|By Jeff Wilkinson, The State, Columbia,
S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 7, 2008 - One of Columbia's oldest office buildings is about to become the city's newest luxury hotel.
This week, the Palmetto Building -- the city's second-oldest "skyscraper" -- quietly will open its doors as the Sheraton Downtown Columbia, a 135-room Starwood hotel with a boutique feel. A grand opening will take place in about two months.
"This is my dream," said owner Rick Patel, who has 10 other lodging properties in and around the city. "I'm in every market in town but not downtown. I've always wanted to do this."
Patel and his father, T.N. Patel, have been in the hotel business in Columbia since moving here from London in the 1980s. Now, they own more properties than any other hotelier in the city.
The two-year, $20 million-plus renovation of the Palmetto Building, at Main and Washington streets, and the accompanying Republic Bank building, across the street, is their crowning achievement.
The 18-story hotel has four bars -- including a martini lounge in the old bank vault and one on the rooftop -- a gourmet restaurant and a Starbucks in the lobby.
"If you took this whole hotel and dropped it in New York, it would fit right in," Patel said.
Well, make that Chicago.
The 1913 Gothic revival-style building is an expression of the Chicago school of skyscrapers, according to John Sherrer of the Historic Columbia Foundation.
Its first two floors are clad in Indiana limestone with the rest in cream-colored terra cotta. The facade, which is the original, is decorated with carvings of Southern plants, including palmetto trees, cotton bolls and corn. The lobby has mahogany walls and a mosaic floor featuring a palmetto tree.
"This is a fantastic reuse of one of Columbia's most historic structures," Sherrer said. "And this is the second time it has received a new lease on life. It was scheduled for demolition in the 1980s."
The new hotel is also a shot in the arm for struggling Main Street on several levels, said Matt Kennell, president and chief executive of City Center Partnership, which supports downtown businesses.
It's a 24-hour building on a street dominated by 9-to-5 office towers.
It saves an important historic structure.
It turns an inadequate, antiquated office building into a first-class commercial property.
"This puts people on the street after 5," Kennell said. "And a hotel is filled with people with credit cards who want to go out and spend."
It is also the most recent in the city's trend toward more luxurious hotels.
The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center opened in 2004 in the Vista, and its accompanying Hilton Columbia Center was completed last year. Since then, most other downtown hotels have undergone some level of renovation, said Tom Sponseller, executive director of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.
"Once you get a new product, everyone has to make sure their products can compete," he said.
Despite the economic slowdown, Columbia's hotel market has proved resilient. Visitors steadily have filled about two-thirds of rooms -- this year and last. But with almost 3,000 new hotel rooms planned to open during the next 18 months, some fear the market could be in for a shakeout.
However, Sponseller said the Sheraton is something new for the city. "It's in an architecturally unique building and is going to hit a higher-end niche (of guest)."
The hotel's room rates range from $149 to $399 a night.
Also adding to the hotel's attraction is the renovation of the three-story, 8,900-square-foot Republic National Bank building across the street. The 1924 building will be refit for meetings and receptions. It has 22-foot-tall vaulted ceilings, two room-sized bank vaults and a 6-foot-tall fireplace.
"It screams Biltmore Estates," said Amanda Allison, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.
Mayor Bob Coble called the hotel yet another example of Columbia's -- and in particular downtown Columbia's -- resiliency during tough economic times.
"It's a symbol of Main Street transformation," he said.
While Patel sets the cost of renovation at $20 million, his smile suggests the price tag is higher.
"It's always been my dream," he said, standing at the rooftop bar, enjoying the view of the State House.
"But it's been an expensive dream."
Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.
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Copyright (c) 2008, The State, Columbia, S.C.
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