Historic Hotels

Historic hotels offer character, charm and perhaps the trip of a lifetime.

By: Anne Burke

Blake Fleetwood may check into a historic hotel by himself, but he’s rarely alone. The New York travel agent conjures as his companions the ghosts of long-ago guests: Frank Capra writing “It’s a Wonderful Life” at La Quinta in Palm Springs; President Kennedy trysting at the Carlyle in New York City; Charles Lindbergh relaxing at the Hay-Adams in Washington, D.C.

Fleetwood an agent with Planetarium American Express in New York City often steers clients to historic hotels, and he’s hardly alone. With many travelers turned off by the numbing similarity of so-called “beige hotels,” savvy agents are turning to these grand dames of the lodging industry to provide clients with an experience they will remember for a lifetime.

“What we’re finding is that travelers are getting tired of the same-old, same-old. They’re really looking to broaden their experiences,” said Mary Billingsley, director of communications at Historic Hotels of America, a nonprofit membership and marketing organization that is part of the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

At the Menger Hotel in downtown San Antonio, Texas, clients sidle up to the bar where Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders in 1898. Fans of Dorothy Parker can sleep in the Algonquin Hotel room where the New York writer lived during the 1920s. The 1906 Golden Gate Hotel, Las Vegas’ oldest, offers guests the room where a grieving Clark Gable holed up after wife Carole Lombard died in a 1942 airplane crash.

Based in Washington, D.C., Historic Hotels of America started in 1989 with 32 properties. Membership has soared to 208 dues-paying hotels, with a total 34,014 rooms. The oldest is Hotel El Convento, built in 1651 as a Carmelite convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The youngsters many located in the West generally date to the early part of the 20th century, though a hotel as young as 50 may be eligible for membership.

“Our hotels range from two to five diamonds, in all different price points, which is great for the traveler and the travel agent,” explained Shirley Talbert, director of marketing and distribution for Historic Hotels.

Rates at member hotels range from $79 a night for a room at New Hampshire’s Eagle Mountain House to $12,500 a night for the ultra-luxurious penthouse suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, used by Secretary of State Edward Stettinius when the United Nations charter was drafted at the Nob Hill landmark in 1945.

With hundreds if not thousands of historic hotels across the country, total heads-in-beds numbers are hard to come by. But anecdotal evidence indicates that this niche market is hot and getting hotter.

“I’m seeing an increase in people who are interested in staying out of your basic Hilton and Hyatt, where you could be any place in the world,” said Teri Trettin of the Travel Center in Tacoma, Wash., whose favorites include the 1861 Jacksonville Inn in southern Oregon.

Since Sept. 11, the U.S. tourism industry has experienced a surge of interest in cultural and heritage travel, noted Allen Kay, director of communications for the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA).

“We did consumer surveys after Sept. 11, and we found that Americans wanted to be closer to family, but they also wanted to be closer to their cultural and heritage institutions,” Kay said.
For travelers weary of the homogenization of America’s cities, “authentic experiences are an important factor and motivator” for travel decisions, according to the TIA’s forthcoming “Outlook for Travel and Tourism 2006.”

Historic properties may be old, but they are not frozen in time. Internet access and business centers are not uncommon. Many of the old gals have undergone costly renovations to match the amenities and services offered by newer properties. The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, a circa-1920s red-roofed adobe north of Los Angeles, underwent a $90 million renovation and now offers a spa menu and mini-courses in painting, journaling and gardening.

Some properties observe traditions that would seem forced at a big-box hotel. Complementary wine and sherry are set out each afternoon in the sumptuous parlor at the Gilded Age-era Wentworth Mansion in Charleston, S.C.

“It’s very popular with the guests. There’s usually a fire going, and people chat and get to know each other,” said Linn Lesesne, director of public relations and group sales at Charming Inns, which includes three historic hotels in its portfolio of five Charleston properties.

Still, many travelers equate old with uncomfortable and inconvenient. Moreover, travel can be a disorienting experience that causes many people to yearn for the familiarity of a chain-brand property, said Fleetwood.

Other clients are willing to step out of their comfort zone they just need a little push.

“I always find that if they try this kind of thing once, they’re definite believers,” said Trettin.

Agent Susan Tanzman, of Martin’s Travel and Tours in Los Angeles, reports good luck pairing mass-market clients with these niche-market properties, even those with quirky idiosyncrasies. Tanzman said clients giddily report back to her about claw-foot bathtubs and four-poster beds so high you have to climb a footstool.

“Traveling is an experience and when you make the room part of that experience, people just love it,” she said.

Location is often a selling point for historic hotels. Guests at the oceanfront Georgian Hotel, an art deco landmark in Santa Monica, Calif., can sit on the veranda in the evening and watch the lights twinkle on the Santa Monica pier.

Travel agents who book rooms in Historic Hotels properties (GDS code HE) support the National Trust, which works to save America’s historic places. Sadly, many classic hotels did not survive. The Madison-Lennon in Detroit was 104 years old when it was demolished in 2005. The Mapes Hotel, built in 1947, met the same fate in 2000.

Far luckier is the Wentworth by the Sea in New Hampshire, the first hotel on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 Most-Endangered Places. A coalition of preservationists, community supporters and friends intervened to save this elegant hotel from the wrecking ball, and today she welcomes guests from her bluff-top perch.



French Lick Springs Resort & Spa (Indiana)
8670 West State Road 56
French Lick, Indiana 47432
Phone: 812-936-9300
Fax: 812-936-2100
800 457 4042

The River Street Inn
124 E. Bay Street
Savannah, GA 31401
Phone: 912-234-6400
Fax: 912-234-1478

Biltmore Hotel
1200 Anastasia Avenue
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Phone: 305-445-1926
Fax: 305-913-3159

Mohonk Mountain House
1000 Mountain Rest Road
New Paltz, NY 12561
Phone: 845-255-1000

The Williamsburg Inn
136 E. Francis St.
Williamsburg, VA 23185
Phone: (757) 220-7978

The Park Central Hotel
640 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Phone: 305-538-1611
Fax: 305-534-7520

The Old Tavern
92 Main Street
Grafton, VT 05146
Phone: 800-843-1801
Fax: 802-843-2245

Royal Palms Resort and Spa
5200 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Phone: 602-840-3610
Fax: 602-840-6927

The Ahwahnee
6771 North Palm Ave.
Fresno, CA 93704
Phone: 559-252-4848

Hotel Del Coronado
1500 Orange Avenue
Coronado, CA 92118
Phone: 619-435-6611

Hotel Jerome
330 East Main Street
Aspen, CO 81611
Phone: 970-920-1000
Fax: 970-925-2784

The Oxford
1600 17th Street
Denver, CO 80202
Phone: 303-628-5400

Fairmont Hotel
950 Mason St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone: 415-772-5000
Fax: 415-772-5013

Hotel St. Francis
210 Don Gaspar Avenue
Sante Fe, NM 87501
Phone: 505-983-5700
Fax: 505-989-7690

La Quinta Resort and Club
49-499 Eisenhower Drive
La Quinta, CA 92253