The hotel industry is enjoying a boom time in Philadelphia.
New accommodations are under construction in what will be the city's tallest office tower, the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center; in what will be the state's highest residential building, the SLS building; and at other sites on the Penn and Drexel campuses, in Center City, and in Fishtown.
Some of the new hotels will adapt historic spaces, including the Family Court, Liberty Title and Trust, and the Willis Hale Building at Juniper and Chestnut Streets.
But few hospitality companies and contemporary chains are willing to take on the preservation and maintenance of historic hotel buildings — those inns that hosted famous guests for decades and catered to generations of travelers.
The old hotels often pose too many challenges due to their original designs, the expense of updating, and the expectations of most contemporary visitors.
Yet those who seek the character of a grand old lobby and elegant rooms can still find well-preserved historic hotels along the byways of Pennsylvania. They may not be exactly the way our grandparents found them, but they do retain the charm and singular experience of an earlier age.
Location and accommodation
The demise of many older hotels in this region and throughout the U.S. often had to do with their location, explained Mindy Crawford, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, the commonwealth's private, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting historic resources.
Early hotels were often built in a city's downtown, in the center of population and commerce. With the rise of car culture in the 1950s and '60s, roadside inns and motels became the stopovers for Americans on the go. "They were looking for cheap hotels near the interstate — places to change and eat. You had no idea of the quality of a place, so you looked for familiar brands," like Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inn, Crawford said.
To draw visitors downtown now, cities must offer special events, attractions and a vibrant shopping and restaurant district. "You have to have the market — some reason to come into the city and stay in a historic building," Crawford said.
The hotels erected in earlier centuries also were designed to accommodate as many guests as possible. The rooms were small and guests usually shared a bathroom. Updating a historic hotel begins with knocking down walls and creating suites and larger standard rooms. Other renovations must follow: installing fire sprinklers, adding access for disabled guests, and addressing other safety issues. Equally important in the 21st century are access to WiFi, business centers, gyms, and other amenities.
"Keeping a hotel as a hotel requires a lot of change," Crawford said. More often, a downtown hotel developer will choose to repurpose an old mill or factory, "where they're starting with a blank canvas."
Crawford, of course, sees the advantages of staying in a long-established, well-appointed older hotel. "I prefer the idea of walking into a hotel with a grand lobby, comfy seats, beautiful rugs, and even a fountain sometimes. When you travel, it can be hard to be on the road, and some people like staying in a room that could be anywhere. But those places with charm and lovely hallways and furniture — there's something special about them."