Puttin' on the Ritz

Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia revives City Hall area
August 11, 2010

The new Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia hotel opened last year after a nine-year development odyssey, which began in 1991 with one of the most costly fires in American history. The fire destroyed one of Philadelphia's largest skyscrapers, leaving a vacant site on the block currently occupied by the hotel.

The fire also left an adjacent 30-story office building vacant. In 1993, Philadelphia-based Arden Group, spearheaded by developer Craig A. Spencer, purchased the building from the Mellon Bank Corp.

Because the Pennsylvania Convention Center was under construction, Spencer knew the demand for hotel rooms would skyrocket. His vision became closer to reality in 1994 when he purchased the adjacent former Mellon banking hall, with its distinctive 120-ft.-high dome.

Spencer retained the Princeton, N.J.-based Hillier Architects to design a plan that would transform the two buildings into a five-star hotel. After two earlier proposals fell through, Marriott International put its Ritz-Carlton label on the hotel with an agreement to lend the developer $62.8 million.

An obvious attraction for Spencer was the enviable location, across from Philadelphia's landmark City Hall and at the north end of the city's theater district. Today the Ritz has become a colorful living room to the city, "where fashion sits."

The two white marble-clad buildings were originally designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1908 and 1931, respectively, for the Girard Trust Co. Construction of the $88 million project began in 1998 and ended with the hotel's opening in the summer of 2000.

The designers were able to preserve the historic features of the buildings without adding any square footage, and yet create 330 private suites in awkward office space, three restaurants and lounges out of principal banking areas, and a 6,000-sq.-ft. Grand Ballroom in the area that was originally the safe-deposit room. A key element of the project was the creation of a new monumental staircase in the dome building.

"We had to be very creative," says Hillier principal architect James Garrison. "It was a three-dimensional puzzle where every piece affected every other [piece]."

Making a bank into a hotel

The two bank buildings were originally part of a larger complex consisting of four connecting structures that were designed to work in concert. The domed banking hall had no stairs or elevators to service its second and third floors. Instead, bank employees used stairways in adjoining buildings to reach these floors.

In order to adapt the dome building into a hotel lobby, a public staircase and elevators had to be installed.

The staircase added to the dome building was, according to Garrison, "a difficult design problem." The designers wanted it to complement but not mimic the historic architecture of the space. As part of the building's public restoration area, it falls under the U.S. Department of the Interior guidelines for historic restoration.

Hillier sent computer-aided designs of the staircase to Italy for the stone cutter and to Montreal where the structural steel, ornamental metal and glass were fabricated. Both the Italian and Montreal firms sent their completed work to Philadelphia-based stone contractor and setter Dan Lepore and Sons to create the staircase that now connects the lobby to its upper levels.

The staircase, which rises 25 feet, takes guests from the main floor to the mezzanine and then up to the second-floor balcony, where meeting rooms are located.

An oculus in the domed part of the building, which acts as a skylight bringing natural light into the basement, was retained. Ritz-Carlton guests now look through the oculus to see the top of a crystal chandelier that hangs above the 500-seat Grand Ballroom.

A third building, 10 stories tall, is attached to the rear of the domed building and extends partially under the 30-story tower building. It houses the hotel's back-of-house operations including housekeeping and other service departments. The bank previously used the building for private offices. The three attached buildings have independent structural systems, according to Garrison.

Window replacement

The construction phase, led by Philadelphia-based L.F. Driscoll Co., began with exterior work, which included reroofing, window replacement and masonry restoration.

In order to qualify for the 20 percent federal tax credit for historic renovation, it was necessary to demonstrate that the tower building's windows needed replacement.

About 90 percent of the 861 windows in the 30-story structure had decayed, and approximately 163 of them were severely deteriorated. In addition, it was impossible to retrofit the existing windows with insulated glass and many of them had holes drilled through the inside window frame in order to support interior blinds. The windows' interior exhibited paint buildup and their exterior showed steel rusting as well. L.F. Driscoll estimated the cost of rehabilitating the existing windows at roughly $1.33 million, while the cost of total window replacement was estimated at $942,180. The report submitted to preservation officials recommended that all windows in the tower structure needed replacement.

The original windows could not be identified with a particular manufacturer. But, the manufacturer worked closely with Garrison to customize the new windows to match their predecessors in appearance. The manufacturer created a plan to meet both the standards of the Department of the Interior and current insulation and ventilation criteria.

The building's original steel-framed, single-glazed windows were replaced with insulated glass, aluminum-framed windows with similar detail. A custom "snap-on" glazing bead of aluminum replaced the original 1/4-in. steel plate sash and created a raised profile.

The original interior of the 290,000-sq.-ft. office building was gutted to its concrete and steel frame, and then rebuilt, leaving only the original stair towers and elevators.

According to Garrison, the tower's existing column grid was irregular. Luxury suites were built, within the original grid, creating 15 rooms per floor. Some rooms have as many as three oversized windows, which provide different views, a rarity for hotel rooms.

"I've heard from the manager that guests end up with favorite rooms and request those when they return," Garrison says.

Systems synthesis

The incorporation of new mechanical and electrical systems was another challenge for the Ritz-Carlton building team. The facility had to be rewired for power, communications, HVAC and life-safety systems. It was necessary to accommodate the demands of large public spaces as well as the guest rooms and more than 12 kitchens, many of which are located three stories below grade.

"The biggest challenge was working with so many different structural systems and column grids to get the vertical shaft space we needed," says Garrison.

This was particularly true with regard to the kitchen air intakes, exhausts and plumbing runs in the tower. The kitchens, placed two levels below grade in the domed building, required more than 1,000 feet of ductwork. Because the small roof of the domed building could not support ductwork, a single large shaft was incorporated into floor slabs.

Wiring in the tower was a challenge as well. The 35-story chimney of the tower building was used for vertical runs of electrical wiring.

The team installed all the new systems needed, replacing those from the 1950s, when the buildings were last renovated. And a new hotel fashioned from historic features was created.

Construction Costs

HVAC $7,486,500
Electrical 8,326,000
Elevators 2,209,150
Fire protection 1,069,500
Plumbing 3,335,000
Stone and tile 5,865,000
Drywall 5,290,000
Doors, frames and hardware 1,294,900
Masonry restoration 1,274,200
Architectural woodwork 1,753,750
Window replacement 1,104,000
Roofing 318,550
TOTAL $39,326,550