Rebuilding A Resort for Today’s Tastes
While hotel design is a difficult task under optimal conditions, it becomes particularly challenging for a project like Ocean House, the five-star-quality oceanfront resort about to open in Watch Hill, RI. The 72-unit Victorian property is a near-exact replica of a famed resort of the same name built in 1868 and razed seven years ago. The main building of the new hotel sits on the identical footprint of the original property. The design team’s challenge was to remake the charm, luxury and history of the original hotel, but with a firm nod to modern styles and tastes. Price tag for the project is around $140 million.
The initial idea owner Charles Royce had was to restore the original property, which faded from its glory in the final decades of the last century and finally closed in 2003. That path wasn’t feasible so Royce chose the next best alternative.
“We did an extensive year-long analysis of the existing building in an attempt to save it and then renovate it,” says Jeff Riley, partner with Connecticut-based Centerbrook Architects and Planners. “From the start we realized it was going to be a tough climb, if for no other reason than we were obligated to insert one or two floors of underground parking beneath the building.”
Once it was clear that replication, not restoration, was the right direction, the Centerbrook team determined what Riley calls the “historic kernel” of the hotel as the blueprint for the project. “That kernel was 1908, which is the time we considered to be the heyday of the hotel,” he says. “The hotel in 1908 was very different from what it looked like when it was built in 1868 and very different from what it looks like today.”
Since some “questionable additions” were made to the property over the years, the team decided it wouldn’t make sense either aesthetically or financially to replicate the additions. The final product encompasses a replica of the hotel building from its early-1900s heyday with two new wings that jut away from the main structure and serve as a shield to residences surrounding the property.
And at Royce’s suggestion, the local government convened a panel of historic restoration architects to offer its ideas and suggestions into the project, a process Riley says proceeded smoothly. “We worked with them to arrive at the final design for the project,” he says. “They had concerns about a number of things, but they also made some good contributions to the process.”
More than 5,000 architectural artifacts were salvaged from the original building. Using photographs of the property from around 1908 (as well as a silent movie, “American Aristocracy” starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., that was filmed at the hotel), the designers were able to reuse many of the recycled items, including doors, balconies, an oak-paneled elevator and the hotel’s reception desk. All of the moldings were rescued and reproduced for the new hotel. A large stone fireplace was also dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt.
From Riley’s perspective, the biggest challenge in the project was replicating an old building that simultaneously meets the variety of current building codes, ranging from accessibility to fire and life safety to hurricane. “The codes touched every piece of the building’s design, from the materials we could use on the exterior trim to the fire alarm systems to access stairs and elevators,” says Riley. “It’s hard to meet those considerations while designing a building that looks like 1908.”
Luckily, the original vision for the project remained essentially intact during the nearly seven-year development process, even though mid-course changes were made in a number of areas. The configurations of the 49 guestrooms and 23 private residences varied as the project evolved. “Many of the changes, especially in regard to the configuration and size of the condo units, were driven by market forces,” says Riley. “As marketing of the product came online, we were able to learn what potential customers liked and didn’t like and were able to make adjustments.”
A LOOK INSIDE
The Niemitz Group, a Boston-based firm that specializes in hospitality, oversaw the interior design, including public spaces, food and beverage outlets and guest units. The hotel will include a three-meal restaurant, lobby bar, 12,000-square-foot spa and more than 10,000 square feet of meeting and event space.
President Peter Niemitz says his firm’s approach to the design was to straddle the historic and the modern. While the main four-story hotel building is a nearly identical replica of the 1908 version of the resort, “the challenge was to create interiors that are distinctive, formal and Victorian but also that aren’t too stuffy or too high and mighty. We want spaces that are comfortable, approachable and hopefully attractive to a wide range of guests.”
Because of the rambling configuration of the original hotel and the addition of the new wings, nearly every room and residence is different in size and layout. The designers also sought an “eclectic feel” for the guestrooms so a variety of casegood packages were specified.
“Every piece has a unique character, almost vintage, with a mix of finishes and materials,” says Niemitz. “We wanted to capture the views and feel of a big summer house. We used five different color schemes and an overabundance of artwork—10 to 12 pieces in each guest unit—all tailored to the region and the history of the hotel.”
In keeping with the casual theme, Niemitz and his team chose materials that reflect the residential feel of the design. “The materials are understated: no stone and marble,” he says. “The floors are a vertical-grain fir, a very typical summer house material. We’re concerned about its wearability because it’s a soft wood but we wanted that ‘always-been-there,’ lived-in look.”
By contrast, the hotel’s All Seasons dining room and members-only club room are more grand and sophisticated. The restaurant, which features panoramic views of the ocean, has a fireplace and an exhibition kitchen. “The main room of the restaurant looks like an enclosed porch on a summer home,” he says. “It has wood floors, white beaded-board walls and outdoor-style furniture.”
This is the second in a four-part series on the replication of the Ocean House resort in Rhode Island. The first installment in the series presented an overview of the project, while the third part will focus on the challenges of marketing a new luxury hotel in the current economic environment.
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