The Hospitality Industry Is Increasingly Stepping Up to Reuse Historic Buildings
Metropolis speaks with Andrew Zobler, CEO of hospitality-focused company Sydell Group, on the industry's growing regard for investing in history.
The hospitality industry has become an unexpected steward of historic properties, with restaurants, clubs, and hotels taking up residence in the structures of yesteryear. Andrew Zobler, founder and CEO of the Sydell Group, is well acquainted with this trend. Indeed, he’s been at the forefront of it: His 14-year-old company has led adaptive-reuse hospitality projects across the United States (and internationally, starting in 2017 with The Ned), giving old buildings new lives through families of hotels like NoMad, LINE, Freehand, and Saguaro. Speaking with Metropolis’s Lila Allen, Zobler discussed why hotels, beyond being places to lay one’s head or grab a drink, are increasingly places to travel through time.
Lila Allen: Sydell has had a big couple of years, with new properties including The Ned.
Andrew Zobler: We did two big things in these last couple of years. From a historic perspective, The Ned is certainly the most important. We also opened a large project in Las Vegas called Park MGM, which has a NoMad component, and we partnered with MGM on the building. The Ned was a pretty complicated building, and an important piece of architecture in its own right. It was once the largest clearinghouse bank in the world, built at the height of the British Empire in the 1920s. So it’s a really grand building, with a soaring public space and beautiful marble columns.
These buildings are, of course, compelling because you want to keep them alive and give people reasons to come see them, and certainly you can’t build them today; it wouldn’t be cost-effective. The art of it is finding buildings where you have a response that makes sense, because I always say: If you fight with the building, the building is gonna win.
LA: You’ve worked with a wide range of building typologies. There’s The Ned on one side and then, going back a decade, you also worked as a developer on The Ace in Palm Springs, California, which was once an old Howard Johnson motel. [Editor’s note: Sydell is not affiliated with Ace.] What makes you fall in love with a piece of property? And how do you reconcile romance and finance?
AZ: We tend to look for things where other people don’t necessarily see value. The Ned’s a good example—it’s a spectacular building, but it sat empty for almost a decade. A few different people owned it and couldn’t make a run of it, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that [the building demands] a whole bunch of food and beverage concepts. You had to be able to figure out the three levels downstairs. You needed to do all these things that we did to afford the renovation of that building, which was a pretty expensive undertaking. Anybody could have walked into the building and appreciated that it was beautiful, but what we tried to do is figure out, OK, how can we really make sense of it?
With something like The Ace in Palm Springs, it was the opposite: The building was super cheap, so that’s what made it interesting. Palm Springs then was not what it is today. Half of it was shuttered, and the only thing, really, of architectural interest was the old Howard Johnson’s fun, freestanding restaurant structure. The driver of the creative vision on that was Alex Calderwood from Ace, and Commune. Alex had a perfect touch for doing a little hippie-dippie in the desert; it just flowed naturally out of him. Our job there was more to make sure that the whole thing got built in an intelligent way.
LA: I’m curious about how you create a property that is specific to where it’s based. What kind of research or community outreach or surveying goes on in order to craft a narrative that’s consistent with time and place?
AZ: We think of ourselves first and foremost as storytellers. If you look at our hotels, they tend to be not necessarily ones that everyone loves, but ones that certain people become evangelical about because the hotels really speak to them. And that’s the goal. We’re not Marriott; we’re not producing things that work everywhere.
So the first thing we do is start to tell the story. We go visit local restaurateurs and nightlife, and see what’s going on. Very often, something we’ll do—which is the opposite of what most people do—is try and figure out what the art is going to be first. We’ll ask, “OK, who are we going to collaborate with? What’s our story? What art do we like?”
LA: What are some examples of design features in recent projects that you feel were especially well resolved?
AZ: There are lots, but I think what comes to mind more than anything is at the NoMad in L.A. It was originally the Bank of Italy’s headquarters, and the building had this really spectacular Italian-made ceiling, with light-blue pastels and other very soft colors. We preserved the ceiling and applied its color palette to all the furniture throughout the building. That ceiling just told us what to do.
Another one is the giant vault at The Ned, which is our nightclub. You go in and there are all these safe-deposit boxes. It’s huge. And it’s all inside this giant old vault about which, again, someone might have said, “What are we gonna do with it?” We turned it into something that people actually really love.
LA: While it sounds like you embrace properties where the opportunity is right, is there any kind of “white whale” building type out there that you would love to work with? What’s ripe for a reinvention?
AZ: We personally respond to some combination of architecture and location, and we’re a little bit eclectic about the architecture. Take The Ned, as you said, versus the Saguaro Palm Springs, versus the Brutalism of the LINE in L.A. These are very, very different buildings. But then there are some that are similar—if you look at the NoMad Los Angeles and NoMad New York, and Freehand New York and Freehand LA, there are similarities in those [families of] buildings. And we like that.
One question is, are there any building types we should avoid? We’re working on a hotel in London, which is in a former courthouse and jail. One of the questions I got, chatting with a savvy London reporter, was, “Do you feel weird about doing something in an old prison, with all the pain that went on in that building?” I was like, “No, I don’t think so.” It actually feels good to be taking what used to be a place of horror and turning it into a place of happiness.
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