AMSTERDAM — By his own admission, if it had been Nigel Ghotbi’s goal to make money, he could have certainly found an easier way of doing it than buying a castle and converting it into a hotel.
“If you’re going to invest two or three million, or $4 million, or whatever, why not just buy a beautiful rental in Queens, which would be packed all of the time and make money?” Ghotbi said. “But that takes absolutely no talent whatsoever of creating something lasting — not only that, but putting so much love into it.”
When Ghotbi and his wife, Leslie Ashley, purchased the former Amsterdam Armory in 2013 from Susan and Manfred Phemister for $825,000, the 60,000-square-foot building had already been converted into a two-unit bed and breakfast that the Phemisters had operated for about five years.
Ghotbi said he had a vision for what he could do with the location that went well beyond what had been done before.
“I saw in this building, something that I could do with it, and I was confident that I could do it. But every bank that I approached would look at me like I just landed from the moon, so I had to keep going to my family for more money to finish it,” he said. “No banks would consider this. Mention that for history, because history will judge whether the banks were right or wrong.”
After five years of renovations and millions of dollars spent, Ghotbi has converted the former armory into a 21-unit hotel called the Amsterdam Castle and has begun, slowly, taking reservations from guests. He said he’s listed the hotel on websites like expedia.com, offering rooms in a range from $136 per night to $219.
“For this location, we are very expensive, but we are cheap for any other matching quality,” he said. “The purpose has never been to make money, but to make sure that this Castle can pay for itself and maintain itself for more than a half century.”
County Tourism Director Gina DaBiere-Gibbs said the Amsterdam Castle can help fill a niche for providing hotel spaces that Montgomery County has needed since the former America’s Best Value Inn in Amsterdam was converted to an assisted living facility. Gibbs said that former hotel had been the largest generator of Montgomery County’s hotel occupancy tax.
“The reopening of the Amsterdam Castle will generate some occupancy tax for the county. When the Best Value Inn went down that pretty much left the truck stops in the Fultonville area and some small bed and breakfasts — there are a couple up by the thruway in Amsterdam.”
Gibbs said the castle will also likely fit well into the historical aspects of Montgomery County tourism.
“The pictures of it look amazing, so it could be a destination in itself,” she said. “It’s a great anchor location for the south side of Amsterdam and the restaurants there and the proximity to the [Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Pedestrian Bridge], so a lot of the revitalization efforts are coming together.
History was part of what attracted Ghotbi to the giant stone, brick and steel building, which was designed by Isaac Perry in 1894. Perry is famous for having been the lead architect for New York state’s capitol building.
Ghotbi, who is from the United Kingdom, said he spent decades making money as a futures trader, but also dabbling in the remodeling of Victorian buildings in the Hyde Park area of London.
He said he knew he could convert the former armory into a hotel just from looking at the building’s structure.
“In one word, it’s Victorian,” he said. “The Victorian facades are more palacey and castley like. Those are easier to convert than a building that has no steel and is pure wood.
“Victorian architecture are usually mainly wood, this building has steel beams that span from one barring to another barring, allowing it to open underneath. Edwardian architecture has a big arch that if you dig into it, the arch itself will start to collapse.”
In the main chamber of the building, which had been used as a gymnasium when the building was an armory, Ghotbi has put in new walls, designed to evoke Victorian architecture, along with elements similar to a medieval castle, like suits of shining armor and reproductions of famous paintings.
“You build a straight wall, but every few feet you have to press it in by 6 inches and bring it out by 7 inches to give you the Victorian impression in reality not in just artwork over it,” he said. “The decoration of this place, the furnishings, took just under two years, and I know it sounds really silly, but you will not get this look in five days.
“Today, if you contract someone, with four pieces of aluminum and some composite plastics, stick it together and bang, you have a hotel, in literally three months, but it will only last 20 years before it starts rotting from within out.”
Ghotbi said he believes the renovations he has completed will last at least 50 years, in part due to the enduring stability of Perry’s original design.
“The ceiling is a masterpiece of Perry’s architectual values. It weighs a huge amount. Every piece of wood you see in that ceiling, it’s a dried teak. Modern architecture cannot produce and will not produce this because the cost was no object to him; the government was paying for it,” he said.
While Ghotbi’s project has not received any government funding, he said he has been consistantly supported by the city of Amsterdam’s code enforcement officers, who have helped him find solutions to the many challenges of renovating the building.
Mayor Michael Villa said he grew up on the south side of Amsterdam, and he can remember going to CYO basketball games and Friday night dances on the gym floor of the old armory. He said he’s impressed with the changes Ghotbi and his family have made, and he thinks the project is indicative of his city’s economic turnaround.
“You have an individual who has traveled many parts of the world who chose Amsterdam, who chose this project and spent mult-million dollars of his own money to restore this historic structure,” Villa said. “Now, you can come here to Amsterdam and stay in a place that is like no other.”
Ghotbi said he believes he can maintain the castle and have it pay for itself, if he can maintain approximately a 45 percent occupancy. He said he’s become so enamored with the people of Amsterdam that he’s also offering a significant discount for city residents who want to book a room in the castle.
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