How Philadelphia's new Aloft breaks the mold

In downtown Philadelphia, a former bank dating back to 1925 has been reborn as a select-service hotel. The Aloft Philadelphia Downtown opened in October—and just may be a game-changer for the brand’s standards in adaptive-reuse properties.

New York-based design firm Stonehill Taylor oversaw the expansion of the original structure and the renovation of the interior finishes with the help of Philadelphia-based firms Powers & company and Blackney Hayes Architects. When the Stonehill Taylor team first went to see the building before bidding on the project, they knew that combining the building’s historic elements with Aloft’s brand standards would be a unique challenge. “We felt that the right approach for this would be a unique approach very tied to the history of the building and the location of the building,” Stonehill Taylor principal of design Michael Suomi said. “And we kind of specialize in that. That's what we brought to the table.”

Preserving History

“When we first began working on the project, it became clear right away that anything that was original in the second-floor teller space—which included a grand hall that you have the lobby in now—had to be kept,” Suomi said. This wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics: Stonehill Taylor was compelled by the city's historic preservation offices and the National Parks Department to keep the historic floor finishes, wall finishes, moldings on the wall and ceilings and the original stone work as well as the original stone balustrades and other historic elements. “We knew that the entire envelope of that space had to be maintained and restored for the future.”

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But when the team began working on the interior, those historic finishes were in what Suomi calls “extremely decrepit shape.” The building had been vacated and empty and left partly open to the elements for about eight or nine years, he estimated, and the interior had decayed significantly. As they cleaned the floor, however, they discovered an original cast-metal medallion embedded in the center of the banking hall with an image of the Liberty Bell in it. “It's on the center with the entrance staircase, and that compelled us in terms of the symmetry of the space,” he said. “We organized our design for the lobby and how you enter the lobby based upon the location of that medallion.”

As the renovation progressed, Suomi said, the team was “pleasantly surprised that all of the interior historic finishes could be completely restored and recreated back into its original condition.”

In combining past and present, Stonehill Taylor’s sought to create a lot of unique content for the public area that responded to the historic nature of the banking hall, finding new ways to use the preserved elements. For example, downstairs, the bank’s vault is now part of the hotel’s gym.

“Everything, essentially, is furniture,” Suomi said. “The bar is furniture. The giant bookcase is furniture. The reception desk is furniture.” Teller windows in the bank were defined by stone balustrades that had to be cleared out to make room for the XYZ Bar and lounge. “We were able to reposition those beautiful carved stone balustrades to create a new staircase and elevated entrance out to a brand new rooftop bar that you enter straight from the old banking hall,” Suomi said.

Public Art

Stonehill & Taylor was also inspired by historic and contemporary public artwork in the surrounding streets. “Claes Oldenburg's idea of creating oversized everyday common objects and treating them as public art was a big driver for our process,” Suomi said. “We used the strong symmetry of that banking hall to position several elements.” A two-story bookcase in the lobby creates a “big graphic punch” as guests enter, he said, and pair nicely with the room’s chandeliers and paintings that reference the history of banking and currency as well as the history of Philadelphia.

“That's how we use it to start to inform how we're laying out our major elements, our focal points, where we see opportunities for large-scale art that is reflective of what Philadelphia is known as in terms of a city of public art,” he said.

A New Normal for Aloft?

A requirement for Aloft hotels is an LED ticker tape display with news and information for guests in the lobby. Given the historic nature of the room, the team decided to put the electronic element on an entrance arch, paired with a piece of neon artwork.

Workstations in the lobby, a billiard table, the XYZ Bar and a circular reception desk are also brand standards, he said, and the team was able to incorporate these elements into the space without affecting the overall narrative. The grab-and-go station, for example, is tucked away in a small area just off the lobby—visible, but not obtrusive.

Going forward, Suomi predicted, Marriott will shift the Aloft brand standards so that each hotel’s design is more responsive to location. “They'll have the ability for the designers to create more of a custom public area,” he said. “I think, going forward, that requirements for those kinds of elements [are] going to be modified. I don't know if Marriott sees this as a prototype, but they do see this as a departure from the vast majority of the Alofts that had been built to date.”

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