This spring, at Detroit’s former Fire Department headquarters, uniformed “first-responders” will be making wake-up calls and delivering room-service breakfasts.

The 1929 neoclassical downtown landmark is set to open May 15 as the 100-room boutique Detroit Foundation Hotel. It’s part of a trend toward historic adaptive reuse that has travelers overnighting in former department stores, textile mills, an auto assembly plant and even a 19th-century jail.

San Antonio’s Hotel Emma occupies a onetime brew house. In La Crosse, Wis., a candy factory built in 1898 has been converted from sweets to suites. In Detroit, additional 1920s-era buildings — including a Renaissance-revival high-rise that once housed the Wurlitzer music company — are being redeveloped to accommodate guests. The Wurlitzer is set to open this summer, the developer, ASH NYC, says. Another grand Detroit building, a 1915 Renaissance Revival landmark, opened in late 2014 as Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney.

Similar projects are in varying stages of completion across the country.

As industry experts have noted, there’s a move away from the more standardized hotel experience, not unlike the rise of American microbreweries. STR, a data and analytics firm, reports that guest demand for boutique hotels has been rising.

Michael Poris, whose firm, McIntosh Poris Associates, is project architect for the Foundation, says the desire for such spaces is a response to an increasingly homogenized world.

“So many places are the same that people crave difference,” Poris says. “New York is like a mall now with the same stores you find at Somerset Collection [in Troy, Mich.], Milan or Hong Kong.”


A rendering of the planned exterior of the Detroit Foundation Hotel inside Detroit’s former Fire Department headquarters. (Vista (Beijing) Digital Technology Co., Ltd. )

Vintage structures allow hoteliers to offer a more local aesthetic through history and eccentricity, as well as ornamentation that is not easily duplicated today. The exterior of the Detroit Foundation Hotel is embellished with terra-cotta details, including firefighters’ heads, angels and griffins in hats. Oversized red doors that once swung open at the sound of truck sirens remain operable as the front entrance and as dining-room shutters.

The oldest American cities offer a stockpile of aging beauties with good bones, enviable construction materials and prime locations. And historic tax credits requiring the preservation of specific structural elements force designers to take a creative approach to nonstandard spaces. Think of a quirky architectural equivalent of Wes Anderson’s fictional Grand Budapest Hotel.

“When you’re repurposing a building, you have all these crazy spaces,” says Gina Deary, co-owner of Simeone Deary Design Group, the Detroit Foundation Hotel’s interior-design team. “It’s imperfect; that’s what’s great.”

Detroit’s firehouse, a five-story, solid block of a building, was endowed with terrazzo, marble, travertine, oak, leaded glass and ornamental plaster. The voluminous apparatus room with its original glazed-brick walls now serves as a restaurant with a circular centerpiece bar. Some tables are topped with marble reclaimed from the building’s interior. Just off the lobby, an overhead blown-glass installation has replaced suspended fire hoses in the drying tower. And the restaurant kitchen occupies space where firefighters once prepared meals during shift work.

The historically designated former Pontchartrain Wine Cellars restaurant building (circa 1880s) next door was included in the firehouse retrofit. When the two structures were joined, a vertical variation in floor heights required two-level hallways. Rooms in the older section have brick walls painted white.

(A bit of cocktail history here. Cold Duck, reportedly invented at the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars in 1937, will appear at the Foundation in a new, craft version, insiders say.)

Just before the hotel’s completion, Poris walked the building amid a crew of last-minute workers and construction dust. His European-design Theo eyeglasses and protective white plastic hard hat seemed an apt metaphor for the building — a combination of practicality and style.

“These buildings are artifacts,” Poris says. “You find details to celebrate.”


A rendering of the hotel’s bar, using the original glazed-brick walls and pillars of the former apparatus room. (Vista (Beijing) Digital Technology Co., Ltd. )

The apparatus room, as it was in the early 20th century. (Courtesy Of Detroit Fire Department)

Visible behind him through a guest-room window, lay the Detroit River and Canada beyond — an international border associated with early fur trading and, later, the Underground Railroad and Prohibition-era alcohol smuggling. Inside, original oak paneling lined the walls of what was a deputy chief’s office.

The evidence of previous use adds a sensory layer for guests and lends an element of time travel to the trip. Remains from before include a former clerk’s office with sliding leaded-glass customer windows. The entry door to a large guest suite still reads “Commissioners Room.”

Deary says they used rich, brown marble in the Commissioners Room’s guest bath because “it’s a masculine building and you have to pay attention to that.” Added to the decor, she says, are some feminine pieces and approachable industrial luxury. Such textures, Deary says, are the new luxury, in contrast with former standards of deep-pile wool carpets and draperies.

The resulting character is an antidote to the just-passing-through sense of travel ennui. It also helps hotels compete with the likes of Airbnb and its “live like a local” campaign.

The Detroit Foundation Hotel is a project of the Aparium Hotel Group, which has been involved in an expanding atlas of adaptive-reuse hotels in midsize cities from Memphis to Minneapolis. Aparium uses the term translocal to describe its effort to create hotels that are “completely unique” to the cities they serve.

“Each of these markets have a story to tell, as do the buildings or properties on which our hotels sit,” says Mario Tricoci, Aparium’s chief executive and co-founder. Those stories interest today’s travelers who, Tricoci says, have evolved from “points junkies” to “experience seekers.”

At the Detroit Foundation Hotel, which received tax credits from the National Park Service because it lies within the city’s financial district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, room interiors include headboard walls fashioned of dark-stained wood strips from deconstructed city houses. Simeone Deary collaborated with metro Detroit craftspeople, artisans and artists to create interior finishes and displays. Detroit Wallpaper Co., for example, made guest-room murals using photographs of four Detroit buildings. Among the locally designed and fabricated light fixtures is a main-floor piece that emulates smoke, as a nod to the building’s former purpose.

“The hotel is made of Detroit,” Poris says, “from pieces of the city.”

Rebecca Powers is a writer based in Detroit. Her website is RebeccaPowers.com.

More from Travel:

Why you should visit Columbus, Ohio

How many states have you been to?

The essential guide to all 59 U.S. national parks

Manufacturing hospitality

The following is a sampling of hotel retrofits across the United States:

Ace Hotel, downtown Los Angeles: Former United Artists building;
213-623-3233, acehotel.com/losangeles

Ace Hotel, Pittsburgh: Former YMCA;
412-361-3300, acehotel.com/pittsburgh

Brewhouse Inn & Suites, Milwaukee: Former Pabst Brewing Co. site;
414-810-3350, hbrewhousesuites.com

Charmant Hotel, La Crosse, Wis.: Former candy company; 608-519-8800, aparium.com/hotels/the-charmant-hotel

Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, Chattanooga, Tenn.: Former train terminal; 423-266-5000, choochoo.com

Cork Factory Hotel at Urban Place, Lancaster, Pa.: Former cork works and glass company; 717-735-2075, corkfactoryhotel.com

Hotel Covington, Covington, Ky.:
Former department store;
859-905-6600, hotelcovington.com

Craddock-Terry, Lynchburg, Va.: Former shoe factory; 434-455-1500, craddockterryhotel.com

The Dean Hotel, Providence, R.I.: Former strip club/brothel; 401-455-3326, thedeanhotel.com

Hotel Emma, San Antonio: Former brewhouse; 210-448-8300, thehotelemma.com

Hewing Hotel, Minneapolis: Former farm-implement warehouse; 651-468-0400, hewinghotel.com

The High Line Hotel, Manhattan: Former seminary; 212-929-3888, thehighlinehotel.com

Historic Brookstown Inn, Winston-Salem, N.C.: Former cotton and flour mill; 336-725-1120, brookstowninn.com

The Iron Horse Hotel, Milwaukee: Former bedding company and cold storage warehouse; 414-374-4766, aparium.com/hotels/the-iron-horse

Kendall Hotel at the Engine 7 Firehouse, Cambridge, Mass.: Former firehouse; 617-577-1300, kendallhotel.com

Le Méridien, Tampa: Former federal courthouse; 813-221-9555, lemeridientampa.com

Liberty Hotel, Boston: Former jail;
617-224-4000, libertyhotel.com/hotel/

Paper Factory Hotel, Long Island City (Queens), N.Y.: Former radio factory and paper mill; 718-392-7200, paperfactoryhotel.com

The Press Hotel, Portland, Maine: Former newspaper printing plant and offices;
207-573-2425, thepresshotel.com

Refinery Hotel, Manhattan: Former hat factory; 646-664-0310, refineryhotelnewyork.com

Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel: Former office building, World War II veterans hospital and night club; 412-562-1200, renaissancepittsburghpa.com

21c Museum Hotel, Oklahoma City: Former auto assembly plant; 405-982-6900, 21cmuseumhotels.com/oklahomacity

Wythe Hotel, Brooklyn: Former cooperage (barrel making) and former textile factory; 718-460-8000, wythehotel.com

If you go
Where to stay

Detroit Foundation Hotel

250 W Larned St., Detroit

866-808-6100

detroitfoundationhotel.com

Amenities include a fitness center and a 150-seat restaurant and bar. Rates for a double queen room start at $237.15.

— R.P.