Hospitable Historic Hotels

by Barbara and Jim Twardowski on July 1, 2009 - 2:27pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 3
Formerly a railroad terminal and looking like a castle, the Union Station Marriott is an accessible landmark hotel in St. Louis.
Formerly a railroad terminal and looking like a castle, the Union Station Marriott is an accessible landmark hotel in St. Louis.

Our love affair with historic hotels began on our honeymoon.

We spent four wonderful days walking through the New Orleans French Quarter where we admired the architecture, listened to jazz, and dined in world-famous restaurants. Each night, we returned to the Bienville House Hotel with its tropical courtyard, wrought iron balconies and Southern charm.

Over the years, our attraction to properties with character has never waned. But, as Barbara’s neuromuscular disease has progressed and she has come to rely on a power chair, staying in a historic hotel has become a challenge — many of them do not have accessible rooms. Often, it is impossible for a property to accommodate wheelchairs and doing so would destroy their historic integrity. For example, at the landmark Algonquin Hotel in New York City, the guest bathrooms are small and cannot provide the 5-foot turning radius required for a wheelchair. Built in 1902, the hotel’s elevator is just barely wide enough for a manual wheelchair.

We’re always scouting for properties that are wheelchair friendly and are delighted when we find the rare hotel that indulges our passion for the past and meets Barbara’s physical needs. Hotels that have undergone renovations in the last decade often have incorporated accessible design.

If you love history and are willing to make some compromises, there are many wonderful hotels that will transport you (and your wheelchair) to another era.

Here are three that we found to have good accessibility.

St. Louis, Mo.
Union Station Marriott
(314) 621-5262

Driving into downtown St. Louis, it’s easy to spot the St. Louis Union Station Marriott (formerly the Hyatt Regency St. Louis). What was once the world’s largest and busiest railroad terminal looks like a castle. One of the most popular attractions in the city, Union Station has barrel-vaulted ceilings that soar 65 feet with Tiffany stained glass accents. The lobby originally was the passenger waiting area. Visitors sip drinks while sitting on plush red velvet chairs surrounded by antique outdoor street lamps in the Grand Hall. Take your time exploring, and don’t miss the mosaic tiled fish.

The landmark hotel has 517 rooms and 22 suites. Our room had two queen-size beds and a roll-in shower. The hotel was very accessible, with two onsite restaurants and a fitness center. Attached to the hotel are 11 acres of retail shopping — we didn’t have to travel far to find souvenirs.

Over the years, scores of powerful people have been guests of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Over the years, scores of powerful people have been guests of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.
Renaissance Mayflower
(202) 347-3000

Washington, D.C., is the center of power and the Mayflower Hotel has been the residence of vice presidents, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, senators and congressmen. Built during the boom period after World War I, the Mayflower Hotel opened in 1925. Calvin Coolidge’s Inaugural Ball began a long tradition of presidents using the hotel for formal events. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ate lunch at the Mayflower every day for 20 years. When Franklin Roosevelt was living in the hotel before his inauguration, he dictated his famous speech, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

Located just four blocks from the White House, the Mayflower Hotel is the largest luxury hotel in the capital city, with 583 rooms and 74 suites. Our elegant eighth-floor room was very accessible, but it is the bathroom that we will always remember. The toilet was in one room and the shower in another. The huge space could have accommodated multiple wheelchair users.

Take the time to explore the hotel’s meeting rooms — the Chinese Room has a spectacular carved ceiling and the massive chandeliers throughout the Grand Promenade are stunning. You can have breakfast in the hotel’s café and work off a few calories in the onsite fitness center, or spend an afternoon exploring the Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Memphis, Tenn.
The Peabody Memphis
(901) 529-4000

Known as the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, Memphis is an iconic American city. The Peabody Hotel is located downtown and within walking distance of the famous Beale Street. The hotel itself is home to one of the city’s most popular attractions — the March of the Peabody Ducks, a tradition that began 75 years ago.

Every morning at 11, an audience gathers in the hotel’s grand lobby to watch as the Duckmaster leads five mallard ducks from their home on the hotel roof — “Duck Palace” — down the elevator and out to the hotel’s marble fountain. The ducks parade on a red carpet to a John Phillip Sousa tune. The ceremony resumes at 5 p.m., when the mallards retire to their palace.

Originally built in 1925, the hotel completed a multimillion dollar renovation in 2005. Our 12th-floor room had a view of downtown
 and a variety of accessible features — some of which worked better than others. The raised bed made transferring from a wheelchair difficult. The spacious bathroom with a wall-mounted television had a flimsy shower bench in the roll-in shower. The toilet had ample handrails, but was extremely low. The granite-topped bowl-shaped sink easily accommodated Barbara’s wheelchair.

The Peabody has three restaurants, two bars and an eclectic collection of retail shops on the ground floor offering everything from souvenir T-shirts to imported pearls. The accessible entrance to the hotel’s Capriccio Restaurant, an Italian steakhouse, requires going outside the hotel and walking around the block. The pool and athletic club are inaccessible by wheelchair because both require guests to climb stairs.

Finding a historic hotel

The Historic Hotels of America (HHA) is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  HHA identifies hotels that have “faithfully maintained their historic integrity, architecture and ambience.” Currently, there are 211 member hotels and resorts. The properties must be located in buildings that are at least 50 years old, and they must be listed or be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or be recognized locally as having historic significance.

The member properties range from the eight-room American Hotel in New York to the 1,639-room Palmer Hotel in Illinois. The location of the hotels is as diverse as mountain wilderness and bustling metropolitan cities. Some of the hotels are owned by large hotel chains and others have been in one family for generations.

Reservations made through HHA support the National Trust, a nonprofit, private membership organization that is dedicated to revitalizing America’s communities and saving historic places. Rooms at member hotels can be reserved by visiting www.historichotels.org, calling (800) 678-8946, or calling the hotel’s reservation number.

A description of member hotels can be viewed online at www.historichotels.org or you can purchase a directory for $5 by sending a check or money order to Preferred Hotel Group (HHA), 38999 Eagle Way, Chicago IL, 60678-1389. Several member hotels offer video tours of their properties on the HHA website at www.historichotels.org/video_tour.

Not every historic hotel belongs to the HHA. Another way to find them is to conduct an Internet search using the name of the town you’re visiting and “historic hotel.”

Checking accessibility

Once you’ve found a property, call the reservation desk and ask very specific questions, because some areas of the hotel and some services may not be accessible. Questions we typically ask before booking a reservation include:

  • Is your hotel wheelchair-accessible?
  • Do wheelchair users need to use a different entrance? Where is it located?
  • Do you have a guest room with a roll-in shower? Does the shower have a transfer bench?
  • Are there grab bars in the bathroom?
  • Are the hotel’s restaurant and guest amenities (lounge, fitness center, etc.) wheelchair-accessible?
  • What attractions are within walking distance of the hotel?

The Twardowskis are frequent Quest contributors. Barbara Twardowski has Charcot-Marie Tooth disease.

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