The old Gilded Age estates stand out, towering above overgrown lawns yet tucked away on winding roads not far from the congested highways and crowded strip malls of Elkins Park.
In coming years, the 42-acre Elkins Estate will transform into a “sanctuary," said Frank Cretella, president of Landmark Developers, which recently purchased the property for $6.5 million.
Cretella foresees not a religious sanctuary like the one the Dominican Sisters enjoyed there for 80 years, but a sanctuary of opulence, he said.
Landmark plans to restore the mansions and open a luxury hotel with more than 100 rooms, he said, as well as a distillery, a spa, a restaurant, and other amenities, both for hotel guests and community members.
“These hotels become a hub of activities," Cretella said. “I think the suburban markets need that."
The hotel industry is hot throughout the region. By the end of 2020, Philadelphia and its suburbs should expect to see more than 2,600 new hotel rooms, about 800 of which will be outside city limits.
But the luxury boutique model has found success in some suburban spots, including downtown Wayne in Delaware County.
Along bustling Lancaster Avenue, a historic mansion hosts guests in 40 rooms and suites, and has done so for the better part of 113 years. Its most recent iteration, the Wayne Hotel, opened in 1985.
But the hotel has also served as a point of pride for residents and business owners in the old-fashioned town, said Deanna Doane, vice president of the Wayne Business Association.
“It’s so iconic,” Doane said. “It’s not like staying at the Hampton Inn or the Marriott Courtyard. You’re walking into something special.”
The restaurants and stores nearby benefit from the business of hotel guests, she said, and guests are attracted to the property in part because there are so many places they can walk to during their stays.
David Brennan, the hotel’s general manager, said he has seen increasing competition from the area’s new chain hotels. But many guests, particularly frequent business travelers, have tried the new spots and returned — “thankfully,” he said with a laugh — to the Wayne Hotel, or its sister property, the Radnor Hotel down the road.
While many of their guests are in town for work, others stay when dropping their children off at nearby colleges or visiting attractions along the Main Line or in the city, which guests can get to by hopping on the SEPTA train that runs behind the hotel.
In many ways, he said, what sets their hotel apart are the same things hotel guests have sought forever.
“There’s still looking for convenience and comfort and value,” Brennan said. But there’s something else, too.
“Subconsciously,” he said, “they’re all looking for a genuinely warm welcome to be extended to them.”
Nearly 40 miles away, on the canal banks in New Hope, Bucks County, Ron Gorodesky is working on what he calls a “luxury lifestyle hotel," the River House at Odette’s.
The 34-room resort is set to open early next year on the River Road perch once occupied by Chez Odette’s restaurant, a historic stone structure that was moved last year to make way for the new construction. The resort will open months after the Ghost Light Inn, a 12-room luxury boutique hotel next to New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse theater.
Properties like his can find success in any town, he said, as long as that location has “weekend traffic” and is “an attraction for wedding couples.”
The weddings are “a very big deal" financially, he said. At the Reeds, they average 70 weddings a year, he said, and he estimates they’ll do 100 at the River House.
To make their investment worthwhile, developers have to attract hotel guests, wedding parties, and others who are willing to shell out money, he said. Already, his firm has spent $45 million, or as Gorodesky phrased it: “more than a million dollars per [room] key.”
The food-and-beverage side is important, too, he said, and must be tailored to the property. At the River House, a rooftop bar-restaurant, which will turn into a members-and-guests-only club at night, will overlook the water, Gorodesky said.
Chain hotels often look the same from location to location, he said — even the guest-room layout and decor can be identical.
Guests won’t find that at “boutique” hotels, he said.
“It’s much more bold and curated,” Gorodesky said. “It’s not cookie-cutter at all.”
In Elkins Park, Cretella said he hopes to build a unique brand of his own. The surrounding area is not as walkable as Wayne or New Hope, but he said he hopes guests will find all the amenities they need on site.
He doesn’t have a property name or even a detailed rendering yet, he said, but he can describe the energy people will find here.