Why it’s important to save historic hotels

From: National Geographic - Jennifer Barger

IN THE U.S., economics and atmospherics determine whether colonial inns, mid-century motels, and Gilded Age resorts survive. Keeping the doors open (and the roof on) at such historic hotels drives preservationists, but their passion for retaining and repurposing older buildings often runs contrary to the goals of developers and urban planners.

Conserving a building—and a business—that’s been around for decades, even centuries, presents more financial, structural, and historical challenges than throwing up a cookie cutter motel off the highway. It’s why two mid-century hotels made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 most endangered historic sites for 2020.

“You try both to honor a hotel’s history and be relevant to new generations,” says Jenny Kimball, the chairman of the board of Santa Fe’s circa-1922 La Fonda on the Plaza. “It’s a tightrope.” At the 180-room adobe property, that means balancing expensive modern renovations with grace notes from the past, like the folksy painted headboards in each guest room, some 1920s antiques, others faithful reproductions.

Checking into why some older properties thrive—and others don’t survive—reveals a lot about both the past and future of the hospitality industry.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) list spotlights grassroots efforts to save endangered older neighborhoods, battlefields, and lodgings, helping to define exactly what “historic” means along the way. “We look for places with rich stories that tell the full history of the U.S.,” says Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer for NTHP. “We also want properties that already have local groups working to preserve them.”

Increasingly, the hotels preservationists seek to rescue aren’t just Victorian palaces (like the 1887 Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island) or early American taverns (Concord’s Colonial Inn in Massachusetts, renting rooms since 1716).

They’re remnants of the swinging, modernist energy of mid-century America, including the two on the National Trust’s 2020 list: the 1948 Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the 1960 Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi.

(Related: Check out these repurposed industrial sites in the Midwest.)

Both properties have been caught in preservation limbo for years. The modernist Terrace Plaza—which once featured electronic convertible sleeper sofas and a Joan Miró mural—closed to guests in 2008. It’s been deteriorating ever since while developers and lawyers haggle over its future. (That Miró mural is now displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum.)

The Sun-n-Sand—a groovy motel with a pizza slice-shaped neon sign and ties to the Civil Rights movement—shuttered in 2001. It’s now owned by the state of Mississippi, which plans to knock down most of it to make way for a parking lot.


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