How Historic Hotels Are Renovating for Accessibility

Owners, architects, and designers have their work cut out for them

Chanthaburi Destination (Samed Ngam) : An old woman with her wheelchair with caregiver on the edge of sea and swimming pool.
by Chakarin Wattanamongkol / Getty Images

We’re dedicating our August features to architecture and design. After spending an unprecedented amount of time at home, we’ve never been more ready to check into a dreamy new hoteldiscover hidden architectural gems, or hit the road in luxury. Now, we’re excited to celebrate the shapes and structures that make our world beautiful with an inspiring story of how one city is restoring its most sacred monuments, a look at how historic hotels are prioritizing accessibility, an examination of how architecture could be changing the way we travel in cities, and a rundown of the most architecturally significant buildings in every state.

When Jeff and Sarah Shepherd decided to convert a historic 19th-century home into an inn they ran to a unique problem. How do you make the two-story home accessible to everyone when you can't install an elevator and the front door is 5 feet off the ground?

But for the Shepherds, making the inn accessible wasn't a choice—it was a requirement. Thanks to the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, discrimination against people with disabilities in terms of employment or service and physical environs is prohibited, including in hotels.

While ADA compliance is relatively straightforward for new builds—simply meet the codes laid out in the legislation—the issue of ADA compliance becomes far more complicated for historic hotels that could be several hundred years old, requiring extensive (and expensive) renovations that reconcile architectural preservation with accessibility. (That said, hotels should strive to go far beyond the bare minimum to accommodate disabled travelers comfortably.)

Fortunately for historic hotels, there’s a bit of a loophole in the ADA building codes. Acknowledging that an old building has physical limitations in terms of what can be altered (some, for instance, might not be able to fit an elevator due to the structural engineering of the building), the ADA states that renovations for accessibility must be carried out "to the maximum extent possible." In a hotel without an elevator, that might mean creating rooms on the ground floor.

walkway and front entrance of a gray brick Italianate style house in south carolina

Courtesy of Heights House Hotel

That’s precisely what happened at the Shepherd's Heights House Hotel in Raleigh, North Carolina, which opened in May 2021 after a three-year renovation. Opened by the husband-and-wife team, the nine-room property was originally built as a private home in 1860. Needless to say, it was not ADA compliant, nor was it even in generally good condition. "Structurally, it was in good shape, but it hadn't been cared for since the late '70s, so it really needed some love and attention," said Sarah.

While the Shepherds knew they wouldn’t be able to make the second floor accessible, given the lack of space for an elevator inside the house, the ground floor provided the necessary layout for accessible accommodations and common spaces. The only issue was that the ground floor is actually 5 feet above the ground. Thus, an exterior elevator was added to help guests cover that vertical distance.

"In our historic neighborhood, an elevator on the outside of a house is not something that would be naturally permitted," said Jeff, who acknowledged the complexities of appeasing local, state, and national preservation groups while also accommodating as many ADA codes as possible. "But it's something that everybody understood because it was necessary for what we were doing."

Of course, accessibility isn’t only a U.S.–centric issue, though the U.S. did pioneer federal-level legislation to prevent disability discrimination. According to NPR, "the act has become one of America's most successful exports."

Norway, for example, implemented the Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act in 2008. Like the ADA, the law has specific stipulations for hotels—something that Trondheim’s grand dame, the Britannia Hotel, incorporated into its three-year, $160-million renovation completed in 2019.

"According to Norwegian law, we need to have 10 percent of our rooms customized for use by guests using wheelchairs. That gives us a total of nearly 25 spacious rooms that we also need to use for guests without this specific need,” said Mikael Forselius, hotelier and CEO of Britannia Hotel. "The design then needs to be made in a way that guests without wheelchairs are not left with the feeling that they are staying in a 'specialty' or 'hospital-style' room."

This kind of approach is what’s called universal design. "You don't have to segregate out those occupants that need the services that the code requires," said architect Christian Stayner of Stayner Architects, who is currently renovating the historic Winnedumah in Independence, California. "We try not to install ramps because they are so obvious that they've been put in place for people needing additional mobility and instead try to provide surfaces that everyone can use together." For example, Stayner might slope an entire floor for everyone to use. In essence, universal design in hotels helps to reduce or even eliminate bias towards disabled travelers.

Large marble bathroom with three mirrors and stand-alone gold-sided bathtub

Courtesy of Britannia Hotel

Another instance of universal design is the Britannia Hotel’s signature Tower Suite, the only room on its top floor. Per Norwegian law, each floor must have at least one accessible room. "Our solution was to eliminate a planned second bedroom from the Tower Suite in order to make room for a spacious bathroom with enough room to allow a wheelchair to be turned around," said Forselius. "So, the end effect is a penthouse suite with a luxuriously sized bathroom!"

While hotels have come a long way in terms of accessibility, there’s still work to be done, especially when communicating exactly how they accommodate disabled travelers through in-room design. "Disabled travelers have a really difficult time finding accessible properties that they can feel comfortable with," said John Sage, co-founder and CEO of accessible travel companies Sage Traveling and Accessible Travel Solutions, who also consults with travel businesses around the world on accessibility. "Just having something labeled as an accessible hotel room is really not enough."

Sage points out that many booking sites, including hotel websites, don’t list specifics about accessibility features. "It's very rare that you see any type of documentation that contains measurements and pictures," he said. "It's usually bullet points that are 'wide bathroom door' and 'step-free access.'" For disabled travelers, specifics are crucial.

When a hotel mentions a roll-in shower, that’s certainly a start for travelers with limited mobility, but not all roll-in showers are created equal. "Is there a shower chair in that roll-in shower?" asked Sage. "I was just at an expensive hotel in Austin, and there was no shower chair, so no way for me to transfer out of my wheelchair to sit down in the shower." Sage figured he could call down and ask for one, but it was late, and he didn’t want to go through the hassle—he decided to shower the next day at home.

He also points out other accessibility-related documentation that would help disabled travelers, such as the amount of space between the bed and the floor. "Some people use Hoyer lifts to get from their wheelchair to their bed, and a lot of hotels have platform beds where you can't roll the Hoyer lift legs underneath the bed," said Sage. "That needs to be documented so that people can decide whether that hotel room works for them or not."

People on top of a roof deck looking at a skyline. One man is in a wheelchair

Courtesy of Sage Traveling

Furthermore, customer service plays a big role in accessibility, even as it relates to interior design. "It's not just about the physical space, but it's about training the staff," said Sage. Employees should help accommodate disabled travelers’ preferences, particularly regarding some of the in-room features. "When a disabled traveler checks into a hotel, the front desk should ask them a series of questions about their accessibility needs and preferences," he says. "For example, I would like the desk chair to be removed from the room because it's just in my way. I never transfer into the desk chair."

Even staff that doesn’t have direct interactions with guests should have training. "At every place I've ever stayed, the handheld shower nozzle is placed back out of reach every day," said Sage. "The housekeeping staff is not trained to leave the handheld shower nozzle hanging down where I can reach."

That’s why simply checking all of the ADA boxes might not get the job done during a renovation of a historic hotel or even a brand new build. "I think you can also be very inaccessible whilst meeting all the rules," said Stayner. "It shows the necessity to think more holistically about what access means. Ideally, it should extend not just to the physical elements of buildings, but also to the hospitality portion of the operation to make people feel welcome."