These two design firms are restoring charm to New York and Detroit

The Detroit Foundation Hotel is housed in a former fire station.

LAS VEGAS — During last week’s HD Expo held at Mandalay Bay, two teams of designers shared the stories of how they renovated two historic structures into chic, modern hotels. In New York City, a legacy property got new life after a gut renovation that lasted nearly two years, and Detroit is about to get an independent boutique hotel in an adaptive reuse of a most unlikely structure.

The InterContinental New York Barclay

The InterContinental New York Barclay reopened last year after a 20-month renovation that upgraded the original 1926 design by Cross & Cross. IHG Design Studio oversaw the project, which was completed by Stonehill & Taylor Architects, HOK (formerly BBGM) and Shawmut Construction.

When the hotel originally opened in 1926, Les Faulk, design director at IHG, said, it was “social, upscale, discreet and quiet.” The design was in a style known as “American Federalist”—elegant but not ornate. As the decades went by, Faulk said, it had started to look like a Houlihan’s restaurant, with dark wood and leather creating a somber atmosphere. “As the owner, we could choose to close and update as needed,” he said.

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The main program brief for the project was to totally reconfigure the guestrooms, said Vincent Stroop, principal at Stonehill & Taylor. The hotel’s guestrooms—increased in number from 685 to 704 during the renovation—had a spacious living component but a small bathroom. “The objective was to enlarge the bathroom and shrink the living area,” Stroop said. 

“When we started, the inspiration was the 1920s,” said Caroline Bertrand, senior designer at HOK. “We wanted a little jazz, but we wanted it cleaned up. We wanted to keep it true to the original building.” 

Everything was stripped down to its bones—“and even they were crumbling,” Stroop said. The teams replaced all windows and doors and added a new mechanical system, HVAC, and new wiring for upgraded lighting. When the layouts were done, they had an extra 3,500 square feet at the top of the hotel, so they added a penthouse sky suite with event space and two guestrooms. 

Another key component of the renovation was that the hotel had very little meeting space and no ballrooms—and what meeting rooms it did have were scattered on different floors, with no back-of-house function to properly serve them. Now, the hotel has two large ballrooms on the second floor, accessed by a grand staircase in the lobby. 

This addition, however, proved logistically challenging. The team could slide the steel beams to support the new space over the existing lobby, but then that space would be several inches higher than the rest of the floor, requiring stairs or ramps to access. Instead, they took out the existing ceiling and skylight, lowered everything by 18 inches and added the beams so that the whole floor would be even and level. 

Detroit Foundation Hotel

In the Motor City, Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group is turning a former Detroit Fire Department headquarters building into a 100-room boutique hotel with a restaurant and retail at a cost of $28 million. The Detroit Foundation Hotel is scheduled to open on May 15. 
 
Detroit was looking for a new use for the former headquarters, a building that dates back to 1929 and sits across from the city’s convention center—an ideal location for a hotel project. Aparium focuses on adaptive reuse of buildings in secondary and tertiary cities, Kevin Robinson, the company’s co-founder, said—but the reuse must maintain the integrity and relevance of the original structure. “We walked through the building, and as you go through, it had incredible character and integrity,” Robinson said. The company bought the building, and became owner, co-developer and manager of the then-unnamed hotel. 

In turning a fire station into a hotel, Aparium wanted to show respect to the city and its legacy. “We didn’t want it to be kitschy,” Robinson said. “We wanted to honor its past.”  

 

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To that end, the company tapped Simeone Deary to oversee the interior design of the conversion. “We specialize in conceptual design,” said Gina Deary, president of Simeone Deary. Before Detroit was the Motor City, it was home to “tinkers and makers,” she explained—and the design brief aimed to honor that legacy. 

“We’re not recreating the past but moving the asset into the future,” Deary said. “We looked for what is beautiful. What can we highlight? How does the past influence our design?” Every detail evoked a sense of “industrial design mixed with surprises,” she said. To recognize the building’s heritage, Deary’s team found the original red color for the doors, and propped the painted fixtures open as artwork. The company also tapped local artists to curate and develop a unique art program focused on a positive view of the city.

Then there’s the building’s exterior. Thanks to Detroit’s financial woes, the city’s fire department is “very underfunded” and the former headquarters “probably hadn’t been cleaned in decades,” said Michael Poris, principal at local architecture firm McIntosh Poris Associates. “We had to look deep.” The company arranged for a 3D scan that documented every square foot for potential issues, which helped them determine what needed to be done. Some elements could be preserved, like a Charles McGee mural on a wall that dates back to 1971.   

But Detroit’s financial struggles also helped make the project possible, Poris added. The low cost of real estate in Detroit will attract new developers and investors to come to the city and buy old buildings to renovate, he predicted. “You can’t do this in New York City, Chicago or LA,” he said. “In Detroit, there’s lots of energy, and people are working collectively and helping each other.”

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