By  on January 7, 2009

The Seelbach Hilton, Louisville’s grand old hotel and former stomping grounds for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone and others of fame and infamy, is undergoing a $13 million renovation, opening up about 20,000 square feet for luxury retailing.

“The Seelbach has been a starved asset for years,” said Brad Seiden, a principal of Investcorp International Inc. “But the hotel has great presence and marketability. We really want to bring it back to its grandeur and make it very comfortable to the modern guest.”

Investcorp, which owns 15 hotels in the U.S., purchased an 85 percent interest in the Seelbach in November 2007 as part of a $118 million transaction that included the Crowne Plaza Madison in Wisconsin and the Sheraton Columbia in Maryland. Interstate Hotels & Resorts operates the Seelbach and owns the remaining 15 percent.

The project is designed to enhance the appeal for romantic stays and vacationers as well as business travelers, and compete against the Marriott, the city’s newest hotel. It’s challenge: to bring a level of modernity without ruining the hotel’s historic charm, and to attract high-end retailers capable of catering to travelers and operating flexibly with the ebb and flow of hotel traffic.

“Luckily, this hotel shows so well. We don’t need a total redo. It’s a tactical redo,” said Jon McFarland, general manager of Seelbach Hilton. “We are blending state of the art with the historical,” with such additions as flat-screen TVs and LED lighting to the dramatic, 22-foot skylight towering over the lobby.

While the renovations are extensive — touching everything from the ballrooms, guest rooms and public bathrooms to the elevators, hallways and moldings — the hotel remains filled with Persian rugs, murals, crystal chandeliers, marble and hardwood floors, and maintains a clubby atmosphere that evokes images of cigar-smoking, poker-playing bootleggers of the Prohibition. Capone played cards in the Oak Room, conducted business in the Bavarian-style Rathskeller, and had a large mirror sent from Chicago (still in the hotel) so he could watch his back for police raids. There are also secret passageways for a quick escape. In “The Great Gatsby,” the Seelbach was the setting for the marriage of Daisy and Tom Buchanan.

The 321-room, 104-year old hotel on the corner of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, houses on its main level a Starbucks, a gift shop and Otto’s Cafe. Retail space will also be carved out of some unused areas, a staircase and a spa that will be reconfigured with a different entrance. No new leases have been signed yet, according to Richard Kave, principal of Full Spectrum Real Estate Advisors, which is working on the retail remerchandising.

“The big challenge is making sure the retailers are appropriate for the guests at the hotel. They’re predominantly business-oriented during the week, and on the weekends, the hotel is more for major events and weddings,” Kave said. “A high-end haberdasher along the lines of Thomas Pink would be great for both.”

He also suggested a fine jeweler, florist and new gift shop would be appropriate. There could be four to six retailers, depending on the space requirements of the new restaurant that will replace the Old Seelbach Bar on the main level. On the mezzanine, The Oak Room will also become a new restaurant. Kave is seeking one or two operators for the restaurants.

“We hope to have some proposals to present to the owners by the end of this month or early February,” Kave said, noting tenants could open in the summer or fall. “We don’t want to make this project another mall. We would like to find tenants that are a little different or special. The rents are not high. The restaurant will be a percentage rent deal and everything else will be $20 to $30 a square foot.”

Kave said despite the poor economy making retail space, generally, difficult to pitch, “So far, we’ve got a lot of positive feedback, especially with restaurants we’ve spoken to.”

Retailers will benefit from Fourth Street Live, an entertainment hub with some nonfashion retail in the center of the downtown business area, adjacent to the Seelbach; street windows, and of course, the hotel’s distinct aura, as Kave noted, adding, “The Seelbach is a place where you really feel comfortable sitting in a big leather chair, having a bourbon on the rocks and watching the horse races.”

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