In Portrait: How One Hotel Reframed the Guest Experience

Towering a mere stone’s throw from the Virginia State Capitol is a historic hotel known by many names: Hotel Rueger in the early 1900s, Hotel Raleigh in the 1950s, and Commonwealth Park Suites Hotel in the 1980s. Today, its moniker is The Commonwealth, and while the property’s 11-story exterior remains a proud example of its 1912 Federal-style architecture, the years have taken a toll on its interior.

Until this year, that is. The boutique property recently reopened its doors after a comprehensive 18-month renovation. “We wanted to do more than a thoughtful refresh,” explains Robert Reed, vice president of SMI Hotel Group, the hotel’s ownership. “We took this opportunity to completely reimagine the hotel’s identity, and simultaneously update our operations model.”

And that’s where Anna Kreyling—self-professed art fanatic and interior designer in Baskervill’s hospitality studio—enters. “We had conversation after conversation with the hotel staff during the design process—and each time we kept coming back to two key things: Richmond itself, and the hotel’s rich heritage,” says Anna, who walked to-and-from most of these meetings from Baskervill’s office down the hill.

The trek was packed full of Federal-style inspiration—the clean symmetry of houses, eagle-shaped ornamentation on building facades, and the nearby Post Office’s iron-railing details. “Since the Federal style is symbolic with the United States gaining independence from Great Britain and establishing its own form of government, my mind wandered to ideas of freedom and identity within design,” adds Anna. “What could those concepts look like through a modern lens?”

The answer took Anna back to her first love: art. And while there’s admittedly nothing new or groundbreaking about art being used in hotels, our final design concept represents a decisive shift in how art is sourced and utilized operationally. The strategy? Curate a visual love letter to the hotel’s home city via an utterly eclectic assembly of artists (and aesthetics) all riffing off a single prompt: What is Richmond to you?

Unlike other branded hotels, where art often needs to exist within a larger design framework, The Commonwealth’s boutique status meant everything was up for grabs. The only goal? Ensure the art reflected its home city—a city plastered with murals (How would a custom mural for each floor of the hotel work?) that’s also the third-most tattooed city in the country (Why not have tattooed guestroom doors?).

To bring the vision to life, Anna began by phoning some friends and reaching out to local artists she admires:  a screen printer she went to college with, a former Baskervill colleague turned sought-after muralist, and the photographer who took the pictures you’ll see  below, just to name a few. One piece at a time, the plan took shape. Take the lobby, with its commanding floor pattern punctuated with simply formed furniture and muted tonalities—all of which make way for the hotel’s lively art collection.

We expected guests to become smitten with the hotel’s curated art collection. What we didn’t expect? That the staff would too—or that the art would take on a life of its own, becoming an integral part of hotel operations. Honoring the hotel’s rich heritage was a crucial element to making the selections a success. Anna sorted through old black and white images (previously hung in guestrooms and many at least 100 years old) to create a unique gallery for the restaurant. The restaurant’s menu pays homage with a detailed diagram of the collection and information about each piece.

“The feedback we’ve received regarding the art has been nothing short of ’wow,’” says Robert. “Even those guests who know little about art are intrigued by the uniqueness and diversity of it all. The fact that we are so Richmond-centric engages people even more. We have a new respect for how curious Richmonders are about their own backyard—the entire hotel staff has been educated regarding our hometown through this process.”

Indeed, meaningful connections between staff and guests are organically forming. To help support guests’ natural curiosity about the dynamic collection, the staff created custom training materials detailing key insights about each artist and their work so they’re better able to share those stories with guests. For instance, if someone were to ask about the unique names given to each of the 59 suite-styled guestrooms (all named after notable Richmond people and landmarks such as: Maymont, Monroe, and Mraz), hotel staff is easily equipped to engage on their fun backstory. More and more, these conversations lead to impromptu excursions for the guests.

Knowing guests may wish to learn additional factoids about the hotel’s unique murals, hotel staff is working to develop custom plaques for each piece. Guests will be able to scan the plaque’s digital code with their phones, which will direct them to an art portal on The Commonwealth’s website with additional information about the piece, the artist, and more from the artist’s portfolio.

“When you connect people with art in a living space, it has a profound effect,” Anna says. “The art is not the heart of The Commonwealth, the people are; the art is the connective tissue.”

The art is what sets The Commonwealth apart, but it’s only the beginning of the overall guest experience. People are drawn in, ready to taste Hanover tomatoes at the South of the James Farmers Market, check out the seal as it appears near the Capitol, or learn more about Edgar Allen Poe’s time in Richmond.

“I hope every nook and cranny gets filled with art over time,” says Anna. “…And the space becomes Richmond’s favorite gallery.”

To see more project photos, click here.