New York whimsy

By Danny King
New York Whimsy MapA chicken coop on the roof of one of the country's most urbane hotels.

A sunken dining room fashioned after a sumo wrestling ring.

A fashion runway-like lobby overlooking the eastern terminus of the Holland Tunnel.

A rock-star-inspired hotel connected to an adjacent 150-year-old church by an under-ground catacomb.

Those don't strike your fancy?

How about a penthouse with swivel-your-head views of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings?

Or a Theater District hotel whose redone lobby includes a mezzanine-level DJ booth that belies the property's 85-year history?

What about a brand-new hotel taking its design cues from a century-old hat-making operation?

Or a hotel that greets its guests with a giant luggage-storing robot behind a glass display wowing kids and adults alike?

Take a tour through Manhattan's disparate districts, and you'll encounter a dizzying array of architectural, social and cultural contradictions found in few other U.S. cities. (Click here or on the map for a larger view of the location of the hotels spotlighted in this article; in addition, click here or on any of the images throughout the article for a slideshow of more photos of the hotels.) 

Many of those contradictions are mirrored in the borough's newer -- or, in some cases, reimagined -- design-oriented hotels. Taking them in, one by one, makes for a fascinating, if sometimes exhausting, tour of designs that reference everything from the hotels' particular neighborhoods to past glamour eras. A few of the designs feature elements that appear completely irrelevant to the city but still manage to work.

NoMad Hotel guestroomA visitor looking for something new can discover references to New York's live-theater and manufacturing history at the Garment District's Refinery Hotel and the Theater District's Paramount Hotel; find calmer alternatives to the bustling lifestyle-hotel sector by way of Madison Avenue's Roger or Murray Hill's St. Giles Hotel New York-the Tuscany; mix local art with comfort at the James SoHo; check out a modern spin on European influences at the NoMad and Nolita's Crosby Street Hotel; or embrace the future shock of Hell's Kitchen's Yotel.

Of course, New York -- and Manhattan in particular -- provides an appropriate breeding ground for hotels that break the mold a bit. In fact, with the city attracting a record 52 million visitors in 2012 and set to break that mark this year, many developers have eschewed both chain affiliation and a traditional, easy-to-categorize setting in favor of more unusual accommodations.

And for good reason.

For the first half of the year, New York's 83% occupancy rate trailed only Oahu's 84% among the largest U.S. markets, while its average room rates topped the $240 mark, which is about 20% more than Oahu, the second-most expensive U.S. market, and is more than double the U.S. average, according to Smith Travel Research.

Refinery Hotel exteriorThe good news for travel professionals is that, despite rising demand for accommodations and the hotels' decidedly noncorporate vibe, these properties do work with agents, the caveat being that some of their smaller footprints might offer limited opportunities.

Travel agent commissions in the 10% range remain the rule, as does reservation access via GDSs. Most of the hotels offer discounts in the range of 5% to 20% to travel agents and their bookings, depending on availability and time of year.

Those targeting midtown Manhattan might find what they're looking for with either the Refinery or the Paramount. The 197-room Refinery opened in May in the Colony Arcade building, which was built in 1912 and served as a hat factory until the 1980s. The independent property, which is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, makes its Garment District point of reference clear, from its work-suspender-uniformed doormen to its distressed-wood room desks (designed to look like a 1900s-era sewing machine) to its white chocolate candies shaped like, of course, hats.

Exposed beams, 12-foot ceilings in the guestrooms and railroad-tiled bathrooms further extend the modern-industrial vibe at the hotel, which also features a rooftop bar. Rates start in the $500-a-night range for studio-queen rooms for early September weekend stays. 

The two-story lobby at the Paramount Hotel.As for the Paramount, that 597-room hotel, which was first built in 1928 by noted theater architect Thomas Lamb, completed its $50 million renovation in March. And there still are a few signs of its past. The metal, V-shaped bathroom vanities, for example, were installed when Morgans Hotel Group, then headed by Ian Schrager, owned the property in the 1990s.

Still, the two-story "living room" lobby conjures real drama appropriate for the live-theater houses nearby, complete with wooden, bird-like floating sculptures, a massive fireplace and a DJ booth.

The hotel was purchased by RFR Holding in 2011, and this fall it will reopen Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub 61 years after it was shuttered. Early September weekend rates start at about $275 a night and approach about $350 a night for a deluxe king room.

While the aforementioned Schrager cast his own shadow on the New York boutique hotels that have opened since his first in 1984, so has Starwood Hotels' W, whose first "lifestyle" hotel opened on Lexington Avenue in 1999.

W's indirect influence can be felt at a couple of recently rehabbed hotels nearby. The 124-room St. Giles Hotel New York-the Tuscany, which sits on a relatively quiet block of East 39th Street in Murray Hill, was previously the W New York the Tuscany before Starwood sold the property (along with the Court, its sister hotel down the block) in 2010.

St Giles Hotel New York-the TuscanyThe Tuscany reopened late last year with a look that's slightly less splashy and a little more whimsical, including a tiled entryway that feels somewhat grotto-ish and rich-toned rooms that are relatively large by legendarily compact Manhattan standards.

The coup de grace, for those willing to lay out the cash, will be the hotel's 3,000-square-foot penthouse suite, set to open on the hotel's 17th floor by fall. That will offer the guest wraparound patios and so-close-you-can-touch-them views of the Chrysler Building to the north and the Empire State Building to the south. For the more standard rooms, September weekend rates start at about $400 a night and reach about $700 a night for the hotel's loft suites.

A short walk away on Madison Avenue and, metaphorically, a few decades back, stands the Roger. The hotel was formerly the Hotel Roger Williams before it, too, reopened last year under Los Angeles-based JRK Hotel Group, which operates San Francisco's Villa Florence and Santa Monica's Hotel Oceana. Design-wise, the Roger also fell from the W family tree: Anna Busta, who oversaw the 200-room hotel's public-space redo, designed the W South Beach and W Montreal.

A private terrace at the Roger.The hotel, which connects to the 19th century Baptist church next door via an underground catacomb, sports a posh-meets-"That '70s Show" vibe in its lobby, complete with a parquet floor, leather stools at its smallish bar and a couple dozen framed, black-and-white photos of luminaries such as Nancy Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Freddie Mercury on its lobby shelves. The public area also includes a mezzanine-level restaurant called the Parlour Bistro that exudes a low-key but elegant vibe.

The rooms, which keep that hominess but go slightly more modern and restrained for their look, start at about $320 a night for early September weekend nights.

While the Roger gets some of its design cues from a different era, the NoMad and Crosby Street hotels get many of them from a different continent: Europe. Nolita's Crosby Street Hotel is the only U.S. outlet of U.K.-based Firmdale Hotels, whose chief, Kit Kemp, infused the 86-room property with a design approach the hotel calls "modern British" (see Q&A, below).

That means a mash-up of sorts that includes sculptures of dogs and a giant human head art piece in the lobby that go along with a lively, sophisticated bar that backs up into an (of course) English garden.

Upstairs, the individually designed rooms include thick, fabric wall coverings; and (at least, on a recent visit) a picture-collage ode to the neighborhood's dogs in the hotel's elevator. All of which sits under a closed-to-the-public rooftop that includes a vegetable garden and a chicken coop complete with fine views of the office towers near Wall Street.

While the property is relatively established, having opened in 2009, it remains extremely fashionable, with early September weekend dates already sold out. On a recent visit, a barricade shielded celebrities from paparazzi during a film wrap being held at the hotel. This height of fashion will set you back north of $700 a night. That's the starting rate.

The Sky Lobby at the James SoHo.Also appropriately holding the "chic" mantle is the 168-room NoMad Hotel, which opened at the increasingly lively corner of Broadway and 28th Street last year. Housed in a fin-de-siecle Beaux Arts building and topped with a cupola, the hotel continues its sense of drama for those willing to step inside.

Operated by the Sydell Group, which opened the Ace Hotel a block away in 2009, the property's ground floor is a maze of food, drink and activity, complete with an eponymous eatery that was named Best New Restaurant by Time Out New York, a "library" room where guests can relax below the upper shelves full of classic books and a parlor room that includes an 8-foot-high stone fireplace shipped from a French chateau.

Upstairs, the rooms, the work of noted French designer and architect Jacques Garcia, all feature individual artwork as well as chairs inspired by 1930s-era design, 14-foot ceilings and claw-foot tubs that overlook Broadway below. Early September weekend rates start at about $500 a night and run about $300 more for suites.

Meanwhile, a little farther southwest, the James SoHo's sense of fashion is strictly and proudly New York.

Opened in 2010 by Denihan Hospitality Group (which also operates Affinia-branded boutique hotels in New York and Washington), the 114-room James was designed to combine the industrial vibe of Tribeca with the artistry of SoHo, featuring dozens of works strictly from local artists throughout the property.

Touches such as an egg-shaped bathtub in its penthouse and heated tile floors and vegan bath products in the guest bathrooms help justify its starting room rates of about $450 a night (the penthouse suite goes for a cool $6,000 a night), while guestroom views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges to one side and, on the other side, its catwalk-like lobby views of cars being spat out of the Holland Tunnel onto Canal Street make the James an only-in-New York experience.

A Yotel cabinFinally, there's Yotel, a hotel whose geographic influence can only be described as "airborne." It trades any sort of past epoque for a dose of future shock. Born of the reserve-by-the-hour sleeping pods operated at London's Gatwick and Heathrow airports as well as at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Yotel's first nonairport property opened in New York in 2011 with 669 rooms. Almost all of them are 170-square-foot "cabins" (starting at the only-reasonable-in-New York rate of about $270 a night) with retractable queen-size beds (a push of the button enables the motorized bed to switch between "lounge" and "bed" modes), purple-hued recessed lighting and floor-to-ceiling glass windows offering real intimate exposure to the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood below.

Even the seemingly mundane task of storing baggage for checked-out guests looking to explore the town is given a twist with the hotel's fully automated "Yobot," which picks up luggage and drops it in one of 150 bins.

The out-of-left-field vibe continues in the fourth-floor common area, called "Mission Control," which includes access to a 7,000-square-foot outdoor patio and bar as well as a dining room whose design, complete with super-low tables and seat cushions on the floor of a raised platform, was inspired by sumo wrestling rings.

Yes, getting up from these tables, especially for those of us beyond the millennial generation, takes a little extra effort, even with a morning shot of caffeine. And, frankly, so does getting a handle on the disparate influences on New York's most recently rebuilt, redesigned or reimagined hotels.

But whether you're munching on hat-shaped chocolates at the Refinery, reading design books in the dramatic lobbies of the Paramount or James SoHo, or sipping coffee in Yotel's Dohyo listening to a French singer offering her own take on Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," just try to restrain yourself from grinning in appreciation.

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly. 
 

Q&A: Firmdale Hotels' Kit Kemp


Kit KempFirmdale Hotels opened New York's Crosby Street Hotel in 2009. The company's co-owner, Kit Kemp, oversees all design aspects of Firmdale's eight hotels and authored the design book "A Living Space" (Hardie Grant Books), which was published in October.

Q: Your room prices and occupancy rates suggest that you've struck a strong chord with New York visitors. Why do you think that's the case?

A:
There was this tiny little gap that we didn't see any other hotel in New York filling. We really didn't see another hotel where all the rooms had been individually designed, for example, and with the attention to detail that we have. Also, we use a lot of color, and I find, too, that everyone is trying to copy one another and it's all starting to look rather formulaic. Whereas our formula, if we have one, is to make every building look individual.

Q: You've described building the Crosby Street Hotel as difficult. Why?

The lobby at the Crosby Street Hotel.A:
It was our first hotel outside of London and we were building to the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standard. All of our suppliers had to be registered with the LEED program, so it all took a lot longer than usual. 

Q: What else does Firmdale have in store for the U.S.?

A:
We are currently working on a new hotel on 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It will be an all-new build similar in style to Crosby Street Hotel, with the large, warehouse-style windows rising to 15 stories. There will be a bar-restaurant, screening room, gym and about 90 bedrooms and suites, some with private terraces.

Q: Are there any other hospitality designers that you particularly appreciate, or do you take your hotel-design cues more from fashion?

A:
I'm never off duty and always looking for inspiration wherever I go. Private homes, museums and art galleries inspire me more than other hotels.

Q: The Crosby Street Hotel elevator is notable for having a picture-collage tribute to the local neighborhood dogs. What inspired that?

A:
Everywhere I looked in the streets of SoHo, I saw neighbors walking their dogs. It was an inspiration. I think the hotel should offer a different world to the outside one. However, it should also be part of, and reflect, the village community. -- D.K. 
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