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Remembrance of themes past 

Some people have said, and I agree, that this is the single biggest thing to revitalize downtown," says Richard Kessler, referring to the Westin Grand Bohemian, the luxury hotel he's building catty-corner from Orlando City Hall. Kessler offers this assertion while meandering the lobby of the unfinished hotel. Around him workers carry classical-looking columns, or install molding around a tall rotunda, or move scaffolding from here to there, and Kessler must repeatedly dodge out of their way. The whir of a power saw shears through his conversation. But Kessler's not bothered. The hubbub might interrupt a few sentences, but the bustle just seems to verify the extravagance of the hotel. Kessler appears nothing if not pleased with all the activity.

The Westin Grand Bohemian will have 250 rooms, with nightly rates starting at $150; those rooms include 36 suites the size of a small one-bedroom apartment, whose rates start at $225. The hotel also will have, as the name suggests, a theme: early-20th-century Bohemia, which literally refers to the one-time kingdom centered around Prague. For the purposes of the hotel, "Bohemian" means more generally the stately, genteel face of Europe circa the world wars. What this translates to in practice is a tendency toward dark reds and purples, with lots of gold-leaf accents. Look up and you'll likely see a hefty brass chandelier. A large, white marble horse -- "A monument piece like you'd see in Paris," according to Kessler -- will greet guests at the brick-courtyard entranceway off Jackson Street.

The Grand Bohemian comes with a tag line: "An experience in art and music." Kessler describes how paintings of all kinds will hang nearly everywhere. A seven-foot bronze horse will survey the lobby. An Imperial Grand Bosendorfer piano, one of only two in the world, will be an imposing resident of the rotunda, contributing more flashy red, black and gold colors. Classical music, jazz and show tunes will be heard; individual musicians, singers and small-group ensembles will play for patrons. "There's no Muzak in the Grand Bohemian hotel," Kessler declares. In other words, a slab of Old World pomp is about to settle in our DJ-centric, mere-decades-old downtown.

Since this is Orlando, where one can gaze upon an itty-bitty Great Wall of China, wander a whimsical Dr. Seuss landscape and, now, survey the temple marketplace waiting for Jesus to upend the tables of a few moneychangers, an observer might not look twice at this attempt to fabricate a version of Europe at Orange Avenue and South Street. You can't swing a cat in this town without hitting a themed this or a themed that, although the big-time fantasies tend to be reserved for the attractions area. An Orlando resident since 1994, Kessler happens to be particularly fond of themes: This new project is part of his aptly named Grand Theme Hotels business. "We're not just into hotels," he explains. "We're into entertainment."

Currently four Grand Theme Hotels operate in the Orlando area, two on International Drive: the fanciful Doubletree Castle Hotel and the Sheraton Studio City Hotel, whose round tower is topped with a big sphere. The Sheraton Safari Hotel, in the Lake Buena Vista area, includes a pool that sports a "python water slide." And last year saw the opening of his quaint Celebration Hotel, in the quaint downtown of Disney's town of Celebration. Farther afield, his chain also includes the Spanish-fortress-style Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, whose structure dates to 1888. Originally a hotel, then an empty building, then a courthouse, the building ended up in Kessler's hands in 1997. He restored its Spanish-Moroccan atmosphere, and the National Trust Historic Hotels of America recognized his efforts at preserving the building's integrity and architecture. The Grand Bohemian will be the sixth Grand Theme Hotel.

A faux jungle plunked down on I-Drive is one thing, but a luxury hotel in downtown Orlando faces a unique set of problems, the foremost being downtown itself. Although new office buildings are changing the skyline -- two just-finished towers sit across from the Grand Bohemian -- and talk of a performing-arts center remains a constant background noise, downtown still qualifies as a half-hearted, unrealized plan.

Nonetheless, for his hotel's success, Kessler is counting on not only business travelers but also the local community: He wants the Grand Bohemian to accommodate our relatives, to host our weddings and to serve us happy-hour drinks. "I've got to believe that this is the cornerstone of revitalization," says Kessler matter-of-factly.

The 54-year-old Kessler became a millionaire in his 30s, thanks to chain hotels, those American specialties that sit at big intersections, an off-ramp away from a busy interstate, in walking distance to a Waffle House or a Denny's. At 29 Kessler was named president and CEO of the Days Inn hotel chain, and when the chain was sold in the early '80s, Kessler took his millions and went into commercial and residential development and banking. In 1994 he moved to Orlando, where he had lived briefly in the early 1970s, and re-entered the hotel business, deciding to concentrate on upscale themed properties. For his first project he built a castle.

The Grand Bohemian's opening, slated for April 16, is only a few weeks away when Kessler shows me around the property. It would seem to be a time when a carefully laid plan is being carried out; Kessler, however, is still improvising. Phrases such as "just this week" and "yesterday" pepper his conversation, as in, "Yesterday I bought a series of limited-edition `Gustav` Klimt drawings." He'd been negotiating for three months to purchase these works by Klimt, an elegant, early-20th-century Austrian art nouveau painter; now suddenly a previously unnamed rotunda has been christened "the Klimt rotunda." When I note that this flurry of activity is happening so near to the opening, Kessler explains his method: "You figure out your program, and when it comes to the close, you sort it out quickly."

While enumerating the art planned for the hotel's walls, Kessler describes individual works and points to precisely where they'll hang, although he sometimes forgets an artist's name. He collects artworks and antiques and stores the pieces in an Atlanta warehouse, but he apparently can't keep himself from purchasing more things for his new properties. Somewhere in the vicinity of 50 original pieces from Kessler's collection will end up in the Grand Bohemian, prompting Kessler's public-relations manager Mary Kenny to observe, "The `Orlando art` museum, I think, is going to be jealous." For example, one lobby wall will feature a "mystical" painting of a masquerade ball by a Florida artist. "People will go crazy when they see it," Kessler gushes, then sums up the hotel by saying, "Everything is loaded. It's like chocolate mousse."

Gracious and enthusiastic, Kessler is nonetheless focused and to the point. When he's done talking about the art, he says, "OK, so that's the art."

Kessler could have made his downtown hotel look like anything he wanted, from a Taj Mahal replica to a moonscape. Why early-20th-century Europe?

"We usually take our cue from architectural history," he explains. "But in Orlando we have very little architectural history to deal with. Almost none. So we said, well, let's create some history. Let's build a historical, classical structure. Let's start building some history into the city."

Wondering why people get giddy over places that look like other places, I ask Kessler about the appeal of themed environments, but his response ends up to be a pitch for the Grand Bohemian. He does, however, entertain a comparison between his project and Las Vegas' highbrow-art hotel: The Grand Bohemian "is the quality of a Bellagio, but it has a boutique feel," Kessler notes. "The Bellagio is a very, very large hotel."

Abe Pizam, interim dean of the University of Central Florida's School of Hospitality Management, notes, "People are very excited about staying in a themed hotel. The ones in Las Vegas are doing fantastic."

But that's like saying the supermarkets with food in them are doing really well. "In Las Vegas, the theme is themes," observes Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University and president of the International Popular Culture Association. "Orlando is quickly becoming that as well."

Thompson sees themed environments as elaborate packaging, especially suited to areas that might not have a lot to offer otherwise. "You look at Orlando or Las Vegas, and in so many ways these were sort of godforsaken places," says Thompson. "To get someone to go to places like this requires packaging." While the greater Orlando area has succeeded brilliantly in attracting millions of people, downtown in a certain respect remains on of those godforsaken places that need to be gussied up and cleverly packaged.

Thompson considers an upscale themed hotel to be on a yuppie-fueled continuum with Starbucks (which, coincidentally, will open its first downtown outlet on the Orange Avenue side of Kessler's hotel): "Coffee used to be like water, with free refills," Thompson observes. But now our choice of coffee has become meaningful: It's a way to tell the world who we are, and the same can be said for an ornately packaged hotel. "We are what we consume in a democracy," says Thompson. "It's an effort to allow people to bask in their new identities, if they can afford the cover charge."

Adds Thompson, "The Grand Bohemian is an unbelievably telling name," referring to the typical connotation of the word "bohemian": an independent artist-type living in a loft. The hotel's name makes Thompson think of the recent book "Bobos in Paradise" by David Brooks, which examines the rise of the bourgeois bohemian -- the "bobo." "Americans are very flattered by a modest amount of luxury and service," concludes Thompson. "We haven't grown up with people serving us, and those who have won't be going to the Grand Bohemian."

That's not to say Orlando couldn't use another gathering place for its bobos, which is what Kessler seems to be after. After Kessler decided to "create history" -- a fantastic phrase, but one that's right at home in Central Florida -- he turned his gaze toward his new hotel's surroundings. "What a downtown needs is art and music," he says. "Otherwise, all you've got is drab buildings and work. So let's make that the theme: a place for art and music."

In a sense, the Grand Bohemian project brims with optimism. "I think downtown has a very good future," says Kessler, noting that the hotel would be a "tremendous asset" if the performing-arts center gets built, presumably across the street. "It's incredible the amount of business that's been pushed out of the city because people thought there was no place to put them."

Nonetheless, UCF's Pizam points out that now might not be the ideal time to build a luxury hotel. "It's not as good economically speaking as it was two years ago," says Pizam. "`And` I doubt that it will be as rosy a year and a half from now as it was last year." Still, when it comes to the Grand Bohemian's fate, Pizam concludes, "There's no reason that downtown can't sustain it." Apparently, others agree. The past 18 months have seen the opening downtown of the 17-room Eo Inn, the 168-room Embassy Suites, and the $10 million renovation of the 250-room Sheraton Four Points.

Consultant David Theophilus helped Kessler put together a feasibility study for the Grand Bohemian. He determined that two or three years ago, demand caught up with supply regarding downtown accommodations. It was time for growth, and for a step up in the swankiness department.

"When you talk about a hotel in the downtown market, it's not competing with Disney," notes Theophilus. And when you talk about a downtown hotel, the issues aren't the same as with, say, a downtown retail business. What creates demand for overnight stays, Theophilus explains, are things like the courthouse and the office space -- people coming to Orlando to do business. "Certainly being across from City Hall doesn't hurt," he says of the hotel's prospects.

In other words, Orange Avenue's empty storefronts don't come into play: "That's an issue with the viability of downtown, which we should be concerned with, but not the viability of this hotel," explains Theophilus.

For his part, Kessler seems determined not to let the Grand Bohemian become something that local residents avoid as if it were a lavishly dressed, out-of-place foreigner. He says things like, "I can't imagine not coming here after work," and announces with pleasure that the phones are "ringing off the hook" to inquire about booking weddings.

"To make this a success, we've designed it for the community," says Kessler. "The hotel is the social hub of the community. What we've done is build a facility that's for Orlando. They don't identify with International Drive."


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