The Lit­tle Ha­vana Ho­tel Of Many Faces Is Chang­ing Again

Riverbank News - - NEIGHBORHOOD VALUES -

MI­AMI — The Tower Ho­tel in Lit­tle Ha­vana has lived many lives.

Built in 1920, it’s been a YMCA, a World War II hos­pi­tal, a haunt for jazz mu­si­cians Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Count Basie, and Chet Baker, the Tower Apart­ments and the Tower Ho­tel, and, most re­cently, the home of an im­mer­sive the­ater ex­pe­ri­ence.

David Schecht­man, whose fam­ily owned the Tower Ho­tel from 1955 to 2012, grew up in­side the walls of the his­toric build­ing, which bore wit­ness to the trans­for­ma­tion of South­west Eighth Street into Calle Ocho.

“It’s seen the blues. It’s seen the whole Amer­i­can peo­ple down there. It was a Jewish com­mu­nity. And then it was Cuban through El Mariel (boatlift in 1980),” Schecht­man said, “through all the dif­fer­ent cul­tural and his­tory changes.”

Now, the ho­tel is due for an­other ma­jor change.

In Septem­ber, it will become Lit­tle Ha­vana’s first bou­tique ho­tel, re­de­vel­oped through a part­ner­ship be­tween the Bar­ling­ton Group, which owns sev­eral prop­er­ties in the neigh­bor­hood, and Selina, a ho­tel op­er­a­tor mak­ing its U.S. de­but. Bar­ling­ton Group’s man­ag­ing part­ner, Bill Fuller, also co-owns Ball & Chain.

Pre­serv­ing the his­tory of the ho­tel will be cen­tral, said Fuller, as he and busi­ness part­ner Martin Pinilla, also a man­ag­ing part­ner at Bar­ling­ton Group, ven­ture into what is es­sen­tially a gam­ble. Though Lit­tle Ha­vana is a pop­u­lar at­trac­tion for tourists — about 4 mil­lion vis­i­tors stop there ev­ery year — that pop­u­lar­ity dropped off slightly by 3 per­cent­age points in 2016 from 2015, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from the Greater Mi­ami Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bureau.

The area also hasn’t had a ho­tel, and cer­tainly not a bou­tique ho­tel, since be­fore the Tower Ho­tel and the build­ings on the lot were pur­chased by Bar­ling­ton Group in 2012 for $1.7 mil­lion.

“I know it’s untested,” Fuller said, “(but) I know uniquely be­cause of Ball & Chain the type of busi­ness the neigh­bor­hood com­mands at night and I think it’s long over­due.”

Henry Schecht­man, who owned Ball & Chain for a cou­ple of years in the 1950s, stum­bled across the Tower Ho­tel in 1955 as he was try­ing to pur­chase one of the homes that also sits on the lot, said his son, David Schecht­man.

Lo­cated at 1450 SW Sev­enth Street, the 52-room, three-story build­ing is around the cor­ner from the club and about a three-minute walk to Domino Park on Calle Ocho.

Be­cause of the prox­im­ity, the el­der Schecht­man of­fered the Tower Ho­tel to African Amer­i­can mu­si­cians, who were al­lowed to stay only at ho­tels in Over­town dur­ing seg­re­ga­tion. His son re­calls that after their sets, Schecht­man would sneak the mu­si­cians through the back al­ley­way to the ho­tel.

“Bil­lie Hol­i­day was one of the bigger names,” said David Schecht­man, who was born the year Hol­i­day died (1959) but heard sto­ries from his fam­ily. “We used to have a joke that she was my brother’s baby-sit­ter be­cause she used to hold my brother when he was pretty young.”

In the late 1980s, Schecht­man and his brother took over own­er­ship of the ho­tel from their fa­ther. Strug­gling to man­age the ho­tel him­self, David Schecht­man sold it to the Bar­ling­ton Group in 2012 and moved to Asheville, North Carolina.

He’s on board with the new own­ers’ plans, he said.

“I think it’s great what they are do­ing — it’s got great po­ten­tial,” David Schecht­man said. “Cul­tur­ally it’s a re­ally good thing to have, if you can show all the dif­fer­ent his­tory. If you look through the eyes of the ho­tel, it’s in­valu­able.”

Fuller said plans for the ho­tel in­clude in­cor­po­rat­ing his­tor­i­cal pho­tos and de­vel­op­ing a small doc­u­men­tary for guests to watch. The Tower Ho­tel’s sto­ried his­tory has al­ready proven suc­cess­ful for the Jug­ger­knot The­atre Com­pany, which in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber put on a the­ater pro­gram in­side the ho­tel’s rooms with ac­tors who por­trayed the kinds of guests who stayed at the ho­tel.

“Be­ing able to share that mes­sage (of its his­tory) is what’s so ap­peal­ing about the prop­erty,” Fuller said. “A lot of the trav­el­ers that we have to­day, they thirst for that. They are ur­ban ex­plor­ers, look­ing for the cul­tural her­itage ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The move to­ward ex­pe­ri­en­tial travel, which im­merses the vis­i­tor in an area’s cul- ture, has swept the travel in­dus­try in re­cent years. That thirst has helped short-term rental plat­forms like Airbnb, whose slo­gan is “live like a lo­cal,” grow into a world­wide phe­nom­e­non. The plat­form op­er­ates in more than 191 coun­tries.

That pop­u­lar­ity prompted Fuller and Pinilla to tap Selina, a New York-based ho­tel com­pany whose Cen­tral Amer­i­can prop­er­ties in­clude co-liv­ing and co-work­ing spa­ces, to op­er­ate the ren­o­vated Tower Ho­tel. They hope the part­ner­ship will at­tract younger trav­el­ers who oth­er­wise would have stayed in other ar­eas like Mi­ami Beach.

Steven Ohayon, head of global busi­ness de­vel­op­ment at Selina, said the com­pany fo­cuses on five main fea­tures: ac­com­mo­da­tions, which can be any­thing from bunk beds and ham­mocks to high-end rooms; a food and bev­er­age con­cept in a space that also caters to events, in­clud­ing live mu­sic and work­shops; co-work­ing spa­ces with full fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing con­fer­ence rooms; tours of the lo­cal area, of­ten through part­ner­ships with the com­mu­nity; and a well­ness com­po­nent, which can come in the form of yoga classes or surfing lessons, for ex­am­ple.

At the Tower Ho­tel Project, Selina is en­ter­ing into a part­ner­ship with Mi­amibased Mad Room Hos­pi­tal­ity, which owns and op­er­ates Ball & Chain (Fuller is co- owner of Mad Room, along with Zack Bush and Ben Bush), to de­velop the ho­tel’s food of­fer­ings. They are also work­ing on a nightlife and bar con­cept for the ho­tel, the de­tails of which have not yet been re­vealed.

The Tower Ho­tel will be Selina’s first U.S. ven­ture. The com­pany cur­rently op­er­ates ho­tels in Panama, Costa Rica, Colom­bia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Gu­atemala and Mex­ico, with more planned.

“(The Tower Ho­tel) was love at first sight. It was a no­brainer,” Ohayon said. “We re­ally feel we could make an im­pact in driv­ing traf­fic to Lit­tle Ha­vana but also col­lab­o­rat­ing with such a spe­cial com­mu­nity.”

The prod­uct, though, is still untested. A 15-minute walk from the Tower Ho­tel, on Ninth Av­enue, is the 33room Jef­fer­son Ho­tel, which opened in sum­mer 2017.

That bou­tique ho­tel has been busy with tourists, a sign that de­mand for ho­tel prod­ucts in the neigh­bor­hood is high, said Corinna Moe­bius, a com­mu­nity leader and res­i­dent of Lit­tle Ha­vana who of­fers tours for tourists.

“It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see more peo­ple here in the evening,” Moe­bius said. “Hope­fully though, what it will do is it will help to sup­port our small busi­nesses.”

We re­ally feel we could make an im­pact in driv­ing traf­fic to Lit­tle Ha­vana but also col­lab­o­rat­ing with such a spe­cial com­mu­nity.


The Lit­tle Ha­vana Ho­tel in Mi­ami.

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