The City of Charleston told Richard Kessler he could only put 50 rooms in his soon-to-be-built hotel at the southwest corner of Wentworth and Meeting streets, so he's making the space count. The upscale hotel, dubbed the Grand Bohemian, will feature a wine blending room, a rooftop terrace restaurant, and a 1,100-square-foot art gallery.
"We can bring in high-end clientele into Charleston, which well help everybody, all retail," Kessler said after a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday morning, seated in the lobby of the nearby Renaissance Charleston Hotel. "We think we're a perfect fit."
Details are still sparse about the Grand Bohemian, which is slated to open in the first quarter of 2015, but if Kessler's previous hotels are any indication, the words "grand" and "Bohemian" will likely be accurate. His company, the Kessler Collection, built a Tudor-inspired manse in Asheville, N.C., with a full-service hunting lodge restaurant and antler chandeliers in clean modern rooms. In Taos, N.M., Kessler's El Monte Sagrado takes aesthetic cues from adobe construction and advertises "a holistically designed eco-structure that incorporates recycled water, plants, and rock formation into a self-sustaining ecosystem." The lounge at Kessler's Grand Bohemian Hotel in Orlando, Fla., features a 97-key Imperial Bösendorfer grand piano, one of only 200 such instruments ever built.
Each of the company's 10 existing hotels is quirky, locally inspired — and pricey. Kessler is marketing the Grand Bohemian as an upscale luxury hotel, and he estimates room rates will start at around $250 a night.
Kessler says he started looking at the Charleston market 15 years ago, but he was waiting for the right location to become available. He thinks he's found it at the corner of Wentworth and Meeting, on property currently occupied by a white brick building that once housed the Chapter Two bookstore. According to county records, the land parcel is valued at $1.5 million.
The existing building will be torn down to make way for new construction, but Kessler says bricks and timber from the building will be incorporated into the new four-story hotel. The exterior design, by Atlanta architecture firm Reese-Vanderbilt, has already passed the gauntlet of city approvals. From the outside, it features clean lines and a classical influence not far removed from neighboring historic buildings. The look of the inside is anybody's guess.
"It's a combination of classic and contemporary," Kessler says, describing the personal aesthetic that has driven his hotel designs to date. "By putting those two concepts together, you really create synergy, so you don't go to sleep with history and you don't go too far out with contemporary that's outdated in five years. By putting those together, you're creating the new classic ... Some people say it's funky baroque."
A native of Savannah, Ga., who grew up in his father's construction business and attended engineering school at Georgia Tech, Kessler got started in the hotel world in 1970 when he helped found Days Inn of America Inc. ("I designed the sign one Friday afternoon," he says, using the Georgia Tech school colors of gold, black, and white). In 1975, at age 29, he was promoted to chairman of Days Inn, which he expanded nationwide and sold in 1984. During his tenure with the company, he says he oversaw the construction of the Days Inn of Charleston, hiring his dad's construction company to build the project.
He started the Kessler Collection in 1995 with a new hotel in Orlando, Fla., drawing aesthetic influence from the Bohemian Club, an eclectic San Francisco gentlemen's club of artists and businessmen. Today, Kessler is an avid art collector, specializing in impressionist paintings, bronze work, and turn-of-the-century glasswork by the French artist Émile Gallé. Recently, he says he has amassed a collection of oil paintings by Chinese-born American artist David Wu Ject-Key. He keeps part of his collection in his home and much of the rest in his hotels, populating the walls and foyers with his unique finds.
Kessler's son Mark, who is a COO of the Kessler Group, says his father has always been a collector, starting with arrowheads and marbles when he was young. "We have a warehouse in Savannah where we collect art pieces and furniture and lighting, and it might sit there for 20 years, but someday we'll use it in a hotel somewhere — at least that's his excuse," he says.
Richard Kessler says the Grand Bohemian's art gallery will feature some local artists and will also have jewelry for sale. The as-yet-unnamed fourth-floor restaurant will be open to the general public and will feature locally sourced food and a local chef, according to Danny Py, Kessler's food and beverage director.
"We want a home-grown [chef]," Py says. "You need someone who understands the region and has relationships with the local producers — and that's not only talking farmers, but the local sweet shops, the local bakeries, wineries, breweries, all that stuff. It's important to have that piece of culture in your kitchen."
Kessler's Charleston hotel venture, part of the downtown development boom that has seen thousands of new hotel rooms approved for construction on the peninsula, is a far cry from the first Collection hotel Kessler built in Orlando. Back then, he says, the city's downtown district was fairly dead. "People said, 'You're gonna build a luxury hotel in downtown Orlando? You gotta be crazy,'" Kessler says.
Today, he says he's building a Charleston hotel to keep up with demand. "Our guests are saying, 'We go to Charleston, and we really want one of your hotels in Charleston,'" Kessler says. "We think we have something unique to bring to Charleston, something that's not here."