Thursday, December 3, 2015

The new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, with fetishistic throwback interiors by Roman and Williams, is part of a worldwide hospitality trend of turning neglected structures into alluring
properties. The last time I visited the Chicago Athletic Association, two decades ago, my date had to wear a dinner jacket.
We were meeting my parents in the dining room of the private men's club on Michigan
Avenue, where my father was a member.
Even now, the low lights, sumptuous
architectural details, and tang of chlorine flicker through my memory.

I can't swear that any of the dishes were served in aspic, but the place had
that feeling.
The club closed in 2007.
The 1893 Venetian gothic building where Johnny
Weismuller—the Olympian and actor who played Tarzan—once swam sat empty
until last May, when it reopened as the Chicago Athletic Association
Stopping by with my husband, daughter, and mother, I frankly dreaded
what I would find.
I knew that the architectural studio Roman and Williams had
done the interiors.
To my eye, their design work—as seen at the Ace Hotel in
New York, a hipster haven of semi-ironic references—sometimes edges into
cartoon historicism.
I wanted more respect for my fancy, fossilized stomping
Nor was I encouraged by the news that a Shake Shack had opened on the
What I saw was better than expected.
Yes, the hotel's interiors are a bit
too cute with their many self-conscious sporting references, including
guest-room table legs wrapped like the handle of a tennis racket.
Cute is
something Chicago design should never be.
I was relieved though to see that
the building has gained a true public spirit.
This is partly a matter of
accessibility, of course, now that all are welcome in the communal
(Though it comes with some sacrifices, like the conversion of the
130-foot pool into an event space.) But the formality of carefully restored
ox-size fireplaces and marble staircases didn't dim the rosy glow of
My family ate hamburgers in the wood-trimmed Game Room near the
pool tables and bocce court.
My daughter and I played foosball.
Jackets were
not required.
A guest room at the
Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.
Thomas Hart Shelby The Chicago Athletic Association is
one of more than a dozen historic properties in the city that have been, or
soon will be, converted into hotels.
And anywhere you go in the world these
days, it seems you can find a quirky adaptive-reuse hospitality project.
to stay in a former Turkish prison? Try the Four Seasons in Istanbul.
A Hong
Kong police station? How about the Tai O Heritage hotel on Lantau Island? A
Mexican ice factory? Consider La Purificadora in Puebla.
Hotel conversions mean new lives for buildings that have outgrown their
intended uses.
Eero Saarinen's 1962 TWA Flight Center at John F.
Airport and his late-1950s United States Embassy in London are both scheduled
to become hotels, having been deemed too old-fashioned for modern air travel
and diplomacy.
With tax credits or easy financing acting as incentives in many places,
these projects channel money into landmarks that might otherwise fall to
Starwood, for instance, recently unveiled plans to build a W hotel on
the sites of a 12th- century convent and 19th-century hospital in the ancient
Israeli port of Jaffa.
Such undertakings appeal to experience collectors (a.k.a.
millennials), who
would prefer to stay in an Episcopal-diocese-mission-turned-strip-club than a
Holiday Inn.
Major hotel chains are taking note and putting more of their
branches in unique containers.
Even buildings with undistinguished histories
are finding exalted new lives.
In Asbury Park, N.J., a long-derelict
Salvation Army headquarters will next year become a luxe beach hotel known as
the Asbury, the city's first new property in half a century.
Still, questions about authenticity bubble up.
Are vintage rail stations,
courthouses, and department stores preserved only to become historical theme
parks? Do entrepreneurs save buildings only to kill their souls? In this
business, character is a commodity to be manipulated for profit.
It can be a
Faustian bargain.
But if hotel conversions aren't a solution to rescuing old
buildings, where will we go to see carved beams and sparkling mosaics, rare
marble, and rich solid woods? Such details were once common in public
Even if they are becoming spectacles like giant pandas, roped off for
our delight, they are better off surviving in compromised quarters than wiped
off the face of the earth.
Follow Julie on Twitter at @julielasky1.
The new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, with fetishistic
throwback interiors by Roman and Williams, is part of a worldwide hospitality
trend of turning neglected structures into alluring properties.
Read on.

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