• Property: The Carling
  • Owner: The Vestcor Cos.
  • Location: Downtown Jacksonville, Fla.
  • Renovation Cost: $29 million
  • Length Of Renovation: 14 months
  • Scope Of Project: Adaptive reuse of a former hotel

The glitz and glamour of the 1920s come roaring back to life as soon as you step into the grand lobby of The Carling, an apartment community in Jacksonville, Fla. A sparkling array of fully restored terrazzo floors, marble staircases, grand Palladian windows, and a coffered ceiling recapture the building's past splendor as one of the finest hotels in the Southeast.

PQH Architects

The Carling, built for $2 million in 1926, set a new standard for the luxury hotel industry. "It was one of the premier hotels in its day," says Mike Farrell, CEO of The Vestcor Cos., the developer that recently transformed the building into a 100-unit rental community.

But after sumptuous beginnings, the opulence faded through the decades. Renamed The Roosevelt in the 1930s, the hotel closed its doors in the '60s after a fire devastated the property, killing several people. The building reopened in the 1970s for a brief stint as an assisted-living community and then sat vacant for the last 20 years, a major eyesore dotting downtown Jacksonville's skyline.

Farrell, whose company had never attempted a historic rehab, was drawn to the project and its potential to change the city's struggling center. "Downtown didn't have the current momentum that it is having now," says Farrell. "The city was shutting down at 5 o'clock, and a lot of the companies and corporations were relocating to the suburbs." In October 2001, the company purchased the property (along with a neighboring historic building now called 11 E. Forsyth), encouraged by financial incentives from a city eager to revitalize its downtown.

The Carling apartment community captures all the beauty of its past life as a premier hotel. The grand lobby features fully restored terrazzo floors, marble staircases, and a coffered ceiling.
Neil Rashba The Carling apartment community captures all the beauty of its past life as a premier hotel. The grand lobby features fully restored terrazzo floors, marble staircases, and a coffered ceiling.

Grand Plans

No detail was overlooked in the restoration, starting with the carefully recreated large red neon letters spelling out "The Carling" from a perch atop the 13-story building. Since the building had sustained severe damage over the years, the redevelopment team relied heavily on historic photographs to recreate everything from the grand lobby space to the mezzanine level, which had been blocked off and hidden from view.

"The building looked like a war zone," says Ricardo Quinones, a principal director of design for PQH Architects, the Jacksonville firm that did the design for the renovation. "Vandals had gotten into the building and had ravaged through it, taking all the copper in the pipes and all of the aluminum in the wiring." As a result, the interior was gutted, making way for 100 apartment units and 15,000 square feet of retail space.

For the building's exterior, the National Park Service (the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings) required the developer to refurbish the brick façade, recreate existing storefronts, and restore the original front windows. One of the most time-consuming tasks was adhering loose bricks to the building's façade. To accomplish this, the team had to drill holes every 3 feet across the entire building front and apply thousands of injections of foam epoxy.

Neil Rashba

The development team often went above and beyond historic preservation requirements, following the notion that "if we are going to do [the restoration], let's do it right," says Farrell. So, even though it didn't have to, Vestcor re-created the lobby's coffer ceiling and rebuilt the mezzanine level, which features a clubroom and and activities center. "There was a huge lobby," says Quinones. "We could have chopped it down and created more retail space, but we would have lost part of the beauty of the original design."

Beat the 'Burbs

While the building's physical allure was powerful, The Carling's leasing team still had its work cut out for it. The team had to draw prospects from the suburbs to then-sleepy downtown Jacksonville–a 9-to-5 section of the metro area. "No one was looking down-town for housing because there was nothing there," says Farrell. "So we had to lure people from the suburbs, and say, 'Hey, try it.'"

To entice renters, the company centered its marketing campaign on the unique lifestyle of downtown living. "It wasn't difficult to get people excited. It was just a different sales process," says Brian Davies, vice president of Jacksonville-based WRH Realty Services, which manages the property. "It was about selling convenience." Ads for The Carling, which is now nearly fully leased, ran in local lifestyle magazines, and social events were held on-site to grab prospects' attention.

Just as important, Vestcor carefully crafted an amenity package similar to those in suburban offerings. The units, which rent from about $600 to $1,500 a month, feature oversized windows, open floor plans, built-in desks, upgraded appliances, full-size stackable washers and dryers, and contemporary light fixtures. Community amenities include a parking garage, a clubroom with hospitality kitchen, a deluxe fitness center, and a billiard room. Perhaps best of all, the project is within walking distance of shopping, dining, and entertainment. How's that for a return to glitz and glamour?