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 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 conceded, “[but] I know uniquely because of Ball & Chain the type of business the neighborhood commands at night and I think it’s long overdue.”
Tapping into history
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 culture, 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 Miami-based 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 no-brainer,” 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 33-room 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.
Steven Ohayon, head of global business development at Selina
Without on-site parking, visitors to the Tower Hotel will have to valet, park in area lots or use alternative forms of transportation. Fuller said he hopes he can encourage visitors to come to Little Havana via a ride-sharing service or a hop-on, hop-off bus. How that will play out, especially at a time when demand for real estate in Little Havana is growing, is yet to be seen.
Younger travelers are also more likely to make use of Little Havana’s free trolleys or public buses, Moebius said, helping to diminish congestion.
They also have deeper interest in the community’s intricacies, she said, noting that a growing number of the neighborhood’s current visitors are academics, students or professors who are interested in subjects such as housing, community and health. Keeping those people in Little Havana at a gathering place such as the Tower Hotel would be a win for the neighborhood, Moebius said.
“They are interested in Little Havana as a case study,” she said. “It’s for people visiting Miami and wanting to get to know Miami beyond the take a snapshot and buy a souvenir version of Miami.
“I think there is a bigger story for Miami to tell.”