In earlier days, the most opulent building in many towns was likely to be a bank. Today, many of those beautiful edifices are still standing, but rather than places for your money, they’re open for you to stay.
Around the world, and in a few places in Canada, too, old banks have been converted into luxury, boutique and business hotels. While the bank properties undergoing these renos can vary in age and size, the most striking ones tend to be the imposing old temples of money located in central locations or main streets in larger cities.
Hotels that were formerly banks in this country tend to be fewer and far between compared with conversions in the United States and overseas, but there are a few noteworthy ones. There’s the historic Hôtel Place D’Armes in Old Montreal, for example, a pioneer in the boutique hotel business that opened in 2000 in a set of three 19th-century neoclassical buildings that includes the former Bank du Peuple.
Instead of seeking a mortgage, visitors to the Montreal hotel can now book into one of 116 guest rooms or 48 suites. Rather than depositing a cheque, they can deposit themselves in a luxury spa or at the hotel’s Japanese tavern, which offers 25 types of sake.
The Place D’Armes was developed by Groupe Antonopoulos, a family-owned hospitality firm that has 1,200 employees and owns and operates an additional four boutique hotels, all in Old Montreal. Bank buildings in other Canadian cities have also been turned into hotels, though it’s not as common a practice in Canada as it is in the United States and overseas.
“There are some obvious reasons why it’s not as prevalent in Canada,” says David Larone, a senior managing director at real estate service CBRE Ltd. who specializes in valuation and advisory services.
One reason is that the downtown cores of Canadian cities have tended to be in better shape than in U.S. cities, which suffered urban blight in the late 20th century and began to be restored later.
“If you look at Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa or Vancouver, for example, we haven’t had the level of deterioration in our downtown cores as they had in many U.S. cities. So a lot of those [old bank] buildings just aren’t available here because they’re still in use,” Mr. Larone says.
“Also in the U.S., because of the larger population and density in cities, there are more buildings on a scale that can be converted into a hotel than we have here,” he adds.
There are exceptions, of course. Toronto’s One King West Hotel and Residence, for example, encompasses the historic Dominion Bank Building, constructed in 1914.
The hotel, completed in 2006, stands alone as a hotel that’s an ex-bank, within the sea of steel and glass towers in Toronto’s financial district. One King West is part of a tower complex itself, a building called The Sliver that was built atop the historic bank.
In addition to having a larger supply of big, old beautiful banks in the United States, the urban development incentives tend to be more attractive there, Mr. Larone adds. In a lot of cases, a U.S.-based developer can get a property tax abatement from a municipality, a state or from Washington.
In any country, the economics of a conversion aren’t always easy, Mr. Larone adds.
“You have to look at how cheaply you can acquire the property, because your retrofit is likely going to cost you more than putting up a new building. The masonry is probably going to need work, the level of insulation is likely not going to be up to today’s standards. You’ll probably want to retain the old windows, but you’ll have to find ways to do that which are energy efficient,” he says.
One converted bank hotel in Alberta that boasts about its heritage is the Union Bank Inn. Converted by Edmonton developer (now an industrial manufacturing chief executive officer) Diane Buchanan in 1997, the renovation drew on her experiences at boutique inns in Europe.
The heart of the inn, now with 40 rooms, is a 1910 building that cost less than $60,000 to construct at the time and which later housed a Royal Bank of Canada branch. The Edmonton property was renovated again in 2017, converting a ballroom into more guestrooms.
Not all converted banks are old-time buildings in Canada. In Quebec City, the Hôtel Royal William is a former National Bank building dating to 1954 that now offers 44 rooms. The hotel is proud of its history but is still looking for the best ways to incorporate the bank’s heritage elements into the property, says general manager Martin Lamothe.
“We have a safe in the basement and one in the reception area. We have a new owner; we’re renovating and we’ll look at how to use some of the elements from the bank in our design,” he says. But the $2-million renovation will not focus on the building’s history as a bank.
Why bother to convert a bank? Because banks can be beautiful, Mr. Larone says.
“You have a great sense of arrival, you have high ceilings on the ground floor, you usually have tall windows with good light. And there can be some connection to the local community, so you can offer experiential travel, too.”
Even when they need overhauls, old banks are often good structures, too, he adds. “After all, who has more money to put up a building than a bank?”