Repurposing Mid-Century Commercial as a 21st Century Hotel


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By Jessica Smith

In June 2013 Docomomo US featured an article on the plight of Edward Durell Stone’s (1966-67) World Trade Center in New Orleans. The former International Trade Mart Building was in danger of being demolished while the city was considering three proposals concerning the redevelopment of the building and site, a situation more and more mid-century commercial buildings are encountering as they are considered out-of-date and left vacant. However, hotels like Starwood’s W and Aloft brands have started to target mid-century commercial buildings, like The World Trade Center, for redevelopment rather than going the route of new construction.  

Image (above): Edward Durell Stone’s World Trade Center in New Orleans, Louisiana as boutique hotel. Photo credit: (left), Gateway rendering (right)
The city of New Orleans issued a public Request for Proposals in January 2013 for the World Trade Center’s building and the surrounding site. Gatehouse Capital Corporation of Dallas (the largest developer of the W Hotel Brand), James H. Burch LLC, and Tricentennial Consortium, a coalition of leaders of New Orleans’ major tourism organizations each submitted a proposal for the redevelopment of the site. Gatehouse and James H. Burch’s proposals looked to repurpose the building into a hotel and residential condos. Tricentennial’s proposal sought to demolish the building and construct an “iconic symbol” of New Orleans in its place as a way to incite tourism. Although many were in favor of its demolition, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the New Orleans Building Corporation chose to move forward with the Gatehouse proposal because they offered the clearest vision of development and economic benefits while the other two proposals had too many unclear details. Gatehouse’s proposal includes the conversion of the bottom 12 floors of the 33-story building into a 245-room W Hotel and restaurant, while the other floors will be converted into luxury condo space. The plans to move forward are not yet set in stone, but the two parties entered into lease negotiations for the property just this past September.
Though the redevelopment of the New Orleans’ World Trade Center has been shrouded in controversy and politics, the decision to move forward on Gatehouse’s proposal shows the city’s consideration of the important role this building has played in the city of New Orleans along with its potential to stimulate growth and economic development in the future. It’s also interesting to point out that although adaptive reuse is not a new practice, the fact that the W Hotel has started to look to mid-century commercial property to showcase its brand appears to be part of a growing trend in hotel design. Another Starwood brand, Aloft, is also taking advantage of vacant, mid-century architecture and turning properties into boutique hotels. Within the last 2 years, Aloft has redeveloped buildings in Tulsa, Ok, Orlando, FL, and is looking to redevelop Tampa, FL’s former Mercantile Bank building in 2014.
Image (right): Old City Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, now an Aloft Hotel
A current example of this trend is the restoration of The Old City Hall Tower, by Aloft. Built in 1969 and located in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s downtown historic civic complex, the building served as the City Hall until 2008 when it was considered unable to effectively meet the needs of its occupants, and the base of operations for the city’s government agencies moved to One Technology Center on the east side of downtown. In 2010, after sitting vacant for two years, the developers Brickhugger LLC bought the property with the intention of converting it into an Aloft hotel. The hotel, which opened in May 2013, incorporated the original marble walls and terrazzo floors into the design along with carrying the mid-century aesthetic theme into other aspects like furniture and lighting. The original concrete exterior was also preserved with the addition of Q7 LED pars that illuminates the building at night, making it a recognizable feature in Tulsa’s skyline. Its new function and central location in downtown has provided those staying there with easy access to places downtown, like the Bank of Oklahoma Center (BOK), in addition to providing a hip, modern venue to socialize and unwind after the week is done. Although many of Tulsa’s residents considered the Old City Hall to be an eyesore, its role is recognized as an important part of the development of Tulsa’s economic and aesthetic growth in the 1960’s and was listed as part of Tulsa’s Civic Center Historic District in January of 2012.
Another Aloft project, this time in downtown Orlando, Florida, is the repurposing the mid-20th century Orlando Utility Commission building. Designed by Richard Boone Rodgers and completed in 1967, the building sat vacant from 2008-2011 when the New York based developer GDC Properties LLC purchased it. Designated as a local landmark as well as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the redevelopment of the building provided an opportunity for the developers to take advantage of historic tax credits. Terrazzo floors, teak wood paneling and the Orlando Utility Commission executive office are all being preserved. Ultimately, the hotel will provide a link between the buildings’s past and future, allowing guests the privilege of enjoying an iconic piece of architecture in Orlando’s revitalized downtown. 
Image (left): The Orlando Utility Commission building
In the rebounding economy, adaptive reuse is being recognized as a smart option for hoteliers targeting a younger generation by pairing innovative technology with a touch of history and mid-century modern appeal. Not surprisingly the real estate community has taken notice, and the topic was a major point of discussion at the Crittenden National Real Estate Conference this past spring. Panelists discussed the benefits of adaptive reuse, touching upon the financial benefits in the form of tax incentives but also highlighted the advantage that historic buildings have in creating a historical narrative in a modern setting that showcases the city’s progression into the future. Mid-century modernist buildings like the World Trade Center in New Orleans, LA, Tulsa, OK’s Old City Hall, and the Utility Commission building in Orlando, FL are once again serving as symbols of innovation and cutting-edge design.

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