With so many new openings each year, it can be hard for hotels to set themselves apart. While luxury stays will always be in demand, a saturated market means companies need to work harder to impress picky guests – especially when it comes to competing with home rental networks like Airbnb.
In recent years a new trend has emerged: rather than starting from the ground up, hotel companies are making the most of existing buildings and converting their storied structures into hotels that come with ready-made history.
Guests to Norway’s Hotel Bergen Børs find themselves staying in the city’s former stock exchange – a building that dates back to 1862, and which underwent extensive renovation under the watchful eye of Claesson Koivisto Rune. The studio to helped remodel the structure, combining it with two neighbouring buildings to create a 127-room hotel. The story of its former life permeates through every aspect of Bergen Børs, with parquet flooring, stained glass windows and coffered ceilings retained and restored to their former glory. The Swedish studio also playfully referenced the hotel’s financial past with some sly design details, such as pinstriped wallpaper and houndstooth-patterned fabric.
“We like the fact that it’s difficult for a guest to tell when the hotel was designed”, says the studio’s Eero Koivisto. “For a guest, it should feel seamless, like you’re staying in one hotel – not an ‘old’ or a ‘new’ room.”
“Bergen needed a hotel like this”, adds Kjetil Smørås, owner of De Bergenske hotel group. “The building tells a really strong story: once the city’s most venerable bank and stock exchange, it has been transformed into a classic, modern design hotel.”
It’s not the first time De Bergenske has harnessed the power of historic architecture, either: they also converted a building once used as a shelter for families in need into its Villa Terminus hotel – which also seamlessly blends old and new design details.
However, while some hotels play along with their past, others use the building as a historic shell that can be filled with contrasts. Florence’s Milu Hotel inhabits a 1400s townhouse that might look traditional from the outside, but is nothing but new once guests enter the building. “I wanted to give its interiors a contemporary feel, rather than another neoclassical design”, says architect David Ohayon. “The building’s signature features set the perfect background for a mix between past and present.”
Despite its modern facelift, Ohayon was careful to give the building distinctive character with identikit rooms nowhere in sight. Instead, each features its own colour palette and set of furniture, subtly referencing the building’s past as a family home.
Of course, converting these kinds of buildings poses significant challenges, with many requiring lengthy restoration and sensitive conversion. Balancing what needs to be kept and what needs a modern touch can be tough, and the danger of poor pastiche is ever-present. For Copenhagen’s Nobis Hotel Copenhagen – which occupies what was once the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music – the building’s classic exterior, windows, mouldings and wooden staircase were obvious keeps. Additions needed to be made carefully to avoid the pitfall of creating a faux layer of history.
“We’ve been delicate and respectful, emphasising every detail of the original architecture and decor”, says architect Gert Wingårdh. Elements subtly reference the surrounding building, such as the concrete lobby counter and the grey marble, which recall the hotel’s stone exterior.
Making the most of what’s already there also helps to combat the accusation sometimes faced by luxury hotels: that buildings are too polished, and lack the character that comes from a little bit of roughness around the edges. Renovating an existing building is a chance to retain that sense of quirkiness while blending it with all the attention to detail expected at five-star stays. The novelty factor is also a clear temptation for guests seeking out something new. For example, Ghent hotel 1898 The Post lets guest choose the size of their room according to ‘stamp’, ‘envelope’ or ‘letter’ in remembrance of the building’s post office past; while visitors to Germany’s wryly named Hotel Liberty can enjoy a stay in what once a nineteenth-century prison, sleeping in cells behind steel doors and extra thick walls. When it comes to creating atmosphere, there’s just no beating a bit of history.
Emma Tucker is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and visual culture. She has written for publications including Eye on Design, Dezeen, Creative Review, Grafik, The Pitch, The Spaces, Wrap and Riposte.