By Peter Mitham
VANCOUVER – A city’s oldest buildings are among its greatest assets, giving it character and building continuity between past and present. Repurposing existing buildings also gives cities an opportunity to reinvent themselves, imagining a new future for themselves.
This is as true for hotels as for other properties, and CHIL Interior Design of Vancouver has handled its share. It’s currently handling the makeover of the Bessborough in Saskatoon in preparation for its relaunch this year within Marriott’s Autograph Collection. It previously joined with five other firms in designing rooms for Skwachàys Lodge in downtown Vancouver, an Indigenous arts-themed hotel originally built in 1913 that operates as a social enterprise of the Vancouver Native Housing Society.
“There’s always that balance between respecting what was unique about it and bringing it up to date with what people want,” said Adèle Rankin, principal and global design lead with CHIL Interior Design, of the challenge older buildings present for designers.
This was certainly the case with the Hotel Belmont, a property built in the same era as Skwachàys Lodge and with its own glamour-to-grit history, and now a makeover.
“It has a good history. It’s in a really exciting location in the bar district of Granville Street,” Rankin said of the Belmont. “When Pacific Reach bought it, they imagined it filling a void in the market.”
Pacific Reach Properties, a venture of Azim Jamal and Joe Moosa, began as an offshoot of the seniors’ lodging company Retirement Concepts. The partners began diversifying their holdings beyond seniors residences in 2004 with the acquisition of the 280-room Sheraton Guildford Vancouver Hotel. Pacific Reach became its own independent company in 2014.
With the sale of Retirement Concepts in 2017, the partners stepped up investment in other areas. One of its first acquisitions that year was the Belmont, then operating under the Comfort Inn banner. The property had originally opened as the Barron Hotel in 1912, and went through various incarnations over the years. It was once a notorious strip club known as the Nelson Place, and later as Fred’s Uptown Tavern, an early venue for crooner Michael Bublé.
Pacific Reach engaged CHIL Design, the hospitality division of Toronto-based B+H Architects, to update the hotel’s interior and position it for a new era.
Working within the heritage footprint of the building and those of its 82 rooms – each one between 250 and 300 square feet – the firm worked to find a way to bring a combination of style, humour and an Instagrammable quality to the property.
“We don’t have space to flex our design muscles and create all these different moments, so we had to be mindful every step of the way to infuse it with personality and charm,” said Rankin. “We ended up coming up with a concept that was about making your mark.”
The project staked its claim to its location at the corner of Granville Street and Nelson with a mural on the external walls that clearly demarcated the food and beverage portion from the hotel portion (CHIL was charged with the hotel interiors, not the restaurant or lounge portion). The lobby features a variety of cartoon faces in the ceiling while a custom-designed X serves as a recurring motif in the carpet, on the walls and in the fabric of the curtains in each room.
“Small moments throughout create a pause for people to really explore the spaces,” added Rankin, noting the use of graphic tiles in the lobby ceiling as well as heritage rosettes reclaimed during the renovation of the property.
The small bathrooms of the original building have been decked out in bright white tiles to give a sense of space and brightness, while the floor of the shower reminds guests, “No diving.” A cartoon ostrich buries its head in the sand next to the toilet.
While these add up to “little moments that make people smile,” according to Rankin, the room palette includes deep navy blue that lends a serious touch.
“The design isn’t precious or soft in any way,” she explained. “The artwork references the hey-day of the neon lights down Granville Street.”
While the rooms feature custom-designed furniture in a Mid-Century Modern style, care was taken to prevent the rooms from feeling cramped. The desk, for example, is of a piece with an open-faced wardrobe; the lack of doors reduces the need for space to swing them open. The in-room safe is in the bed box, a novel place that Rankin said, achieves “two things with one design solution.”
The property reopened last year as the Hotel Belmont as part of the Ascend Hotel Collection, which has been expanding across Canada. Ascend is the boutique hotel banner of Choice Hotels, whose portfolio also includes the Comfort Inn brand.
Rankin thinks the property will stand the test of time, which in the hotel industry means seven to 15 years.
“We do have to find a balance between creating something that’s going to be classic and well-designed and chic enough but still be positioned correctly for the demographic and the location,” she said.
The current market, as speakers at last fall’s Western Canadian Lodging Conference pointed out, calls for unique properties that will play well both to travellers’ practical needs as well as their personalities and personas on social media. The makeover of many older properties, from motels to older urban hotels with chequered pasts like the Belmont’s, offer opportunities to capture the attention – and business – of adventurous travellers seeking unique experiences. “You’re getting an experience above all else,” Rankin said of the Belmont. “We wanted to make sure that from the moment [guests] pulled into the parking lot and saw the exterior of the building to the moment they walked in the door and through the spaces to the rooms, that they were feeling a sense of surprise and discovery.”