Lithuanians snap up Riga mansion

  • 2002-10-31
  • J. Michael Lyons

A Lithuanian hotel chain has bought the historic Benjamins House, a historic Riga mansion, that it plans to turn into a 50 to 60-room hotel.

Vilnius-based Group Europa Hotels reportedly paid $2.6 million (2.71 million euros) for the building, located about two blocks from Riga's Old Town on K. Barona Street.

"We were looking for a high-profile building in a favorable location and this one has both those qualities," said Group Europa Director Martynas Kaciulis.

He said the company plans to spend $3 million to $4 million to rennovate the building, which will include an exterior facelift. A portion of that money will also be spent on restoring some of the building's furnishings.

The four-story Benjamins House was built in 1876 and was home to Antons Benjamins, a famous publisher who thrived in Riga during the inter-war independence period.

Following the Soviet collapse relatives of the Benjamins reclaimed the building, Kaciulis said, and converted the first floor to conference and seminar rooms. The upper three floors were scarcely used.

The 1999 film about a love affair set in 1940 during the first Soviet occupation of Latvia, "Summer of Horror," used the mansion's interior in its opening scenes.

The building sits along a busy tram line and is known to most by a large ivy-covered Romanesque terrace that serves as restaurant seating during the summer. It faces a popular Riga park.

Group Europa will convert the mansion into a "moderately priced" 50 to 60-room hotel with conference rooms, a bar and restaurant.

Because Group Europa is more than 25 percent foreign-owned, it had to go through the City Council for approval. This was granted earlier this month.

Restoration work is expected to begin next spring, said Kaciulis. He originally hoped the hotel would open by October 2003.

"It looks like that's going to be pushed back to probably late 2003 or early 2004," Kaciulis said.

Group Europa has been on a spending spree in recent years. It currently owns three hotels in Lithuania - the Europa Imperial and Europa Residence in Vilnius and the Europa Palaced in Klaipeda.

It plans to open another hotel in Klaipeda and another 124-room hotel in Vilnius next year.

Kaciulis said the company is also continuing to browse Riga's real estate market for another property to convert. It hopes to buy another property in Riga sometime next year and is browsing Tallinn's real estate market.

"We're always looking," he said. "If there are proposals on the table we will definitely look at them."

Group Europa's ambitions aren't confined to the Baltics. It is also looking for properties in Warsaw, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev.