Inside Portland’s gutted Eastland Park Hotel, and the vision for its resurrection

Posted April 18, 2013, at 1 p.m.
Last modified April 18, 2013, at 1:19 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — From the outside it looks like the same old brick-encased Eastland Park Hotel that has been a fixture of Portland’s skyline for 86 years.

But on the inside, you’d never recognize it. The 12-story hotel, which originally opened in 1927, has been completely gutted. Nothing was spared, save some historic windows, the ballroom’s elegant staircase and the massive boilers in the basement.

To date, the construction crews have carted off 758 dumpster loads of debris from the worksite, according to Bruce Wennerstrom, regional vice president of Shelton, Conn.-based New Castle Hotels & Resorts, which along with RockBridge Capital LLC purchased the historic hotel in March 2011.

New Castle also operates the Hilton Garden Inn next to the Portland International Jetport and the Four Points Sheraton at the Bangor International Airport.

“It’s like we’re building a brand-new hotel in the framework of this historic hotel,” Wennerstrom said.

Wennerstrom will also be general manager of the hotel when it reopens in December 2013 as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. Though the hotel’s name will be new, the large, red-lettered Eastland sign will remain.

The hotel’s complete refurbishment is no small feat. The project will cost $40 million by the time it’s done, Wennerstrom said Wednesday morning during a tour of the gutted structure. When the Eastland was first built in the mid-1920s, it cost $2 million, he said. Calculating for inflation, that would put the original cost of construction at around $25.7 million in 2012 dollars.

“The bones of this building are absolutely amazing,” he said.

The benefits of completely gutting a building is that you can create a new floor plan from scratch. When the Eastland closed on July 1, 2012, it had 204 rooms. When the Westin Portland Harborview opens, there will be 289 rooms, making it the largest hotel in the state. The Top of the East, the rooftop bar known for its views of the Portland harbor and Casco Bay, is also being doubled in size.

A fresh start was necessary to make the hotel a success, according to Jeffrey Cappellieri, the new hotel’s area director of sales and marketing.

Through the years, as the hotel aged without any thorough rehabilitation, people grew leery of the Eastland and its amenities, Cappellieri said.

“Let’s face it. The hotel is 80 years old,” he said. “There’s been a lot of skepticism because past owners just put Band-Aids on it.”

A fresh coat of paint or new carpet wasn’t going to cut it. But because the Eastland looks the same from the outside as it always has, Cappellieri’s job is to let people know just how big a renovation the hotel is undergoing.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” he said, after sharing the slideshow sales pitch he has been delivering to conference organizers and corporate clients. “It’s so exciting.”

The Westin will add more rooms to a city that’s already undergoing a flurry of hotel development. Currently moving along are three other hotel projects that will add roughly 460 rooms in downtown Portland in the next two years.

But that doesn’t worry Wennerstrom. What will set the new Westin apart, he said, from the other hotels being built is its full-service offerings. Besides the 289 rooms, the hotel will also boast 16,000 square feet of meeting space and a ballroom.

“We have the ability to attract both tourists — the lifeblood of this city in the summer — as well as trade groups and conventions,” he said.

Even if New Castle had known three other hotels would be built in downtown Portland, it wouldn’t have changed the company’s decision to invest $40 million in the hotel’s complete renovation, Wennerstrom said.

“The underlying reason for it all,” he said while walking through the Eastland’s former ballroom, “is that we believe in the strength of this market … and where it’s going.”