John Dewberry of Dewberry on what ‘the south reinvented’ means to him
John Dewberry is transforming southern hospitality, one property at a time. The Charleston-based real estate developer, who entered the business at the Navy Midland Bank of New York (now HSBC) before founding Dewberry Capital Corporation in 1989, has spearheaded investment, development and managing over $ 1 billion in premium real estate. But it wasn’t until 2016 that he turned to hospitality when he took an abandoned federal building in downtown Charleston and created The Dewberry, a mid-century modern hotel that attracts well-heeled business and leisure travelers seeking upscale design paired with a heavy dose of Southern charm. When he’s not renovating properties (his next hotel will open in downtown Atlanta), John is racing thoroughbreds, playing golf, and eyeing his next acquisitions. Here he explores his way to open up The Dewberry, the art of great hospitality, and what “Southern Reimagined” means to him.
Prior to founding Dewberry Group, you had a distinguished academic career at Georgia Tech and worked in the financial industry. Why did you decide to convert to real estate and hotels?
As the son of an entrepreneur, I was exposed to business from an early age. My father’s business, KADA Kitchen, was a contract food service company for corporate offices located in various high-rise buildings around Atlanta. My first interest in real estate came from studying these high rise buildings. After graduating from Georgia Tech and before founding Dewberry Group, I worked for the New York-based Navy Midland Bank, a predecessor to HSBC, in the area of commercial real estate lending. This first training allowed me to be exposed to a plethora of developers and I found the development process quite intriguing.
What aspects in particular intrigue you?
I am naturally drawn to architecture. I travel frequently to breathe the great cities of the world, large and small. As a result, I began the acquisition and development of primarily infill properties in the South East with the goal of creating special, pedestrianized places, despite the South’s overwhelming reliance on vehicles. Regarding the hotel, I was ready to give birth to a brand where the possibility of creating precious moments is a daily reality.
Why did you choose Charleston as the location for your first hotel?
I started visiting Charleston during my Georgia Tech years and found the architecture spectacular, the ability to walk unusual in the south and obviously, like most, I fell in love with Charleston. The first commercial property I bought (and still own) is in North Charleston. Later, in 2003, I bought my home, a pre-revolutionary bachelor from Charleston in the historic South of Broad district.
You bought the building in 2008. Were you afraid to take this risk during the financial crisis?
While most curl up on risk, for some strange reason, I feel at home… but for sure, I still have some level of apprehension. Anyone telling you that they are not dumb or that they are lying. I have become known for doubling my efforts during recessions, however, building a brand of five-star hotels has not been an easy task. He had, required and still receives the collective attention of the team.
The Dewberry is housed in the former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building. What attracted you to the building and what were the challenges, if any, in preserving the original structure?
I often cycle past the old abandoned federal building and the Conservative in me felt it deserved a new story. I could see he had good bones and had a vision for how we could reuse the building with the intention of paying homage to mid-20th century modern architecture. In addition, I almost always buy a property located on a corner lot, next to a church, a temple, a park or other; in this case, all three applied.
Repositioning an existing structure always has its challenges, especially in a city that fiercely defends its history. However, despite years of neglect, the building’s brick and marble facade was in relatively good condition.
What was the inspiration behind designing The Dewberry? I’ve heard you describe the vision as “the south reinvented”. What does this mean to you?
At its core, The Dewberry exudes the gracious southern hospitality that people expect in the Southern United States, presented in a fresh, modern setting. To achieve this, it took a lot of thinking about non-traditional hospitality. Remember, I don’t have any architectural or hospitality training to educate myself on what I was not supposed to do. As a result, I believe our creativity and innovation have captured the unexpected in a moving way. It’s something I constantly preach to my team: a modern approach with a nod to the past, like Southern Reimagined ™. We collaborated with the firm Workstead, which helped us create a decidedly modern aesthetic juxtaposed with old ideas and proven materials from the South.
Are there any design elements that guests might miss but that are particularly special to you?
There are two portraits of my father near our two main hotel entrances. I don’t think a lot of people realize it, but dad and I were both given a few years to live by our oncologists in 2008. Right before dad passed away, I told him I was going to name the hotel for him. My father was my father, mentor, friend, best lawyer and best critic – everything an earthly man could be.
Another element that I particularly like are the walls of our Swanston room. This circular room is the entrance to the ballroom wrapped in 22 hand-painted panels by Atlanta artist Thomas Swanston. This collaboration is called ‘Migration Series’ and features thousands of cranes, gilded with silver, pewter and 22 karat gold. The paintings were inspired by the half a million sandhill cranes that migrate through Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska, the largest annual migration in North America. The awareness of Sandhill Cranes during migration is a reminder of the fragility of nature.
The Dewberry is also home to the award-winning Living Room Bar and the tropical rooftop lounge, Citrus Club. How do the designs of these spaces fit into the hotel’s larger narrative?
The living room was designed after a real Charleston living room. It is generally spacious with plenty of seating and a wraparound patio. The living room is a modern reflection. Our furniture is a matching collection from the 1960s. These pieces vary in distinctive styles and materials, but are linked in their sense of domestic scale and context both in the South and in this modern federal building.
The Citrus Club echoes the hotel’s Mid-Century design, but with a nod. I believe almost any good design should include an element of whimsy. We added custom lemon-colored circular lines and curves to the custom banquettes, the Mid-Century living room furniture is accented in the same citrus piping with a slice of navel orange that I drew one afternoon. and Workstead had a studio in Brooklyn, NY— LiteBrite — turn it into a neon sign that’s well placed to be seen upon entering.
Are there any destinations or hotels that have inspired you over the years? How did your travels influence what you brought to The Dewberry?
Domaine De Murtoli in Corsica: the service is remarkable. This family-owned property spans over 5,000 acres, offers impeccable attention to detail and offers an impeccable level of service that is inspiring. I love the Hotel de Russie in Rome – part of Rocco Forte’s collection of five star hotels. It’s simple elegance in the interior common areas that flow out onto a gorgeous courtyard. The Carlyle is a place we frequent in New York City. It is a testament to centuries-old traditions and Bemelman’s Bar remains as chic as the day it opened. Steve Tyrell’s Christmas show at the Carlyle Café leaves his predecessor, Bobby Short, smiling from the afterlife. I love the Hotel Costa in Paris, the Gstaad Palace and the Hotel Caruso on the Amalfi Coast.
What projects are you looking forward to this year and beyond?
We are in the process of undertaking a comprehensive, multi-year transformation of the former Bell South headquarters, Campanile, in the heart of Midtown Atlanta to Peachtree and 14eStreets. When completed, should prove to be another example of our philosophy, Southern Reimagined.
Another passionate project of mine is, Dewberry Thoroughbreds, Thoroughbred breeding, training and racing is slowly taking shape. After the careers of running are over, we intend to keep these amazing, intelligent, and witty pets in our family for the rest of their lives. And I thought creating a five-star hotel brand was a challenge.