Designers Bring a Cinematic Approach to a Boutique Hotel in Asheville

Every building tells a story. Some, such as the Radical Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, tell multiple stories, not all of them true.

One tale starts in the 1920s with Fred Kent, who ran Biltmore Wheathearts, a successful breakfast cereal company that operated out of a five-story brick structure on the French Broad River in Asheville. As time passed, the building served numerous businesses, including a wholesale grocer and a coffee trader. Then it fell into disrepair and was designated a nuclear fallout shelter in the 1950s. Boarded up and tagged with graffiti, it remained abandoned as artists and craftspeople in the 1990s and 2000s started occupying nearby industrial buildings and pioneering what is now called the River Arts District (RAD). That’s all fact-based.

Enter Jason Cordon and Amy Michaelson Kelly, who run Hatteras Sky, an Atlanta real-estate development company, and are converting several old properties in Asheville into small hotels. When he and Kelly bought the forlorn warehouse, known locally as the Kent Building, they wrote a request-for-proposals challenging designers to envision a 70-key hotel that would capture the structure’s rich history from Southern capitalism to Cold War survivalism.

Suomi Design Works, one of five firms invited to submit ideas, decided to take threads of that history, add imagined new storylines, and weave them together in a tapestry blending fact and fiction. Michael Suomi, who founded the firm in 2019 after 15 years at New York–based Stonehill Taylor where he headed projects such as the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport, brought in set designer Kris Moran, who had worked on several Wes Anderson films, including The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom. Together they developed a complex narrative for the Radical, conjuring a branch of the Kent family that traveled to Germany, got stuck in East Berlin after World War II, and produced an heir seeped in the post-Iron-Curtain punk scene. They imagined this estranged Kent coming to Asheville and directing the resurrection of the family’s derelict cereal factory into an edgy boutique hotel. Suomi and Moran’s concept for the project was by far the most extreme of the five proposals and grabbed the two hoteliers immediately, says Cordon.

To take advantage of historic preservation tax credits, Cordon and Kelly had to restore the building’s exterior to its original 1920s condition as much as possible. They hired Rowhouse Architects to direct this aspect of the project—repairing the red-brick building envelope, converting a loading bay into a deeply recessed hotel entrance, and inserting new windows within existing openings. After some pleading with the preservation authorities, the architects were allowed to install new bi-fold, glass-paned garage doors in the other two bays of the building’s front elevation, allowing the hotel to open up to the outdoors in nice weather.

Read the full Architectural Record article (and see the full photo gallery) HERE.

Title Image Rights: The Radical Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina. Photo © David Mitchell