When it comes to luxury hotels, "historic" and "high-end" don't always go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, old is just plain old. But there is a growing legion of upscale travelers who want more than Egyptian cotton sheets, WiFi and flat-screen TVs. Fans of America's historic hotels want to experience the past in all its facets.
To find a hotel with a true sense of place, many travelers consult Historic Hotels of America, which has more than 200 member properties across the country. The HHA is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and is operated by the Preferred Hotels Group. According to executive director Thierry Roch, the organization offers independently operated properties, each with its own character and quirks. Many, of course, have the requisite five stars and top-notch amenities that put them squarely alongside the big names.
The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia is the perfect example of an historic city hotel with luxurious modern touches. It's a behemoth Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival structure with a grand Gone with the Wind staircase and stunning stained-glass skylights. The rooms and amenities aren't much different from those found in internationally known five-star hotels, but can the Peninsula Hong Kong say that alligators once roamed its lobby? Or that Bill Bojangles Robinson's dancing career was launched when he tap-danced his way across the hotel restaurant floor after "accidentally" spilling soup on an influential producer?
"These hotels are full of great stories about the characters who have walked through the doors, and historic and personal events that were hosted," says Roch. "And all the while providing the creature comforts modern travelers expect."
Indeed, Wentworth Mansion in the heart of historic Charleston, South Carolina, seems like the kind of place that would have hosted Thomas Jefferson himself. Completed in 1886 in a Second Empire style, the Wentworth was originally the sprawling four-story Gilded Age residence of Francis Silas Rodgers. (He had lots of children, grandchildren and visitors to put in all those rooms.) European artisans used imported materials to craft many of the details that can still be enjoyed by guests today.
Rick Widman, owner of the Wentworth Mansion, says he's "honored" to be "in the company of other historic hotels and inns all over America that share in the commitment to historic preservation." The Wentworth is also part of Widman's Charming Inns of Charleston. Several regional hotel associations like Historic Hotels of the Rockies, Unique Inns and the quirky McMenamins also feature one-stop shopping for often historic and unique accommodations.
In Arizona, Scottsdale's unique Hotel Valley Ho didn't open until 1956-but it boasts a historical legacy nonetheless. The youngest member of Historic Hotels of America, this Mid-century Modern hotspot was a desert home-away-from-home for celebrities of the day. It was built in a Frank Lloyd Wright retro style, with glass walls, balconies, patios and a courtyard pool, and featured one of the original Trader Vic's restaurants. The luster wore off in the 1970s, but thanks to an $80 million reconstruction and restoration, it's once again hip to stay at the Ho.
Many of America's finest historic hotels have been literally saved from the wrecking ball. Wentworth by the Sea, for example, in New Castle, New Hampshire, was scheduled for demolition in 1995. In response to public outcry, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put this 1874 property on its "Most Endangered Places" list in 1996. (It was, in fact, the first hotel to make the list.) After a $30 million renovation added two new wings, a new spa, and all the modern amenities to its 161 deluxe rooms and suites, the Wentworth reopened in 2003.
Those in search of historic lodging in the Pacific Northwest will always hear one name: McMenamins. Brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin started out by buying old buildings and renovating them into the likes of neighborhood pubs and movie theaters. A true preservation success story since the mid-1980s, McMenamins now has more than 50 properties in Oregon and Washington-including seven accommodation options that have each earned a loyal following. With shared bathrooms and modest amenities, some McMenamins offerings aren't for everyone. But Kennedy Schooland Old St. Francis School are highly recommended for their private bathrooms, quirky amenities and copious servings of history.
From 19th-century hotels and mansions to 20th-century cultural icons, it's easy to find and stay in America's historic hotel gems.