Pittsburgh was a city in decline at the end of the 20th century. The heart of downtown had become the Steel City’s de facto red-light district. Strip joints and massage parlors affixed themselves to every street corner; prostitutes paced the sidewalks. Reputable businesses shuttered. Residents were leaving the metropolis in droves: More than 300,000 people packed up and moved out between 1950 and 1990.

Amidst downtown’s wreckage was the turn-of-the-century Fulton Building, a former office tower with a white marble lobby and a distinctive nine-story archway. Local developers weren’t interested in the vacant property. They didn’t see how it—or the area—could ever be resurrected. “It was an embarrassment,” says then Mayor Tom Murphy of the all-but-abandoned city center. “Developers in Pittsburgh were risk averse.” But where they saw potential for failure, Denver’s Sage Hospitality, which owns and operates hotels, saw opportunity. With the support of Murphy and other city officials—plus some public financing—Sage redeveloped the Fulton into the Renaissance Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel, a luxury accommodation on the banks of the Allegheny River, in 2001.

The hotel served as a flare, one that other businesses used to find their ways back downtown. In the months and years following the $45 million renovation, an MLB park and an NFL stadium opened across the water; then the David L. Lawrence Convention Center popped up three blocks away. The city’s vision for a compelling urban core was finally taking shape. Today, the 14-square-block Cultural District is home to seven theaters, eight public parks, and dozens of shops and restaurants. More than two million people visit the area annually.

“Sage was really the catalyst—as well as the ballparks and the convention center—for getting people to recognize that maybe there were opportunities where they were only seeing liabilities,” Murphy says. “Sage was taking a risk in a failing city. It is a great story of somebody willing to see a place that was a liability—the building itself, the city—and imagining a different place.”

It’s a story Sage Hospitality has been able to tell often in its 34-year history. But when Walter Isenberg and Zack Neumeyer launched Sage in Denver in 1984, they weren’t looking to become storytellers or even, for that matter, developers of their own hotels. Sage began as a hospitality consulting firm. Less than a year in, though, the duo landed its first management contract in Colorado: overseeing three hotels and five apartment buildings in Aspen that were coming out of bankruptcy. Consequently, rescuing drowning properties became their specialty. Sage would step in as a short-term manager, turn things around, and then the bank or trustee would sell the property.

Walter Isenberg. Photo courtesy of Sage Restaurant Group & Sage Hospitality Group

Within five years, Sage was managing 90 hotels across the country, all for lenders that had foreclosed on properties. It was profitable, but not sustainable. “We knew in order to create some stability we needed to probably get equity in projects,” Isenberg says. In 1990, in partnership with Dana Crawford (the preservationist behind Larimer Square), Sage entered the acquisition game and procured the insolvent Oxford Hotel in downtown Denver.

At the time, lower downtown hadn’t yet been dubbed LoDo, and it certainly wasn’t the dining and shopping destination it is today. It was “pretty much a ghost town,” Isenberg says. So forsaken was the capital’s west end that a friend told the developer he’d lost his mind—that he should be focusing on the other side of downtown, where the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa was located. But Sage saw promise in the dubious location and the charming character of the almost 100-year-old Oxford, the city’s oldest operating hotel. Colorado’s improving economy would, they believed, eventually reach this patch of the Mile High City.

It’s that vision Sage would become known for. In 1998, the company transformed the boarded-up Joslins Department Store on the 16th Street Mall into the Courtyard by Marriott Denver Downtown. The following year, it gave new life to the San Diego Savings & Trust Building, turning it into the 245-room Courtyard San Diego Downtown. In 2001, it was Pittsburgh’s Fulton Building. Seven years later, Sage was involved in converting a one-time Masonic temple into the high-end Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel.

Between 2001 and 2007, the company completed $1.5 billion of development in eight cities. The numbers were impressive, except in one area: food and beverage. Restaurants and bars took up large chunks of square footage in Sage’s properties, but they weren’t producing income commensurate to that generated by the hotels themselves. Inspired by the success Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants was seeing with its projects across the country, Sage hired hospitality guru Peter Karpinski to launch Sage Restaurant Group (SRG) in 2005 and remake the image of hotel food and beverage offerings. “I always had the notion that hotel restaurants didn’t need to be as bad as they were,” Karpinski says. SRG wanted to design independent restaurants under their own brands, with menus that reflected their locales and a magnetism that would appeal as much to residents as to visitors. The first step toward achieving that ambition was opening the Corner Office in downtown Denver’s Curtis Hotel in 2007. The proverbial floodgates opened shortly thereafter: Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago in 2008; the first Urban Farmer, in Portland, Oregon, in 2009 and the original Departure Restaurant and Lounge in Portland that same year; and Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster in 2012. SRG now operates 13 restaurants in six states (as of press time), including, very recently, the Emporium Kitchen and Wine Market in the Elizabeth Hotel in Fort Collins. All of the eateries live adjacent to Sage’s hotels and employ not only their own aesthetics but also their own operations teams to ensure they are distinct brands.

Peter Karpinski. Photo courtesy of Sage Restaurant Group & Sage Hospitality Group

Although Sage has been busy, the company hasn’t always been successful—or appreciated. For a couple of years in the late 2000s, Sage managed a number of hotels with indoor water parks (a “bad chapter,” Isenberg says), a costly lesson on the importance of staying focused on the mission. Later, in 2016, Isenberg and about a dozen other hoteliers were denied an appeal for a lawsuit they lost regarding the Gaylord Rockies Hotel near DIA. That suit alleged the project shouldn’t have received monetary support from the state. The hospitality group has also, at times, angered competitors, particularly local developers, with its properties. When Sage slashed room rates at the Nines in Portland at the start of the Great Recession, other hotels felt the need to follow suit, potentially losing out on much-needed revenue. The Nines, which was partially funded by $16.9 million in loans from the city, also got a break on its repayments in 2009; a Portland business consultant was quoted on oregonlive.com saying, “The Nines came in and really rubbed people the wrong way.”

Sage has managed to mostly ignore those distractions and has remained fixated on its own ambitions. Today, three businesses operate under the Sage Hospitality umbrella: a management firm (which operates hotels for other brands); a brand development and ownership group (SRG falls under this arm); and a real estate investment company. At the core of it all, though, is the larger mission to transform communities through smart, forward-thinking, locally geared projects. “Our real passion has come from this idea of energizing neighborhoods,” Isenberg says. “In order to do that successfully, you have to be able to create places that people want to come to.”

The lobby of the six-month-old Elizabeth Hotel in Fort Collins’ Old Town area is the epitome of Colorado elegance. From the grand spiral staircase to the marble welcome desk to the wall-size nature painting by Denver artist Kevin Sloan, the new build manages to blend the refinement of days past and the hardy, pioneering spirit of the West with all the trappings a 21st-century tourist—or Coloradan—might want, including a good story.

At the Elizabeth, which Sage brought online in concert with development company McWhinney in December, the narrative originates with Auntie Elizabeth Stone, who founded Fort Collins’ first hotel in the 1860s. “How would she be today? She’d be pretty badass. She’d be elegant but also very rugged and no fuss,” says Staci Patton, hospitality interiors leader at DLR Group, an architecture, interiors, and engineering firm that partnered with Sage on the Elizabeth. Using Stone as its muse, DLR Group weaved her spirit, together with the area’s lively music scene, into the new hotel’s design and amenities, from plush seating in the rooftop Sunset Lounge to the music-lending library where guests can check out guitars and keyboards.

Achieving that familiar feel in its home state is time-consuming but relatively straightforward for Sage. It doesn’t take a genius to know that a Gear Garage, from which guests can borrow everything from bikes to snowshoes to GoPros for free, would be a desirable amenity at Halcyon in Cherry Creek, for example. What’s impressive is that Sage has managed to bring that local ethos to projects across the country. “Sage is about place-making, and they’re about it being really relevant to the locale,” DLR Group’s Patton says. “Walter wants to ensure that this isn’t just a space to go through—it’s a space to go to.”

The first step in realizing that goal is immersing itself in every new market. Sage starts by making connections in both the public and private sectors, speaking to everyone from government officials to area architects to the barista at the coffeeshop down the street. The team stays at hotels and apartments around town for extended periods of time to experience cultural offerings, neighborhood dynamics, and area restaurants firsthand. It’s a practice that Sage, along with a select few other developers, pioneered in the early 2000s. “They go deep,” says Denise Korn, principal of Korn Design, a Boston-based brand strategy and design firm that has worked with Sage for 15 years. “They gain a really amazing understanding of the location.”

That effort comes through in the details: Guests staying at the Darcy in Washington, D.C., can borrow Beltway necessities, such as ties and pocket squares, thanks to a partnership with a nearby menswear shop. Boston’s Hotel Commonwealth sits across the street from Fenway Park, a position that informed the January 2016 remodel of the property, during which Sage wisely added a 660-square-foot Fenway Park Suite with a balcony that overlooks the iconic field. And the Renaissance Pittsburgh is filled with works from local artists that Sage commissioned to portray historic buildings and city scenes to help the building maintain a connection to its past, even after the renovations.

“I think guests choose to stay at Sage’s hotels—for example, the Maven—for the unique experiences they offer,” says Nicole Nathan, a partner at Johnson Nathan Strohe, a Denver-based architecture and interior design firm that has collaborated with Sage Hospitality for 15 years. “And because once they’ve been there, they feel part of that neighborhood or that experience, and it becomes part of their memory of that place.”

It can be difficult for a local to track growth in her own city. Oftentimes, it can feel as if a neighborhood suddenly sprouted up. But if she looks closely, she’ll locate the single spark that jump-started its creation or progression. For Pittsburgh, it was the Renaissance. For the Mile High City, it was Union Station.

Neighborhood transformation has become familiar territory for Sage. It’s a goal it aims for in all of its ventures now. “Hotels can be a catalyst for change. That’s part of what we do,” Isenberg says. Whereas office or apartment buildings generally see the same populations every day, hotels draw in new customers who want to explore. They bring with them an energy that other developers observe—and then want to capitalize on. The redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station, for instance, helped spur the creation of the entire Union Station North microhood, which includes hotels, offices, and restaurants from developers like East West Partners (one of the train station’s master developers) and general contractors like Hensel Phelps, among others.

The Crawford Hotel in Union Station. Photo courtesy of Sage Restaurant Group & Sage Hospitality Group

But the impacts of Sage’s projects, and others like them, extend beyond the hospitality sector and city skylines. According to a study by the Urban Land Institute, Union Station is expected to have a $6.7 billion economic impact over the (admittedly vague) “long term.” “Sage has really given us competitive advantages,” says J.J. Ament, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. “The Maven is a cool place to be. Union Station is a cool place to be. I think it gives us a huge leg up when talking to people about building Colorado’s economy into the future.”

Fort Collins’ Elizabeth Hotel. Photo courtesy of Sage Restaurant Group & Sage Hospitality Group (3)

Sage, too, continues to look forward. The company recently launched the 250-room Hotel Nia in Silicon Valley. This month, downtown’s multiuse Dairy Block is slated to step closer to completion with the opening of Denver Milk Market, a 16-venue food hall. Another Emporium is supposed to come online, in Savannah, Georgia, this month. The company has plans to activate Firehouse Alley, which runs along the northeastern edge of the Elizabeth Hotel, with retail and events in the coming months. And Sage wants to grow its new brands—Halcyon and the Maven—beyond Denver and open restaurants that aren’t connected to hotels. The only question left is: Which city or neighborhood will draw its attention next?

This article was originally published in 5280 June 2018.
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.