Room Service, Please
From Atlanta to Milan, atrium to velvet rope—a personal account of hotels through the decades
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Motels were the scourge of my childhood. Obsessed with seeing the North American landscape, my road-trip-addicted parents dragged me to Howard Johnsons and Red Roof Inns from sea to shining sea. But in 1982, on a rare visit to New York, my 7-year-old eyes were seduced by a more lustrous manifest destiny: a vision of off-white waves of thick-pile carpet and chromed-and-mirrored majesty. Forget everything else that might have happened to me that year. I had discovered Hotels.
It was my grandfather's suite, high above the East River, at the United Nations Plaza Hotel—modern, glitzy, forested with ficus, the epitome of '80's glam. As the decade progressed, I would watch Connie Sellecca presiding over TV's resplendent St. Gregory. (Remember Hotel?) And Ann Jillian serving well garnished cocktails at the Bonaventure's revolving rooftop bar in It's a Living. I was hooked.
As Joan Didion once wrote, "Great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service." And the past 75 years have produced a hefty legacy to reflect on.
Even in the most dire of circumstances—when life seems to be throwing you one HoJo after another—great hotels have offered an escape. The Plaza in New York, the Palmer House in Chicago, the Palace in San Francisco, and other gilded-age grandes dames long supplied the vicarious trappings of European aristocracy for just a few nights. In the modern era, hotels created a fantasy all their own.
Think of the golden age of Hollywood: the Roosevelt Hotel, with its 1920's Spanish colonial lobby and mid-century Tropicana Bar—now spectacularly reborn with a Dodd Mitchell Design makeover—or the Beverly Hills Hotel. When I first laid eyes on that famously pink confection, I could finally see the world through rose-colored glasses.
Some hotels aren't just set apart from the everyday. They top it. Who could forget Morris Lapidus and his flamboyant Fontainebleau Hotel? Bringing a dash of Busby Berkeley–esque showmanship to 1950's Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau was a tour de force of populist baroque: amoeboid curves, froufrou French flourishes, and a "stairway to nowhere," its only purpose the making of grand entrances. Hollywood's haunts had their celebrities—in Lapidus's world, everyone was on stage. As he once asked, "If people like ice cream, why give them one scoop when you can give them three?"
My greatest weakness has always been for John Portman, who, just like Lapidus, had been pooh-poohed by the architecture establishment. Beginning with the Hyatt Regency Atlanta in 1967, John Portman & Associates invented the atrium hotel. These buildings eventually became cliché—Portman admitted as much to me in an interview last year. But they were (and still are) awe-inspiringly spectacular.
Their soaring, futuristic interiors act like giant conversation pits, ringed by ivy-festooned concrete balconies and scaled by bullet-shape elevators. His Hyatt Regency San Francisco is vertiginous in its seemingly impossible geometries. It's true that, from the outside, a Portman hotel's blank walls are about as neighborhood-friendly as a 10-lane highway. Still, the bronzed-glass cylindrical towers of his Renaissance Center in Detroit, Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites in Los Angeles, and Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta remind me of the Emerald City. With a tan.
Perhaps someday I'll feel just as sentimental about boutique hotels. Don't get me wrong. I've stayed in plenty of good ones. "They've allowed people to see in new ways," explains André Balazs, whose three Standard hotels come equipped with everything from a shag-rug ceiling in Hollywood to outdoor bathtubs in Miami Beach. But boutique hotels have become a blur of backlit bars, exotic woods, and resin this-or-that. Truth be told, few stand out in my mind anymore.
I do remember meeting Jenny Holzer in her room at the Bryant Park Hotel in New York. Maybe the sound track of chirping birds was meant to be Zen, but her inability to turn it off had the opposite effect. "I'm not exactly unfamiliar with electronics," the LED artist remarked. Then there was my friend who, after checking into a Zaha Hadid Architects–designed room at Hotel Puerta America Madrid, found the slippery fluid-form tabletops and un-sittable seating so intolerable that he had to move out. And he's one of Zaha Hadid's clients.
This genre of hotels wasn't always so gimmicky. My initiation was at New York's Morgans. Granted, this was 15 years after Ian Schrager opened it in 1984, earning the title as the world's first. (I'd define a boutique hotel as a property that provides a luxurious or quirky environment, highly personalized service and accommodations, and under 200 guest rooms.) Morgans was tastefully done, not overdone, by Andrée Putman.
Putman will update Morgans this year, and I hope she doesn't stray too far. Indeed, Antonio Citterio had it right when, a few years ago, he made sure to tell me about the difference between well designed hotels and over designed ones. "I think people have had enough of too much," I recall him saying. He went on to prove the point at Milan's Bulgari Hotel, with its moody palette and chic simplicity.
Having pioneered the once-groundbreaking boutique hotel—and made it synonymous with Philippe Starck—Schrager has realized it's time to move on. His reincarnation of New York's Gramercy Park Hotel, unveiled last year, doesn't have the slickitude of his earlier properties, which he no longer owns. Instead, the Julian Schnabel interior's checkerboard floors, Alice in Wonderland overstuffed chairs, and rustic wood-slatted walls dolled up with fringe, tapestries, and paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat are more of a wildly eccentric take on the classic luxury hotel. For Schrager, that's a radical departure. And expect more to come.
"I'm still out there, trying to shake the fruit from the trees," he says. "I even bid on the Red Roof Inn chain when it was up for sale." Red Roof Inn? I remember those.
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