The culmination of a year’s worth of rumors in the expat community ended with a sad announcement yesterday. Another beloved expat bar and restaurant, Hemingway’s, is to shut its doors at the end of the month.
The story is much like many others. The land has been sold to Japanese developers who plan to build a 27-story hotel on the approximately 1 rai parcel of land that sits directly at BTS Asoke and at the top of Sukhumvit Soi 14.
It’s devastating news to the foreign community that, within the last few months, got the sad news that two of their other long-term haunts are closing. Hemingway’s will join CheckInn 99 (original location) and Cheap Charlie’s as places to say goodbye to.
In the last few years, the American-style bar and restaurant has won countless awards and garnered endless perfect reviews on TripAdvisor from visitors from all over the world.
The 1920s-era house hosts a few weddings a year and has been the site of countless proposals, birthdays, anniversaries and private parties.
It’s one of the few places in Bangkok where expats of vastly different ages, backgrounds and income brackets mingle together.
The closing of Hemingway’s is also troubling for another reason. What many people are asking is: What’s going to happen to the gorgeous, antique, 100-year-old teak house that holds the iconic bar and restaurant?
Coconuts got the first interview with General Manager Damian Mackay after the announcement of the closing.
Damian Mackay on the upper-level patio.
“The property will be leveled to build a hotel,” he said.
There’s no chance for a reprieve or extension at this point.
“It’s been long time coming. The first rumors started a year ago because the land was sold,” he said. “But we were still fighting because we believed in our right to stay here and didn’t believe that our lease was canceled, but it was. When you sell land, any lease is automatically canceled, its up to the former owners to deal with the tenants,” explained Mackay.
“We agreed to go peacefully when the time was up and that’s what we did. We made that agreement in order to get some extra time. Now, we have to honor that,” he said.
Unlike in the US, the UK and Mackay’s native Australia, there are not yet laws in Thailand to protect historic buildings. If there were, this rare and gorgeous specimen would have been protected.
When asked if the house could be moved, Mackay said, “If we wanted to buy it and find somewhere we could put it, we could probably arrange it. But the practicality is that, to find a way to move it and a place to put it that would suit us, is…you know…” he trailed off.
Since the news broke yesterday, people have already offered to buy the rare golden teak wood that the house is made from. That wood is now illegal to forest. Others have offered to buy the entire structure and move it for their own purposes, “But whether they do it, I’m not sure. I think it will just be pulled apart and the wood will be used again. I’m sure someone will buy it in pieces, but it won’t be us.”
“We wanted to find a space and build an exact replica of the building, but we haven’t found a place yet. Were were hoping to do that just up the street and have it up and running by the time we closed this place, its 60 meters down the block, but it didn’t work out,” he explained.
He said that the partners even joked about not announcing the closing and just seeing how many people didn’t realize that Hemingway’s was now a bit deeper into the street.
Hemingway’s opened in February 2013 with a long lease in the style that starts with three years and adds another three years at the end of each term. However, like all Thai leases, that agreement is voided if that land is sold.
At that time, the most expensive part of the land was taken up by four shophouses that faced Sukhumvit Road.
Over the years, the Thai owners began quietly buying up those shophouses one by one, with the hopes of knocking everything down when they had a large parcel facing Sukhumvit. They finally purchased the last one a few years ago and, as Hemingway’s regulars might have noticed, that block of shophouses was knocked down. At that point, the patch with Sukhumvit land frontage became much more valuable and the owners began seeking a buyer.
The owners of Hemingway’s got a settlement for the lease cancellation but, “it’s nowhere near what we would have made if we had been able to finish out our lease,” said Mackay who, up until a year ago, thought they would have at least another nine years at the Soi 14 location.
It’s quite a sad story. The management team invested US1million (THB35 million) into renovating the house and opening the restaurant just four years ago.
“It was pretty run down when we got it. It’s an old house. We spent a lot more than we needed to, but the main director looked at it with a lot of love and passion, not from a purely business point of view. We did a lot of little tweaks. We probably spent a lot more than we should of but we ended up with a fantastic venue,” said Mackay.
“But it’s all those little tweaks that people notice and that’s why they keep coming back. So, in the end, it was well worth it.”
About the land sale, he explained, “For a Soi 14 address, you’re limited to development of 12-storey buildings but, with a Sukhumvit address, it’s sky-high. That’s why they were able to sell it for such an enormous amount of money,” he said of the building that was recently legally rezoned so that’s it’s legal address is Sukhumvit, not Soi 14.
Mackay is not sure of the sale price but the number floating around is that it was sold for between US26-28 million (THB940 million), he said.
Mackay had originally heard that the hotel to be built on the Hemingway’s land was going to be very tall and skinny, like The Continent up the street. It would, essentially, have the same footprint as Hemingway’s. But, more recently, he has heard that the new owners got permission to build closer to the sidewalk and will construct a wider building that is 27 floors.
The Hemingway’s dwelling is a 100-year-old house built by a Thai general nicknamed “The Duke.” In the 1920s, it cost only a few hundred thousand baht to build and was considered a mansion, despite only having two or three bedrooms.
“I think the price they’re planning to sell the wood for is the same price that the whole house was originally built for,” said Mackay.
The Duke who built the house was regent to King Rama 8. He later transferred it to his son, who was the Ambassador to Laos and married to the Princess of Laos. After that, it was an Ambassador’s residence for many years, and home to the French Ambassador in the 1940s. After that, it was a private residence for a bit and then a Thai restaurant called “House Number One” for about a decade. It was a Mexican restaurant for two years before being taken over by Hemingway’s.
By all accounts, it had fallen into disrepair during its years as a restaurant before Hemingway’s.
“There’s not much like this in Bangkok anymore,” said Mackay sadly.
“It’s not just home for me and my staff, but also for many expats, this is their place – their hangout. All my staff knows them, they have become a family over four years,” he said of the place that, though it’s only had a short tenure, feels timeless.
Stay tuned to their Facebook page for ongoing developments and news about their closing party.