They fell hard, they say, for the 1931 art deco hotel’s dark walnut panels, lacy wrought iron railings and ornate facade, which faces West 12th Street in downtown Kansas City. They were also taken with the hotel’s original chandelier and nearby 11-foot sculpture of the Goddess of Dawn, by Jorgen Dreyer, perched on a pedestal on the second floor overlooking the lobby.
“When we saw this property the first time, we wanted it,” Bonthala says. “It’s rare to say, ‘We need to do this project’ right away. You usually see numbers first. But it’s so beautiful, and there was obviously an irreplaceable value to it. We were instantly enamored with the architecture, the history and the backstories.”
That history and those backstories include the fact that when it opened in 1931, Hotel Phillips was the tallest building in town at 20 stories high; that Harry S. Truman owned a haberdashery from 1919 to 1921 in a building where part of the hotel’s restaurant now stands; and that it was the first hotel to have radio receivers in every room. That accounts for the name of the hotel’s new Kilo Charlie coffee bar, which represents the letters K and C in the NATO Phonetic Alphabet.
Through Arbor Lodging Partners, Patel and Bonthala look for hotels that they think are underperforming, renovate them and rework their operations in hopes of increasing profit margins. Hotel Phillips is the 16th hotel they’ve acquired, says Bonthala, and they spent $20 million renovating it. It is managed by an affiliate company, NVN Hotels, and recently became a part of Hilton Hotels’ luxury Curio Collection.
Bonthala and Patel were friends and classmates before becoming business partners. They met as teenagers at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the nation. Both attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where they studied economics.
After Bonthala finished law school at Michigan, the two founded Arbor Lodging Partners, which typically invests in the type of newer, cookie-cutter hotels that you’d find near airports and in suburbs.
Hotel Phillips is a departure from that model, but it didn’t stop them from carefully restoring the art deco building to its original grandeur.
“We spent a lot of time looking at how the hotel was originally designed and built, and we put those pieces back,” says Patel, pointing to an area of the foyer where a staircase to the lower level once existed. They removed it and rebuilt the travertine floor to match photos from the 1930s.
They also restored the walnut paneling in the lobby to its original dark-stained luster. Some of the panels had been painted over with art deco patterns. They also meticulously restored elaborately designed plaster moldings and ceilings in the lobby and in the Crystal Ballroom.
They preserved several lockers that once sat behind the lobby’s front desk and are now near a retro shuffleboard table at the back of the lobby. The hotel’s original mail chute has been left intact, marked by a brass box in the foyer and smaller ones between elevator banks on each floor.
Hotel Phillips originally had 400 guest rooms, some with bathrooms, some without, so guests had to share bathrooms in the hall.
Now, there are 216 rooms, each with its own bathroom — or two, in some instances — that start at about $200 a night and range from a trunk room that has its vanity outside the tiny bathroom to sprawling suites with a living area that can accommodate a sectional sofa, a powder room and a full bathroom with a walk-in shower and clawfoot tub.
Bonthala notes that the accessories in the trunk room are upgraded a bit so guests don’t feel like they’re losing out on a special experience.
The sleek, high-end decor throughout the hotel, from rooms to public spaces, is contemporary and modern, with plush fabrics including velvets and leathers and brass light fixtures that lend an appealing contrast and updated feel to the historic architecture. Many materials were custom-made to pay homage to the hotel’s heritage, including wallpaper and metalwork in graphic designs and hexagon tile flooring.
“We found a lot of original hexagon tiles underneath layers of flooring during demolition,” Bonthala said.
In addition to Kilo Charlie coffee bar, which offers coffee staples as well as nitro and draft lattes, the hotel also boasts an upscale farm-to-table restaurant called Tavernonna Italian Kitchen.
“We want it to be the go-to restaurant in downtown Kansas City. We tried to create a great place with thoughtful design and comfort food. It’s not pretentious. We want people to come in after work and linger and hang out. And we did that with the expectation that if the local community embraces you, it will be a no-brainer for guests to like it.”
There’s also a 1930s-era bar called P.S. Speakeasy deep in the bowels of the building that must be accessed, using a password, through a hidden door in the lobby.
Regular customers will be able to bring in their own liquor to store in a lighted cabinet that spans the wall at one end of the room.
“So if you have a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle that you want to store and share, you can bring it here,” says Bonthala.
Bonthala adds that Hotel Phillips was definitely one of Arbor Lodging Partners’ more detail-oriented projects, but they’re confident it will be a success.
“We thought this was a beautiful property in an A-plus location, and this area needs an experiential hotel like this,” Patel says. “Vamsi and I are both into food and travel. With the restaurant, the cafe and the speakeasy, it’s not just a hotel, it’s an experience.”
1931Year the hotel was built
20Number of stories, the tallest building in KC when it opened.
$200Starting rate for rooms
$20 millionCost of renovation