Modernizing historic spaces

By Ron Gorodesky

When beginning a project that involves modernizing a historic space, it may feel daunting at the onset. Modernizing historic spaces is a delicate art; one must pay homage to the original space, whether it be the structure itself, the specific site or the area in general, while still making it a comfortable, modern and exciting space to spend time in. Luckily, when working on projects such as this, you’re at an advantage as you don’t need to start from scratch. If you research the original site diligently, you can use the knowledge you glean to inform every decision along the way.

Do your research
First, you must decide how you’d like to approach the project. Are you looking to replicate the exact original structure? Or are you hoping to simply emulate or pay homage to the original property while cultivating a new brand identity? This is an important decision to make first, as it will help to guide the process and make future decisions more seamless.

Next, identify the correct architects and designers to help execute your vision. It’s crucial to ensure the professionals you select have experience working with historic projects and that they understand your vision for the completed space. The chosen designer and architect should also be familiar with the surrounding area, community and history of the site in order to achieve the goals of the project.

It’s also important to understand the elements that brought the community to the previous site, and equally as important to understand what may have driven them away. This will help you decide which aspects of the previous site you’ll keep and capitalize on, and which aspects you should steer clear of.

Utilizing history & artifacts
If you’d like to incorporate exact elements from the original structure, utilize them not only as decoration in the space, but also to support the brand identity and overall experience. You may decide to take one key artifact and develop all of your brand and marketing materials around it. This helps to create your brand message and narrative.

Alternatively, if you’d like to incorporate history but don’t wish to utilize actual artifacts, you can take elements and ideas from the original site and recreate them in a symbolic way. It’s important that the space has a cohesive flow, so ensure that the elements you choose work well together. Maybe it’s a color scheme, symbol or interior design choice, but in any case, ensure that it repeats throughout and ties the property together.

Whether you choose to emulate or replicate the history of the property, you have the unique opportunity to bring historic elements into the concept you’re developing, so use them generously. History can be incorporated into the design, finishes, furniture, branding, customer-facing materials, food and drink menus and much more.

Another key aspect of modernizing a historic space can be found in natural elements. While architecture and design styles change constantly, nature remains, and I find that guests oftentimes enjoy the connection a property makes to the nature that surrounds it. Nature presents a unique opportunity to form community ties to a property’s historic landscape and relationships to seasonal and cultural elements.

It’s all in the name
A great way to solidify the brand identity of the new space you’re creating is by carefully selecting the name of the property. Utilizing past names or key ideas from the previous site sends the message to the community and previous guests that you acknowledge the property’s history and wish to keep the legacy alive in some way. For example, one of the properties that my company, Refined Hospitality, debuted in 2020 had a storied history and had two prominent names throughout its previous life. We wanted to pay homage to the history of the site while still ensuring that guests and locals knew that this was a new property with its own unique identity. Therefore, we combined two past names—River House and Chez Odette—to name the space River House at Odette’s. We’ve utilized artifacts, promoted the use of the historic Towpath behind the property and host regular events that pay homage to the hotel’s past iterations to convey the message that we respect and honor the legacy of River House and Chez Odette.

Another great example can be found with our flagship property, The Reeds at Shelter Haven. While the structure was a completely new-build, it was important for us to honor the history of the location. Being perfectly positioned on a historic footprint of land which was home to not one, but two hotel establishments named Shelter Haven Hotel/Motel, after the basin it resides alongside, it was only fitting to blend this name into the new iteration of the site. Therefore, this hotel with 58 guestrooms, four dining concepts and a luxury spa, was named The Reeds at Shelter Haven.

Ultimately, the name of a property is more significant than one may think—it can convey a feeling or idea to potential guests, and in our case, let them know the extent to which you are acknowledging and honoring the properties that came before it.

Prioritize the purpose of the space
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to ensure your project works as a hospitality space. At the end of the day, guests just want to be comfortable when visiting a hotel, so don’t be hesitant to compromise on the historic aspects, as making the space functional is most important.

Don’t get so caught up in recreating the previous structure that you put your project at risk; for example, don’t keep the structure in place if it’s prone to issues like flooding, erosion, etc. It’s more important to ensure the property can stand the test of time than to keep it the way it was. By making the property as comfortable and structurally sound as possible, you’re ensuring it can be enjoyed by guests and the community alike for endless years to come.

Ron Gorodesky is the founder/CEO of Refined Hospitality. With a true entrepreneurial spirit and passion for hospitality and restaurants, Gorodesky developed and consulted for several world-renowned brands (including 41 North, Normandy Farms, Moshulu and White Dog Café) over his 30+ year career leading Restaurant Advisory Services. Realizing an opportunity to parlay his unique industry perspective into a more wide-reaching hospitality organization, Gorodesky founded Refined Hospitality, specializing in the development, management and cultivation of successful hospitality brands. As founder/CEO of Refined Hospitality, Gorodesky oversees the luxury boutique hotels The Reeds at Shelter Haven (Stone Harbor, NJ) and River House at Odette’s (New Hope, PA), as well as luxury events venue The Grove ​at Centerton (Pittsgrove, NJ).

This is a contributed piece to InspireDesign, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.

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