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There are hotels that occupy purpose-built structures, like The Pfister, for example, or the Aloft. And there are hotels that are created in the shells of buildings erected for other purposes, like the Hampton Inn on West Wisconsin Avenue and Hotel Metro, which occupy converted office buildings.
Over the years, I’ve stayed in both. A few of the latter kind of hotels have remained planted firmly in my memory. Here are some of them.
San Remo, San Francisco – Located in the heart of the once Italian North Beach neighborhood, just steps from the heavenly focaccia at the legendary Liguria Bakery and not far from Molinari Deli, the Hotel San Remo is a European style hotel, by which I mean the rooms are tiny (with a capital "T") and with shared bathrooms down the hall. But what was really interesting to me when I stayed there was that the building was erected as a rooming house for Italian immigrants who arrived in San Francisco.
Built after the 1906 earthquake by no less than A.P. Giannini (who founded the Bank of America), the three-story, 62-room hotel and its restaurant was the stomping ground of itinerant laborers as well as merchant seamen, waterfront workers and a variety of creatives, like painters, poets and journalists.
The American Club, Kohler – Sort of like the San Remo, but more swanky and much closer to home, The American Club was built in 1918 as housing for Kohler factory workers, many of whom were immigrants (hence the name of the restaurant, The Immigrant Club; another restaurant is in the old workers’ dining room).
The current building was designed by Milwaukee architect Richard Philipp and used to have many amenities aimed at its single laborers, like a tavern (now the Horse and Plow), bowling alleys and more.
La Foresteria del Castello, Castell’Alfero, Italy – Lots of hotels in Italy occupy once-residential buildings, but only a few can boast of the kind of digs you’ll find at La Foresteria del Castello in tiny Castell’Alfero, just up the road from Asti and from Portacomaro, where the Pope’s grandfather was born.
Called a castle, the most prominent building on the main square in Castell’Alfero is the former mansion of the rich family that lorded over the town for many years, the Conte Amico. It's a remnant of feudalism.
Now, there are rooms that have modern amenities in a gorgeous historic setting. The fact that it’s run by perhaps the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and located in the gorgeous rolling hills of a Piemonte wine region are bonuses.
Hotel Burnham, Chicago – This Kimpton Hotel shouts history. It's located on State Street in the Reliance Building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and became a National Historic Landmark six years later. Burnham and Root began the building in 1890 and Daniel Burnham recruited Charles Atwood to complete it five years later.
The Reliance has been called the "first comprehensive achievement" of the Chicago steel frame and reinforced concrete construction method, which allowed for the huge plate glass windows. The Reliance was one of the first skyscrapers in the world, paving the way for the likes of Mies van der Rohe.
Nowadays, there's still old world charm – like window transoms – and modern luxury in the restored building.
Ferme Veyret, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, France – Despite being a city kid through and through, I love spending time in the countryside and in small villages, so you'll be unsurprised that this old farm turned hotel is near the top of my list. Though the address is in the town of Les Eyzies, the farm is actually in the tiniest of villages, Bardenat.
Add that it's in the Dordogne, one of France's most gorgeous and delicious (try the paper-thin walnut cookies and the hazelnut liqueur) regions – and home to paleolithic cave paintings – and what's not to love? There's a fois gras farm just down the road, so maybe that, depending on your stance on that culinary product.
Brewhouse Inn & Suites, Milwaukee – OK, I haven’t actually stayed here, but I’ve seen the lobby and the rooms of this hotel that opened last year in the former Pabst Brewery. It’s a hotel in a brewery and with the huge copper brew kettles (or at least their tops) extant. Pretty cool.
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