeswoman Barbara Sheehan said, "that they want the rooms to be exactly the same." As a result, the hotel's housekeeping department has photographed each room. When repeat guests arrive again, their favorite furniture is moved back to the room.

Perhaps the strongest commitment to hotel restoration is at some Inter-Continental hotels. In Australia the company is restoring Sydney's landmark Treasury buildings as a 545-room hotel. In France the company restored the 108-year-old Continental Hotel in Paris (now the Inter-Continental).

The most challenging (if not expensive) restoration has been to Washington's Willard Hotel, which celebrates its grand reopening this week.

The hotel had been closed for 18 years. It was built in 1901 and soon became known as the "hotel of presidents." The hotel unceremoniously closed July 15, 1968.

Now, Inter-Continental has invested a near-record $120 million to bring the Willard back to its original style and grace, and virtually everything in the huge building has been restored to its original condition.

Overseas Projects

Hotel restoration work is just as active overseas.

Many of the older hotels in England were poorly designed buildings. Rooms were small, bathrooms smaller. They were poorly heated in winter. In summer, air conditioning was non-existent.

As more Americans visited the United Kingdom and complained about their accommodations, British hoteliers were faced with a choice: to build new buildings or renovate the existing properties. They chose the latter.

In doing so, they fought to maintain the little things about each hotel that made for good travel experiences.

The Mayfair Hotel in London spent $15 million on its restoration. The project included enlarging guest bedrooms and installing central air conditioning. It also included keeping the original water-heated towel racks in each bathroom.

"We discovered a number of things hidden under false ceilings," reported the general manager, Patrick Board, "including a fantastic old chandelier that had always been in the lobby but we never knew it."

Piccadilly's New Look

In 1908 the 296-room Piccadilly was the hotel in London. Two years ago, tired and shabby, it catered to discount tour groups and the occasional tourist who couldn't find a room elsewhere.

In 1983, the hotel was acquired by Gleneagles Hotels. It underwent a $22.4-million top-to-bottom restoration and changed its name to the New Piccadilly.

The beautiful Australian oak paneling was stripped of paint to expose the grain of the wood. Venetian chandeliers were regilded. Heated towel racks in guest bathrooms were repaired.

The only new--and necessary--touches: All windows were double-glazed for insulation in winter, and air conditioning was added for summer.

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