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    HomeLifestyleCharleston hotel dating to 1850s pursues a 'lifestyle' change | Business

    Charleston hotel dating to 1850s pursues a ‘lifestyle’ change | Business

    A new day has dawned for a landmark downtown hotel that was among the few swanky spots for visitors to spend the night, decades before the arrival of Charleston Place and the high-end boutique inns that now populate the peninsula.

    The Mills House marked its conversion to a “lifestyle” property this weekend, while at the same time joining Hilton Corp.’s select “Curio Collection.”

    RLJ Lodging Trust, the owner of the 218-room, seven-story pink structure, called the year-long overhaul an “icon reimagined.”

    “The transformative repositioning of this … property included a complete reimagination of all of the original guest rooms and the addition of premium suites, while maintaining the old-world charm and warmth Charleston is known for,” the company said in a written statement.

    “We’ve been discussing this renovation for years and years and years” added Michael Linder, general manager, during a recent tour of the property.

    The roughly $7 million update, which construction crews have been rushing to finish, includes two new food-and-beverage concepts — the casual Black Door Café that replaced the Best Friends Lounge off the main lobby is already open — and the addition of a bar at the second-level outdoor pool.

    The Mills House

    The Mills House owner renovated all 218 guest rooms as part of a $7 million overhaul designed to reposition the Meeting Street property into a lifestyle hotel. Provided/Business Wire

    The legendary but past-its-prime Barbadoes Room has been closed. Its former space will be reopened on or around Oct. 10 as The Iron Rose, a bar and fine-dining establishment named after the signature ornate metal work that has largely defined the exterior of The Mills House for nearly 170 years.  

    “We’re not trying to be a hotel from somewhere else,” Linder said of the reasoning to drop the room’s former Caribbean-inspired moniker.

    Since 1853

    Visitors to Charleston have been bunking down at the southwest corner of Meeting and Queen streets since at least 1853, when grain merchant Otis Mills invested $200,000 to open the 180-room Mills House.

    The hotel was described in the pre-Civil War era as “the most luxurious establishment south of New York” complete with running water. 

    “It was very state-of-the-art,” Linder said.

    The building survived the war, and its guest list would include Gen. Robert E. Lee, who spent the night in 1861. Also, President Theodore Roosevelt checked in during a visit to Charleston in 1902, around the time the property switched its name. 

    The rebranded St. John Hotel declined as the 20th century wore on, hurt by the arrival of new competition. It eventually became a de-facto boarding house, marketing its its once-fancy guest rooms in the classified ads to transients for $18 a week — or $65 a month.

    The St. John was sold at auction in 1968 to a group that included the late Sumter-born Wall Street executive and preservationist Dick Jenrette. The new owners planned to renovate the historic building and return it to “top-notch hostelry” until they peered behind the walls and discovered the architectural innards were too far gone.

    After a complete demolition in 1969, Jenrette and his investors built a slightly larger replica of the original with more rooms, and opened the $5 million replacement the following year as the Mills Hyatt House. They also saved and incorporated the original wrought-iron balconies and other decorative elements. 

    Bethesda, Md.-based RLJ Lodging Trust bought it in 2017 for an undisclosed price as part of its $1.2 billion acquisition of a rival hospitality investor.

    Its hotel at 115 Meeting previously operated under the Wyndham banner. A year ago, Atlanta-based Davidson Hospitality Group took over day-to-day management, and the Oct. 1 switch to the Curio Collection makes it part a global stable of 115 high-end “lifestyle” properties that maintain their established brands. Linder said just one sign inside the building will make reference to the new Hilton affiliation.

    The Mills House

    A photo illustration shows the planned redesign of The Mills House’s Meeting Street courtyard, which leads into The Iron Rose bar and dining room area (rear). Provided/Business Wire 

    “We get to keep our identity of being The Mills House. And that was important to the owner and to myself as an operator that we don’t lose that identity,” he said.

    In the ‘bullseye’

    A widely cited online definition gets at what it takes for a hotel to earn the “lifestyle” title: “Driven by the chains, they borrow the best elements of boutiques – small, intimate and modern – and throw in advantages only a chain can offer, like loyalty perks, consistency and economies of scale. As a result, lifestyle hotels are generally more affordable and accessible than boutiques – and soon to be ubiquitous.”

    Linder said the new and improved Mills House, now equipped with all the modern bells, whistles and other creature comforts that visitors expect and can find elsewhere on the peninsula, is aiming to cater to travelers who want to be immersed in the city and its unique history. 

    “We really want to focus on the experience people have in Charleston,” he said. “They really get to experience Charleston as Charleston and The Mills House as part of Charleston, instead of coming and dropping into any cookie-cutter hotel that could be in Philadelphia or wherever.”

    Among the new nuances, a large hedge element is to be placed just off the public sidewalk to mark the Meeting Street entrance to a refurbished fountain-anchored courtyard.

    “We want it to be like a hidden garden and make you feel like you’re coming into somebody’s home,” Linder said.

    The hotel’s publicly traded owner has high hopes for the project, financially speaking. In an investment slide highlighting the project, RLJ praised the economics of the deal and gushed about Charleston as a tourist destination. The company said The Mills House checks all the boxes for what it considers a “bullseye asset,” such as generating high profit margins in a high-growth destination.

    RLJ added that its investment is expected to “unlock significant real estate value.”

    The company also stressed that The Mills House enjoys the benefit of an “irreplaceable” and “high barrier-to-entry” location in the heart of the densely developed Historic District. But it’s not completely immune to new competition.

    It’s become an open secret that a new rival hotel, possibly a Four Seasons, is expected to join the downtown luxury lodging lineup just up the street from The Mills House, on the former Days Inn site. Like RLJ, the backer of that high-end development brings deep pockets to the table: the personal wealth of billionaire Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates.

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