By Mark Chesnut
There was a time when everything happened downtown, and all the best hotels sat right in the heart of the biggest cities. As the suburbs grew, the Interstate system expanded and corporate office parks multiplied, good hotels began popping up all over the place. But travelers looking for a central location and some historic ambiance can still do well at classic downtown hotels, many of which have found new life as urban hotspots.
Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, a millionaire businessman, was present when the St. Regis New York first opened its doors some 108 years ago. Today, the Beaux Arts landmark continues to be a magnet in midtown Manhattan for business travelers and luxury seekers. Celebrating its 50th anniversary on September 24 is the Sheraton New York, which has undergone a $160 million renovation. And the new Westin New York Grand Central, which opens on October 1, is a dramatically renovated and redesigned upgrade of the former New York Helmsley.
In Detroit, the 33-story Westin Book Cadillac was the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in 1924. The 453-room property, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, recently underwent a $200 million renovation that has restored it to its former grandeur while adding plenty of modern amenities.
In downtown Los Angeles—a neighborhood that in recent years has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity with both business and leisure travelers—the Millennium Biltmore opened in 1923 and hosted eight Academy Awards banquets in the 1930s. More recently, this ornate luxury hotel has staged yearly Grammy Awards after-parties and the semi-finals for American Idol.
In nearby downtown Hollywood, one of the most legendary hotels is the Hollywood Roosevelt, which was named in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. Marilyn Monroe did her first photo shoot here, and an endless flow of movers and shakers have graced its halls. The Tropicana Bar and the Library Bar are still great places for business meetings.
Smaller cities have more than their share of historic lodging options, whether it’s The Brown Hotel, a AAA Four-Diamond historic property in Louisville, the Union Station Hotel, an Autograph Collection property set in a turn-of-the-last-century rail station in Nashville, or the Best Western King Charles Inn, which once hosted artists and writers like Edgar Allen Poe. Indeed, an interesting thing to ponder when staying at historic urban properties is the possibility that you might be sleeping where someone famous once hung their hat.
Mark Chesnut is a travel writer, editor and publisher of LatinFlyer.com, which focuses on travel to Latin America. He loves staying downtown.