Checking in?

Essential urbanity

By one definition, cities are fundamentally places where strangers can meet to exchange ideas. The urban sociologist Richard Sennett writes extensively on the public space of cities, and how crucial public space is to the exchange of ideas. Public space means not just streets and parks, but cafés, coffee shops, bars, theaters, cyberspace–and hotels.

Hotels are so fundamental to experiencing a city that we tend to take them for granted. I have been an obsessed student of hotel history and design since I was a kid, fascinated by the layers of public/private spaces, and the mix of people found in these spaces. And I have been unhappy with Birmingham’s lack of a truly great hotel since I was aware of the term. Birmingham’s full-service hotels used to all be located downtown, and all within an easy walk of Terminal Station. The Tutwiler, Redmont, Dixie-Carlton, Thomas Jefferson, Molton and Bankhead were among the best known.

Today, the Tutwiler (in another building) and the Redmont remain, both considerable shadows of their former selves (pleasant enough, but lacking the amenities and vitality these hotels were once known for). The rest have disappeared. There is no longer a true 4-star hotel downtown (much less a 5-star), or anywhere nearby. Which is troubling for the state’s economic and population center, to say the least.

Hotels, in their best urban roles, facilitate the exchange of ideas through a very porous interface with the street. Lobbies, restaurants, bars, lounges, meeting rooms, ballrooms–these are often favorite places to rendezvous, and the multiple entrances facilitate easy access to visitors.  The streets around hotels are typically animated with people coming and going. A busy, bustling hotel signifies a busy, bustling city. Think about the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York, where you can enter the lobby, ballrooms, various restaurants and bars all through multiple entrances.

Porosity on the street

Now back to Birmingham and our dilemma. Over the last decade, there have been numerous studies conducted that show the need for more high quality hotel space in the City Center, and several unrealized proposals. My own office worked on a proposal from Rubell Hotels out of Miami to convert the Thomas Jefferson into a 5-star, independent boutique hotel back in 2000; more recently the Regions Plaza Building was to have converted into a 4-star Marriott Renaissance brand.

If we did have more hotel options, what should they be? The currently proposed Westin Hotel at the BJCC is disappointing for several reasons. It’s location is BJCC-specific and less central than one would like; its ambition is to add room capacity for conventions, rather than to increase street life and provide multiple destination points for urban dwellers. Equally disappointing is the bland aesthetic of the building, which is described over on heaviestcorner.

Westin BJCC: where's the urbanity?

To judge from the rendering, this is a slightly more upscale (and full-service) version of the limited-service Courtyard, Hyatt Place, and Residence Inn hotels that have opened downtown recently–welcome expansions of our options, but hardly more than clean, efficient places to lay one’s head. Similarly, this Westin appears to have no aspiration to capture the soul of a community, inspire visitors, and lure citizens and travelers alike to linger in its public spaces. The Westin proposal–while satisfying the need for more hotel rooms for users of the BJCC–is not the type of hotel that integrates into the larger urban fabric, with diverse appeal and street porosity that create public interaction.

When we think of certain cities, iconic hotels which seem to embody the city’s soul come to mind. Think of Paris–gorgeous, sophisticated, elegant Paris, whose ancien regime glamor can be summed up by the Hotel Crillon, perhaps the world’s first true luxury hotel (and a favorite haunt of Marie Antoinette).

The Hotel Crillon personifies Paris

All marble, gilt, and tapestries, the Crillon exemplifies Paris, and has served as a model for countless grand luxury hotels to follow, from the Willard in Washington, DC, to the Plaza in New York City. When in the Crillon, you have no doubt where you are; there is no generic corporate color scheme or bland, universal detailing to make you think otherwise. It’s all very haute couture. Very Paris.

Hotels don’t have to be 250 years old (or just look that way) in order to become iconic. Take the Delano hotel in Miami Beach. While other boutique hotels (such as the Albion) were the first to renovate delapidated, boarded-up hotels into chic new playgrounds for a resurgent Miami Beach, the Delano was the first to really do it on a grand scale. Suddenly everyone wanted to be at the Delano, and it was the model for many subsequent hotel renovations in the area. It also helped designer Phillippe Starck become the mega-star he is today. The Delano became the “see-and-be-seen” venue for Miami Beach, perfectly capturing the feel of a breezy, celebrity and image- conscious contemporary city.

The Delano public spaces mirror the city beyond

Where does this leave Birmingham? While all those chains are a necessary part of the corporate travel world today, we are missing that one place that you’ve got to go to–whether reserving a room, meeting friends in the bar, having a special dinner, or just people-watching in the lobby. It should be somewhere special that both reflects local culture, but also rises above mere reflection to become inspiration.

Over in Louisville, KY, two local art collectors helped finance the 21c Museum Hotel in 2006 due in part to frustration that the city lacked an inspired hotel. Just a few years later this hotel won Conde Nast’s Reader’s Choice Award for best hotel in the US, and 6th best in the world—no small feat considering Louisville is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue as a destination.

21c: stylish and local

Adjacent historic buildings downtown were renovated (design: Deborah Berke, one of my favorite architects in NYC) with open, crisp modern spaces inside, lots and lots of contemporary art, and a super-stylish restaurant called Proof on Main adding vibrancy to the street. This has not only become a favorite meeting spot for locals and visitors alike, but plans have been made for extending the brand into other cities that would benefit from having a non-corporate hotel, which is dedicated to helping revitalize the city through contemporary art.  We’ve got an amazing Museum of Art and wonderful private collectors here. It’s worked well in Louisville–why not Birmingham?

Art + Hotel = rejuvenation

I will leave you with this quote from Michael Bonadies, CEO of 21c, upon winning the Conde Nast award:

“Too often today, hotels are bland, isolated oases within cities that provide accommodations and dining but are removed from the city’s character and residents.

Thanks to 21c’s accessibility and social vibrancy, our guests have the opportunity to gain a real sense of the people and culture of Louisville as well as contemporary art from around the world. We are honored to be recognized as a destination for this great city and for travelers from around the country and the world.”

Yes, sometimes it takes a great hotel to not just help rejuvenate a city, but to put it on the map.

Integrating into the fabric

(PS: I couldn’t resist this pic of the new Standard hotel in NYC, hovering over the new High Line park in Chelsea. It brings interaction with the public realm into a whole new dimension.)

[thanks to tristan appleby for the neon pic; wallyg for the Waldorf; Concorde Hotels for the Crillon; saracino for the Delano; stlbites for 21c Restaurant; Conde Nast for the 21c exterior; Photogrammaton for Standard NY]

13 responses to “Checking in?

  1. Jeremy: Very interesting commentary. I think we need more hotel rooms at BJCC, but it is a shame the Regions conversion did not move ahead. It’s the right location for what you describe, and even the Renaissance Marriott would allow it to reflect its location since that brand is tailored to place (e.g. Ross Bridge). Both/and, not either/or. Oklahoma City, a comparable market, now has more than 2,000 rooms downtown — and only now is building a convention center comparable to BJCC. Why hasn’t this market developed?

    • Philip: Once you get into the 4-star range such as Renaissance, you do get some level of tailoring to location. So yes it’s a shame about the Regions not going through. As to Oklahoma City–they passed their MAPS plan back in the late 1990s, we didn’t. So I’m guessing that what followed—big investments in downtown attractions, minor league stadium, etc. helped spur more hotel development. Just a guess. It is really perplexing to me that we haven’t had more here though. We’ve come close a few times but nothing comes through.

  2. Jeremy, I have just recently been thinking about how embarassing it is that Birmingham does not have a good hotel. Have you visited the Rennaisance Hotel in Montgomery which seems to have the right formula for hotel and dining and backed up by restaurants and shops nearby? Why not us?

    • Catherine,

      Indeed it seems bizarre. As to Montgomery–a city one third our size–the RSA built that hotel. They also helped build the Ross Bridge Renaissance outside Birmingham. But generally the RSA considers Birmingham to be large enough and financially powerful enough to build things without its help. And Harbert was poised to start work on the Renaissance—we probably would have it right now if it hadn’t been for the economic downturn which killed so much hotel investment. I wish, though, that our local art collectors and the Museum could team up to convince the 21c people from Louisville to build a franchise here. That would be the best of all worlds to me–a fantastic hotel AND satellite space for the Museum to show its contemporary collection more broadly.

    • Embarrassment about not having a good hotel has served our city well in the past. That’s how the (original) Tutwiler got built.

      That Louisville project is definitely interesting.

      Also, every time I see the vacant Alagasco building at 1918 1st Ave North (, I think that it could make for a brilliant facade for a modern art gallery.

      • Ha! Great point. You are right that embarrassment served in the past as a great motivator. I love that Alagasco building as well. It would be a stunning modern space if well-renovated and filled with art.

  3. Pingback: Checking In? Bham architect on a hotel for Birmingham | The Red Mountain Post

  4. Would a new Renaissance Marriott win any awards for being unique and of the city — I doubt it. It would likely serve a business traveller nicely, but would not have ongoing interest for locals or be a destination. Louisville has done it right. You build something that is special and people will come. (or do we need to build a downtown baseball stadium — but that is another post)
    Take the fantastic Thomas Jefferson/Cabana. If you haven’t seen the public spaces — you cannot imagine the multiple restaurants and bars and ballrooms dripping with the most amazing plaster detailing — waiting, no crying — for someone to get their act together and make this back into the showplace of the city it once was. We have the bones yet again in our city that if we could only find the right financing, the right vision, could become a hallmark of the city. The Louisville model/developers coupled with the unique art collector we already have could create the most fantastic hotel that would won awards too! And that whole neighborhood around it, linking great assets like the Alabama and the lyric and the civil rights museum and the new railroad park, could really create a dynamic destination and catalyst for redevelopment . Just my two cents. But we have a gem that could do just what you describe if we just had the will and the financing to make it happen.

    • It is nigh-impossible (except in Las Vegas?) to recreate the sort of detailing you have in the Thomas Jefferson. In the end, while the Renaissance in Montgomery serves the business/convention traveler well, there is nothing truly unique or “destination” building about it. Do we need that sort of hotel anyway? Sure we do. But, as you say, for a place to transcend its mere functionality and become a real destination—something more like Louisville is definitely more inspiring.

  5. If I’m traveling on business, I do want a clean, nice place to lay my head, with free wi-fi and located near where I need to work.

    If I’m traveling for fun, I want something memorable, like staying in the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.

    Birmingham could use more of both.

  6. My mom’s family is from Louisville, and I was just there. First a little history of me: I was born here, my dad is an architect, my girlfriend is an architect, and the plight of Birmingham has always been important to me. The area around the 21c hotel includes the Louisville Slugger museum on one end and their baseball stadium on the other. In between, major attractions include their IMAX theater and children’s museum, concert hall, and a major hotel all peppered with a few restaurants, bars, and architecture firms. With all city issues, this area of the city has had its criticism, but as an area in itself, it has accomplished a lot in garnering revenue and notoriety for the city, especially in conjunction with 4th Street Live. What I like most about this section of the city are the hidden bits of art sprinkled across this area of the city, whether it be a painted horse commemorating a Derby winner or the bike racks commissioned by local artists that look like anything and everything except a bike rack. All of these things together give an air of coolness to Louisville, and combined with other parts of the city, showcase the place and the people as much more than a one-trick pony. When I was little, my cousins and I would compare our cities, the Ham vs. the Ville. Fitting that the birthplace of Ali has the magic city on the ropes. Birmingham has all the potential… if we don’t sell out corporations who could honestly care less about adding to the city (ie chick-fil-a). I hope we can expand our cool-factor while also inviting businesses in a functional and inviting and growing city-center.

  7. Pingback: Checking in (3) | Bhamarchitect's Blog

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