We’ve discussed good urban hotels (or the lack thereof) in a couple of previous posts (here and here). As innovative boutique hotels have gone up in cities large and small, somehow Birmingham still lacks a truly memorable urban hotel that captures the city’s spirit. Yes, the Tutwiler Hotel has its charm, but the Hampton Inn vibe holds it back. We look forward to the new 4-star Westin–although its location at the BJCC and the new entertainment district makes it feel less integrated with the historic core (as can be the case with convention-oriented hotels). We dream of a Birmingham version of the new Wythe Hotel, shown above, rehabbed in an old factory in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that meshes the rough-hewn, immigrant aesthetic of that historic place with the uber-hip(ster) reality of its modern-day environs. Think custom beds made from the building’s reclaimed pine beams and in-room surround-sound controlled by your iPhone.
Recently it was reported in the Birmingham News that the developer of the new downtown Westin, National Ventures Group, has been analyzing the former Regions Plaza building–currently vacant after Regions‘ merger with AmSouth–as a mixed-use development including a 4-star Wyndham Grand hotel at the lower portion (above, looking west along 5th Avenue North towards 20th Street). A 2007 plan for this site called for redevelopment into a Marriott Renaissance hotel, but this plan fell victim to the recession. National Ventures is quoted as stating the hotel would be unique to the state of Alabama, and inspired by–of all places–the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Russian reference is odd because of the severe difference in architecture between the two buildings. The Regions Plaza–formerly First Alabama Bank Building–is an early-1970’s bronze and dark-tinted-glass period-piece of limited elegance and panache. The 5-star hotel in the former capital of the Russian Empire (above) is all neoclassical opulence, inside and out–from the fine stone carvings and cornices, to the crystal chandeliers, to the Art Nouveau woodwork of 1910 (the structure dates from 1875).
Ironically, the Russian inspiration might make more sense if we still had the original building on the site–the Tutwiler Hotel (above, looking east along 5th Avenue North, ca. 1956). Constructed in 1914 and demolished in 1972 to make way for the current structure, its grandeur and luxury were–at least for a time–renowned throughout the South. Stylistically it certainly shared more with the Europe than its replacement does. It will be interesting to see how this project develops.
A quick search of Wyndham Grand hotels turns up the above, in downtown Pittsburgh. Now that’s a long way from St. Petersburg, but perhaps a more realistic precedent for understanding the possible look of the proposed hotel here. Because while the renovation cost of $30 million estimated by National Ventures isn’t insignificant, you can be pretty sure that doesn’t include recladding the building in plaster, limestone, and carved cornices.
Will the Wyndham answer our desire for a great, memorable urban hotel? Probably not. Could it fill a need for 4-star service in the heart of the CBD, activating the street fronts with bars and restaurants? Hopefully. If it–and the Westin–prove successful, could it help give confidence to that innovative developer to create that special boutique hotel of our dreams? Just possibly.