“We believe there is a secular shift in the event industry away from humdrum hotel ballrooms and saccharine corporate convention centers,” says Jordan Langer, CEO of San Francisco-based Non Plus Ultra, which oversees several historic properties for events in the Bay area and Denver. “This shift notwithstanding, the venue management and regulatory compliance complexities associated with producing large-scale events in historic properties is an extremely challenging endeavor.”
Challenging is perhaps an understatement when executing catered events in venues that are often more than a century old, especially if a caterer owns the space or has some financial interest in it. Besides frequent repairs and upkeep, working around building codes for historic structures can be an ongoing task as the need to modernize may clash with preservation.
Of course, there are also many business benefits to operating in an historic building, and here, we’ll look at how some caterers have incorporated historic venues into their plans as a key differentiator among the competition.
Adaptive reuse: Taylor House Conference Center
Located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, the 184-year-old Taylor House is part of the Inns of Aurora resort, and the centerpiece of its catering and events program.
Taylor House is an example of an historic property that has seen many uses in its lifetime: it started as the home of Henry Morgan, an early entrepreneur in Aurora from 1838-1887; then as the Wallcourt School for Girls from 1895-1928; and then as the residence of several Wells College presidents from 1936-2013.
Taylor House today has undergone nearly two decades of careful restoration so it could be used as a modern conference facility, where the first floor can accommodate up to 50 people for dinners and receptions, and the upstairs can host an additional 36 people for meetings.
Because Taylor House has been in use throughout most of its history, it was never in true disrepair like an abandoned, vacated space would be after years of being dormant, so the most recent renovation was not focused on foundational structural repairs. However, those upgrades to bring the building up to modern standards for meetings and events still needed to be completed carefully, leaving the unique architectural elements intact.
“We were able to repurpose an original servant’s staircase to add an elevator to make the building ADA compliant,” explains Sara Brown, director of sales, Inns of Aurora. “With large windows and high ceilings throughout the home, we faced exorbitant heating and cooling expenses. We were able to use the graceful lawns surrounding the home to drill wells for a state-of-the art geothermal system that now heats and cools the home in an environmentally friendly and cost-efficient way. Upstairs, we wanted to create one large meeting space without losing the character of the original plasterwork bordering the ceiling of the center hallway. Instead of removing the entire wall, we were able to keep the beams and maintain the original plasterwork while still opening the space for an expansive meeting area.”
Other areas restored include a barrel-vaulted ceiling in the main dining room, as well as the original marble fireplaces. One historical discovery of note happened while working in the basement of Taylor House: Henry Morgan’s actual signature was found on a wall there dating to when he built the house in 1838.
“We completed our research [of Taylor House] in nearby archives during the renovation and share its history on our website and in printed collateral for clients. While the grand scale of the historic home is the backdrop for each event held here, we purposefully chose to keep interior finishes in a neutral palate so that our venue can transform into the space envisaged by each event host,” Brown says.
Bite Catering Couture’s classic church
In the Los Angeles area, the owners of Bite Catering Couture—Executive Chef Elizabeth Goel and Vijay Goel—are currently working to transform a landmark 1913 church in Long Beach into their own flagship catering venue. The church was designed by noted architect Elmer Grey, who also designed the Pasadena Playhouse, and the Beverly Hills Hotel.
The church is an example of Renaissance Revival architecture that was popular in its era, with 30-foot ceilings and a 7,500-square-foot room. “These buildings are often gorgeous, ornate spaces [that have been] built for assembly use,” says Vijay Goel. “COVID-19 led to the closing of many venues, and I think there's the awareness that venue space, especially for weekends, is currently in high demand.”
Because the Goels are overseeing a ground-up restoration project for their business, they have learned much about the process of renovating an historic structure, which requires frequently stepping outside of the traditional catering mindset to accomplish.
“Since the church was built before code, bringing required elements up to code brings a number of challenges,” explains Vijay Goel. “If you're going down the SBA (Small Business Administration) path and have any construction, be aware of the SBA requirements around historic buildings (Section 106). It can add substantial documentation requirements and delays, so be aware of those requirements and how you will approach them.
“Take on a venue where you have relationships on construction and financing elements that make it likely you'll have enough support to get through to the other side,” he continues. “You don’t want to go into these things without seeing a clear path over the finish line. Banks want to see that you have sufficient resources to pay the mortgage even if there are substantial delays or misses on your projections.”
While the logistical challenges in restoring an historic space for catering can be daunting—especially for first-timers—there are potential advantages over choosing a newer venue with existing city codes. “Older spaces typically have grandfathered elements, like parking, that would prevent the approval of a new venue in many desirable areas of town, especially in denser urban areas,” says Vijay Goel.
While the church transformation project continues, Vijay Goel says some discoveries in the historic structure during construction continue to delight, including the discovery of a secret door under the stairs behind a bookshelf.
Non Plus Ultra’s lineup of historic venues
While we’ve focused on single property projects so far, other companies, like Non Plus Ultra, operate in and oversee multiple historic locations, including the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (built in 1915), The Old San Francisco Mint (built in 1874) and South Van Ness (SVN) West, which used to be the famed Fillmore West, run by legendary promoter Bill Graham and host to rock concerts by the Grateful Dead, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s (it closed in 1971).
Non Plus Ultra also caters in downtown Denver’s historic Sports Castle, an Art-Deco inspired, four-story building originally built as a Chrysler showroom, complete with car-size interior ramps between floors, and a wide grand staircase in the center.
“Our overarching priority is maintaining our portfolio of buildings and grounds in a manner that is consistent with their cultural importance. We have an in-house facilities team that ensures our properties are preserved and fully NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and NHPA (National Historic Preservation Act) compliant, kept in good repair, and always clean and event-ready,” says Langer. “At the same time, we make it a requirement that all our venues are fully operational, meet all licensure and code requirements, and, in some instances, include commercial-grade kitchens and equipment. This can certainly be challenging at times, but if it were easy then we’d probably have a lot more competitors.”
As the industry emerges from two years of virtual events, Langer concludes that historic spaces have an advantage over traditional venues in offering attendees a unique and memorable environment for what may be their first in-person gathering since the pandemic.
“The demand has never been higher for impactful in-person events, experiences and shared cultural moments,” he says. “Location and physical space are one of the most important decisions for any event producer, and historic spaces enhance the creation of an immersive experience. Immersion literally means being plunged into something that is all-surrounding. So how can you have a compelling immersive experience in a plain white box or a trade floor? I guess you can, but it is going to cost you a lot of money and still fall woefully short of historic venues like ours.”