The John Carroll Doyle painting on the wall is just a few inches too high.
It’s too bad Michael Bennett wasn’t there the day they hung it, because for him, everything, from the way that painting hangs in the guest room to the crown-embroidered pillows on the beds to the little “Hotel Bennett”-branded soaps in the bathrooms, is all-important.
Bennett founded and owns Charleston-based Bennett Hospitality — a veritable Lowcountry empire of hotels, restaurants and other properties — and he has been waiting for this hotel long enough.
It has to be just right.
The final touches were still being put in place for Hotel Bennett’s planned Jan. 27 opening as Bennett recently moved through the Marion Square hotel on a mid-January afternoon.
Between the time it took to draft the plans for the hotel, gain city approval, resolve all legal disputes regarding that approval, and actually design, build and decorate the 179-room full-service hotel, it would seem difficult to keep track of how many years Bennett has been working to complete what he’s called the biggest project of his life.
Thankfully, Bennett has his son Jack, who was born around the same time he bought the former Charleston County Library site in 1994, with hopes of turning it into a grand hotel.
“I’ve been waiting to open this for as long as he’s been alive,” he said, pointing to his now-adult son, who has since graduated from college and started working for the family business.
But what is a few decades when you have a 100-year view? When Bennett marked the hotel’s groundbreaking in the spring of 2015, he pledged he would build a hotel that would stand for a century, and hopefully much longer than that. It was a vision wholeheartedly adopted from then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who gave a vote of confidence in Hotel Bennett even before it started to rise.
“It exceeds the 100-year test,” Riley said in 2015. "As long as Charleston is here, this building will be here.”
When the hotel was first proposed on Marion Square, The Post and Courier noted it would cost $35 million. When it broke ground many years later, Bennett announced its price tag would be $101 million. Bennett declined to give a figure for the hotel's final total.
During a recent tour, Bennett noted Riley considers the hotel the finest new building in Charleston. Contacted later, Riley agreed.
“I could have cheapened it," Bennett said, "but I never did.”
Hotel Bennett certainly won't come cheap for guests, either. Its rooms and suites range between $600 and $2,000 a night. Despite those rates, Hotel Bennett’s managing director, Paul Cherrett, said the suites have been among the most popular since the hotel started accepting reservations late last fall.
Having a hotel of its size and caliber, particularly one built by a Charleston native, will "further elevate" the area for travelers, said Helen Hill, CEO of Explore Charleston.
"Few destinations are privileged to have a property the magnitude of Hotel Bennett," Hill said.
Bennett has created "something distinctive and uniquely Charleston," Hill said.
At the groundbreaking, Bennett declared his hotel would be built with the finest materials, including limestone, marble, bronze and copper. He wanted Hotel Bennett to look like it’s been here for a long time and will continue to be here for a long time.
That’s why, he said, when he was picking the doors that would open onto the double staircase in the hotel’s grand lobby, he went to Hope’s, a century-old window and door maker. He actually flew to the company's facility in New York state and ate lunch at the factory.
Though it’s been billed as a “European-style” hotel, Bennett is quick to point to the hotel’s Lowcountry influences.
A room leading to the main lobby area is encircled in murals featuring Charleston's waterfront, skyline and ships, and, to the left, the Richmond Plantation manor house that Bennett purchased from the Girl Scouts of Eastern South Carolina. His two dogs are depicted on the manor's lawn.
Just before the front desk, a section of ceiling is covered with richly textured wood. It’s sinker cypress — wood that has been preserved by cool water for many years, hidden on river bottoms like buried treasure. If someone from out of town was building the hotel, they never would have put that there, Bennett said, calling it a “local boy touch.”
During the next week, the lobby will fill with the work of local painters and photographers, each with their own dedicated quadrant in the space. Bennett handpicked — and also visited, in person, when possible — the local artists featured, all of whom are artists of his day, he said: John Carroll Doyle, West Fraser, Jack Alterman, William McCullough and Mickey Williams.
They were all working toward a modern-era “Charleston Renaissance” at the same time Bennett was; they worked with brushes and cameras, he worked with a hammer and nails.
The hotel retained some of the Charleston County Library, too.
Custom-built white bookcases are featured prominently in guest rooms, a nod, Bennett said, to the site’s former purpose. Some of the library's pink marble was also repurposed for the floor, bar and table tops in a champagne bar.
He hopes Hotel Bennett will be a place where locals feel a sense of ownership, too, a place for their weddings, large events and small gatherings just for drinks.
The spa, which will serve both hotel guests and locals, has an entrance on King Street where patrons can enter, check-in and take an elevator straight to the spa on the upper floor. Its rooftop bar, restaurant and first-floor champagne bar are also open to the public.
“They don’t make them like this anymore,” Bennett said, touching the stone on the ledge of the hotel’s rooftop.
He said the same thing while pointing to the baseboards in the guestrooms, the tile in the spa check-in area, the custom-made bellhop stand. The stand is a particular delight for Bennett, who used to work as a bellhop at Charleston’s Mills House while attending the College of Charleston.
As the final touches are being put on Hotel Bennett, many other Bennett-led projects are also rising in other parts of the Charleston area. Most recently, a $325 million waterfront complex started construction in Mount Pleasant, and Bennett is set to build a vast resort complex at Patriots Point.
Hotel Bennett, though, is personal.
All the top luxury hotel brands wanted their name on this hotel, Bennett said. Even Donald Trump Jr. made an overture to put the Trump name on the King Street facade. It was rebuffed.
Bennett had been set for years on giving this hotel the family name in honor of his mother and father.
Also Charleston natives, his parents grew up nearby on America Street. Bennett frequently talks about his father who worked a simple job just across King Street, shining shoes. His mother, the namesake of Bennett's restaurant next-door, Virginia’s on King, turned 97 this month.
He wanted the hotel to open as a birthday present for her, but at least it's not opening long after, he said.
In Bennett’s view, Charleston is, without doubt, “the best city in the world.”
He said it while commemorating Hotel Bennett’s groundbreaking, and he said it as he stepped out onto the hotel’s rooftop, pointing and counting every church steeple that he could see.