It was June 15, the first night La Banque Hotel was open to the public. Among the first customers was a young couple dining at the hotel’s restaurant.
One of them popped the question, and they became engaged to be married.
For a place designed to be special so it could host special moments, that seemed to be a good start.
The opening of the boutique hotel at 2034 Ridge Road was also a cause for celebration by village officials and owner Claude Gendreau.
At this time last year, Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld was fielding one question with some regularity: “Is that hotel ever going to open?”
Gendreau purchased the property in 2012 and had hoped to open La Banque (French for “the bank”) by summer 2013. By the end of 2014, people were wondering if it would really happen.
The long-awaited opening came as the dust had barely settled from months of furious construction work. Hotel and restaurant staff were stepping around construction equipment to begin training.
For many local residents, the wait apparently was worth it. La Voute Bistro + Bar (La Voute means “the vault” in French) was busy from the start, and local customers have kept the restaurant staff hopping since.
The hotel business started slower than the restaurant side, but growth has been fairly rapid, with leaps in occupancy rates each month since it opened, according to Gendreau.
“It’s very exciting the support we’re getting from the community,” Gendreau said during an interview in September. “Everybody wants us to be successful. Everybody is vested in our success.”
Part of that sense of investment is due to the literal investment the village made in the project, a $900,000 tax-increment-financing grant. But it could also be attributed to a widespread belief that the hotel is a key factor in the revitalization of downtown Homewood.
Hofeld, who Gendreau credits for helping make the hotel deal work, has observed that without the project, the old bank building could have languished indefinitely, becoming a blight upon the downtown area.
Instead, the development has become one of several downtown projects, including this summer’s Martin Avenue streetscape renovations and the future Homewood Community Science Center. Village officials hope these developments will kick start downtown revitalization and generally boost the local economy.
So far, the he hotel seems to be performing as designed, providing a new dining opportunity for area residents and has attracting more visitors to Homewood, according to Gendreau and Manager Meg Sakka.
That first marriage proposal fit Gendreau’s vision for the hotel. The veterinary surgeon purchased Ravisloe Country Club in 2008. In addition to opening the golf course to the public, he hoped to expand the clubhouse’s popularity as a wedding location.
He soon found there was something missing. Ravisloe was sending wedding parties and golfers to other towns for hotel accommodations.
He decided to develop his own hotel to complement the country club.
After Gendreau searched the area for a suitable site to build on or a building to buy, Hofeld introduced him to Great Lakes Bank, which was about to close its doors.
Gendreau said he fell in love with the old bank.
Hotel traffic increases
The special-occasion guests were among the first to use the hotel, with several wedding parties booking rooms during the summer. There have also been birthday parties, painting parties, beer dinners and other special events.
Sakka said class reunions are turning out to be another occasion that will fill rooms. She noted there’s already a reunion booked for August 2016, and the rooms were booked within a week after the organizers reserved the block.
Special occasions tend to bring business on weekends. What will make the business a success, though, is the addition of regular business guests, Gendreau said.
Sakka said that aspect of the business has also been growing steadily, too, with executives from area companies becoming regular clients.
Gendreau is proud of the fact that he has been able to retain and restore the two locally iconic buildings on his properties. Ravisloe’s clubhouse, with its distinctive Spanish mission architecture, was built in 1917. The bank building, originally home to Homewood State Bank, was built in 1925.
In both cases, it would have made sense, in terms of the bottom line, to raze the old buildings and construct new, Gendreau said.
Renovating the old buildings was a leap of faith, he said. Any number of options would have satisfied his business needs with less difficulty and expense.
If he had torn down the old bank and built a new hotel, he could have had more rooms and more revenue. He had initially hoped to have 40 rooms but scaled back to 18.
He said he received similar advice when he bought Ravisloe.
“People suggested tearing down the clubhouse,” he said. “They said to make a profit you need to run the course out of a double-wide trailer. (But) then you lose the character of the old building.”
The old buildings are important to the community’s landscape, history and culture, he said.
The design of La Banque retained many of the old bank’s features, including the original vault door in La Voute Bistro, which still displays a certificate signed by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Behind the bar are safety deposit box facings. The restaurant reception desk is adjacent to a barred vault gate.
Although the hotel reception desk is new, Sakka said she still has customers walk into the lobby and remark that they feel like they’ve just walked back in time, entering the bank where they did business for years.
“Another thing we could have done was build this hotel at Ravisloe, but it would not have had the same impact for Homewood,” he said. “It has to be downtown. We want to have the greatest impact on the economy of Homewood and on the quality of life.”
Gendreau also justified preserving the buildings for environmental reasons.
He has written a book on the subject. His 2011 book, “What You Must Do for Your Country, A Plan to Move America Forward,” is a detailed look at the effect of energy policy and practices on the environment and economy.
“We didn’t want to put this building in the landfill,” he said. “We recycled all the materials that came out of here.”
The hotel infrastructure was rebuilt with energy efficiency in mind. That includes all the light fixtures, which are LED.
“That was a big commitment,” he said. “These are all things that add up.”
Although the project took two years longer than anticipated and went well over budget, Gendreau said he was pleased with the result.
“There was attention to detail. We took our time doing it. It was costly,” he said. “In the end, it’s worth it. We’re going to have something that’s special, and that’s what it takes to make a difference.”
This story first appeared in the Chronicle’s first print edition Dec. 1.
Photos by Eric Crump/HF Chronicle.