MECHELEN, Belgium — At Martin’s Patershof hotel, the owners don’t roll out the average welcome mat. No, when you arrive, you will find spread out at your feet a projection of a long stained-glass window.
It is a harbinger of surprises to come when you stay at this boutique hotel — transformed from a Franciscan monastery dating to 1867. The stained-glass projection is of one of the few original windows that have been preserved but can no longer be seen inside the hotel, which had to be renovated and repurposed under the extremely strict preservation guidelines of the Belgian government.
Monsumenten en Landschappen, the government’s architectural organization, required that the historic value of the monastery, which eventually fell into disuse when not enough monks lived there to sustain it, be preserved in all respects. One of the stipulations was that the circular stained-glass rose window above the main entrance remain visible in its entirety.
The columns, the choir and the altar also had to be retained. It was a challenging — sometimes almost impossible — project. But the executives at Martin’s Hotels were used to such situations.
Architectural challenges are de rigueur when turning historic buildings into modern hotels.
Martin’s Hotels, based in Belgium, has distinguished itself in the past decade for such repurposing projects. It now has eight historic properties in Belgium and is on the lookout for properties to add to its portfolio.
And Martin’s is but one of many companies embracing the idea of repurposing, rather than building new hotels from the ground up.
Growing competition for prime locations for urban hotel development is partly spurring the trend. The tactic doesn’t save money, by any means.
As with the Patershof, strict preservation guidelines usually are involved, and expensive research and expertise is required to come up with solutions.
But in these times of experiential and authentic travel, a hotel with historic bones, an authentic story — not to mention a very cool guestroom like mine at the Patershof, which featured stained-glass windows on three sides — is going to appeal to travelers. Repurposed hotels not only offer a story about the history of the building but an account of how it was adapted to its current use, too.
Martin’s portfolio includes a former sugar refinery dating to 1836, Martin’s Grand Hotel in Waterloo, and a 15th-century Carthusian monastery, Hotel de Orangerie in Bruges, among others.
Here are a few of the experiences available for those who want a little bit of bygone with their bed and breakfast — hotels where history is built into the very foundations of the guest experience:
• The Vanderbilt Grace, Newport, R.I. The Vanderbilt family built this home in 1909 as a retreat during the Gilded Age. Grace Hotels, a relatively new, upscale chain, turned one of the few private homes of the era into a fully functioning luxury hotel. It features 33 guestrooms and suites plus a spa and two restaurants.
• The Langham, Boston. If you’ve got a good set of olfactories, or a good imagination, you may be able to smell the money at the Langham, which used to be home to the Federal Reserve Bank. The 1922 Renaissance revival building was turned into a hotel in 1981, giving it bragging rights as one of the first repurposed buildings turned hotels.
• The Langham, Chicago. If its East Coast chain-mate can claim being the first, the Langham Chicago can call itself one of the newest repurposed hotels. It opened in July. The hotel occupies the first 12 floors of the 52-story landmark the locals know as the IBM Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe.
• Fitger’s Inn, Duluth, Minn. The former brewery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now a luxury inn with a variety of amenities and views of Lake Superior. The entire property has been turned into a shopping, dining and entertainment complex, complete with Duluth’s Lakewalk just steps away.
• The Courtyard New Orleans French Quarter/Iberville. The building, which dates to 1878 and is just a block from Bourbon Street, was once the Maison Blanche department store.
• Caboose Motel, Avoca, N.Y. At this sleepy outpost in the Finger Lakes region, guests can get cozy in one of five cabooses, dating to 1916, on tracks dating even further back, to 1896. Owner Jack McBride will greet you, most probably in his striped railroad cap and show you to your room, updated but by no means luxurious. After all, this is a caboose, not the Orient Express.
• Kendall Hotel, Cambridge, Mass. Owners Charlotte Forsythe and Gerald Fandetti carefully repurposed the former Engine 7 Firehouse, which became a hotel in 2002 and today has 77 rooms, completely with firefighter bunkhouse touches.
• Chattanooga Choo Choo, Tenn. The station that marked the final stop on the train immortalized by Glenn Miller was scheduled to be demolished in the 1970s, but investors turned it into an amazing 25-acre hotel complex instead. You now can choose from among 48 rooms in the hotel’s converted train cars. Bring your own train whistle.
• Çırağan Palace, Istanbul. The residence of Ottoman sultans in the mid-19th century allows you to live like royalty, at least for the duration of your stay. Kempinski now owns the property.
• Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, India. Taj specializes in luxe properties, so why wouldn’t it go for royal digs whenever they come onto the market? The Lake Palace was the vacation home of a prince, dating to 1746. It was also featured in the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. Taj bought it and renovated the royal space with 66 guestrooms and 17 suites as well as several restaurants and a spa.
• Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur, India. Perched on a hill above the desert capital of Jodhpur, the Umaid Bhawan was the last of the great palaces of India to be built. It’s another Taj-managed hotel, but the royal family remains in residence — though the hotel is entirely separate from its section. The cachet remains in 70 guestrooms and suites. In a TripAdvisor poll last year, Umaid Bhawan Palace was voted the world’s top hotel.
• Mandarin Oriental, Prague. The five-star hotel started life as a 14-century monastery. Luxury here includes rooms with dome-shaped ceilings and monastic gardens.
• Dukes Hotel, London. This hotel is part of a 16th-century King Henry VIII palace. Today it’s a 5-minute walk to Buckingham Palace, but those who book one of its six rooms or suites may get a better flavor for the life of royalty at this very proper British boutique hotel.
• COMO The Treasury, Perth, Australia. The 140-year-old State Building today offers 48 rooms true to the original post-modern design, retaining its brick façade and Roman columns, as well as the institutional oversized windows and high ceilings in all the guestrooms.
Jill Schensul |USA Today Network