The Beekman's elaborate nine-story atrium was one of Manhattan's first skyscrapers | Courtesy of The Beekman Hotel
Amid a growing trend for period architecture and nostalgic interiors, hotels around the world are popping up in the unlikeliest of places – including former fire stations, prisons and office blocks
If it’s comfort and convenience you’re after, there are plenty of places you can find to stay, but few give you the opportunity to dive into the history of a place. Boutique hotels are breathing new life into disused buildings in destinations from Los Angeles to Helsinki: now you can check into former prison cells (complete with king-size beds and walk-in showers), dine at the edge of a former bullfighting ring, or watch life at the Woolloomooloo Wharf go by from the window of an old wool warehouse.
Away from the swaying palms of Venice Beach, LA’s grittier Downtown is lined with gleaming glass skyscrapers and Art Deco marvels, including the 1920s former United Artists Theatre – now home to the Ace Hotel. With retro sensibilities at its core, Ace combines unfinished concrete walls with an achingly of-the-moment mid-century aesthetic (think Smeg fridges, Revo radios and, in some rooms, turntables complete with your choice of vinyl). Its magnificent on-site theatre sets it apart from other Ace hotels around the world: the vaulted ceiling is covered with thousands of mirrors and encircled by a huge sunburst, while the walls are layered with ornate, Spanish Gothic-style molding and murals.
Feel like a native New Yorker in one of Manhattan’s original skyscrapers. Long since overtaken in height, The Beekman’s Queen Anne and Neo-Renaissance architecture is quintessential New York, and more impressive still once you step inside the nine-story atrium where wrought-iron railings and wood-paneled walls are interspersed with decorative details such as sunbursts, floral patterns, vintage Persian rugs and antique glass lamps. The rooms are brimming with vintage furniture and curated artwork, while huge polished marble mosaic bathrooms feature walk-in showers. The building was an office block – albeit an elegant one – before being transformed into a hotel, so channel your inner Don Draper as you sip a drink from the in-room craft cocktail tables.
Jutting out from central Helsinki, peaceful Katajanokka Island is best known for its refined Art Nouveau residences, imposing gold cupola-topped cathedral and pretty waterfront dotted with fishing boats. It’s an unlikely place to find a prison, much less the chance to spend the night in one, but fans of Nordic Noir can hole up in a former cell at the Katajanokka Hotel, where triple-glazed windows, metre-thick walls and plush, queen-size beds will afford you a good night’s sleep. The building dates back to 1837 – hinted at with the odd section of exposed red brick or a framed lock and key – but although its original architecture has been preserved, the sparse prison decor has been replaced by soft carpets and velvet curtains, luxurious bathrooms with walk-in showers, and a sauna that guests can use for free each weekend.
This former wool warehouse shows off its original architectural features that combine with modern soft furnishings. Rooms range from capacious doubles with king-size beds to expansive split-level suites with their own cocktail bars. In terms of decor, exposed beams blend with pops of colour and statement padded fabric headboards are printed with offbeat artwork. If the interiors aren’t reason enough to book, free mini bars, “loot bags” filled with classic Aussie snacks, daily social-hour sundowners and self-service laundry all come as standard. Leave time to visit Alibi, a botanical themed, plant-based bar and restaurant serving almost-too-pretty-to-drink cocktails and comfort vegan food such as mushroom Wellington with walnuts and Yorkshire pudding.
On Beacon Hill, the grand red-brick Liberty Hotel belies its past as the Charles Street jail, once home to some of the city’s most notorious criminals. The 298-room hotel, with its five bars and restaurants, orbits around a vast, industrial, 90ft-high (27m) lobby, flanked by three-story arched windows. Nibble truffle fries, sourdough pizzas and oysters from the vantage point of the prison’s former catwalk, or order a cocktail at the Alibi bar, fittingly housed in the old drunk tank. Rooms are done up with statement headboards in royal blue and rugs are dotted with key motifs. Book the Charles river view suite for sweeping panoramas over Boston’s famous river.
Mired in myths, this 58-room hotel began life as a hub of Toronto’s high society in the late 1800s. But by the 1970s, its well-to-do assembly halls had become a notorious boarding house and strip club where, rumor has it, live tigers strutted on stage alongside dancers. Boudoir-style rooms are lined with rich, ruby velvet drapes and patches of blush floral wallpaper, all finished with copious brass fixtures. Vinyl record players add a tinge of nostalgia, but pillow-top king-size beds, flatscreen TVs and yoga mats on request keep things firmly in the 21st century. Slide into a tufted red leather booth for brunch at The Civic restaurant, which champions seasonal local produce, and where you can wash down caramelized banana waffles, smothered in rum and lemon ricotta, with an Old Fashioned.
The opening in 2017 of this hotel, based in the city’s former fire department headquarters, signaled a renaissance of the long-neglected downtown. The 1920s exterior features were left intact, including arched entrances to the fire-truck bays with their classic red doors. The interior, however, takes its inspiration from its Midwest surrounds and nods to local sources, such as wallpaper from the Detroit Wallpaper Co. Minibars, meanwhile, are stocked with Michigan-made McClure’s potato chips, Our/Detroit vodka and whiskey from Journeyman Distillery just outside Chicago. The hotel has its own guide to help you explore downtown, directing you to such local gems as the Dime Store, where you can tuck into a mountainous breakfast hash topped with spicy ketchup and house-made sausage, or Bad Luck Bar, where you can sip a cashew-infused cocktail.
The colonial city of Zacatecas in north-central Mexico is a Unesco World Heritage Site dating back to the 16th century, with breathtaking Baroque facades built of dusky pink stone that sprang up after the discovery of silver. At its heart, the San Pedro bullfighting arena entertained crowds for more than a century, but it closed in 1975 and fell into disrepair. Now happily devoid of gory bullfights, the building has been restored to its former splendor and reincarnated as the Quinta Real Zacatecas, with original architecture and colonial-style interiors. Enjoy a lazy lunch on the terracotta-tiled balcony that skirts the original ring, and start your evening with a drink at Bar Botarel, with its romantic booths that sit snugly under the amphitheater. Afterwards, head to nearby Mina El Eden, an equally atmospheric underground nightclub in a former mine.