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True boutique is back with bolder, more original designs
The New Look
September/October, 2007

True Boutique is Back with Bolder, more Original Designs

by Christopher Ostrowski

National Report – Once the embodiment of cutting edge, one-of-a-kind and stylish, boutique hotel design has lately taken a turn to wear the cliché as the result of the inevitable proliferation of the trend plus the growing overuse carried out by the major hotel franchise companies, who seem determined to squeeze the life out of the concept and conveniently box it up and sell it for all.

Bust in spite of this abuse boutique design has recently weathered – and perhaps as a reaction to the recent branding of the concept – a resolute number of hoteliers are now crafting even bolder boutique properties, confident in knowing that if the design remains original and true, then the boutique nature of a hotel can never be compromised.

In New York City, where the boutique concept has much of its original roots, two recent hotel projects – one a renovation and one new construction – also embraced boutique design, while trying to remain true to the originality of the overall premise as well as the travelers they will look to serve.

Finding a niche was the key component in Hersha Development Corp.’s development of the 45-room Duane Street Hotel. The niche in this case, was the hotel’s location in the trendy New York neighborhood of Tribeca, which lends itself perfectly to boutique design.

“I don’t think (Hersha) specifically went the route of boutique to ride the trend because (Hersha) has a long history in this industry of owning franchised hotels in New York, like Hampton Inns and Hilton Garden Inns. But this location was definitely the right market for a boutique hotel,” said Sandra Cardona, the Duane Street Hotel’s project manager. “A lot of factors fell into place to make the hotel a boutique, including the scale of it at only six stories. And with it being next to a lot of boutique shops, a boutique hotel just seemed to mix better than a Marriott or a Hilton Garden Inn would.”

Serving as the architect for the project was Gene Kaufman Associates, while Paul Vega carried out the interior design. Vega could not be reached for comment on the project as of press time, but both were tasked with integrating the unique character of Tribeca at the Duane Street Hotel.

“The mission of the Duane Street Hotel is to provide a unique refuge of timeless comfort, unrivaled service and incomparable courtesy that will create an unforgettable guest experience,” pointed out Jeffrey Stagman, the general manager of the hotel, which is managed by Hersha Hospitality Management. “We have developed a hotel ‘neighborhood’scale – a small, service-oriented hotel that will engender loyalty and long-term stays from our guests. The intimate environment provides a relaxed atmosphere that makes guests feel like the Duane Street Hotel is their home away from home.”

In providing that feeling, the lobby is the first line of allure, as it integrates several different materials, according to Cardona, and emotes a warm ambiance with dark woods and a large, curved bronze wall that houses custom-designed seating. There are also benches and credenzas that dot the walkway to the elevator area.

Over at the reception area the front desk is made of wood with a stone countertop and overhead in the lobby, there are luminous glowing ceiling panels made of Mylar fabric.

In the 40-seat restaurant, known as ‘Beca, wood dominates the design along with stone flooring and, again, the sweeping, curved, bronze wall that separates the lobby from the restaurant.

Regarding the guestrooms, Cardona said guests are greeted by eight-foot guestroom doors with steel-like painted finishes that “are very striking.” Inside, local artwork is highlighted along with custom furniture. The primary color scheme involves yellow and light ash but the suites are a grayish lavender.

Overall, the guestrooms have a sophisticated, minimalist design with hardwood floors and slate and marble guest bathrooms that feature rain showerheads, clear shower panels and custom wood vanities with stone countertops.

Further uptown at the Mansfield Hotel on West 44th Street, Willow Hotels, which owns and operates the property, sought to restore the boutique hotel wile paying homage to its rich and storied past and reinforcing its classic New York feel. Furthermore, the hotel’s original Beaux-Arts and Second-Empire styles were destined to be maintained as part of the 12-month restoration.

The 126-room Mansfield Hotel had technically always been a boutique hotel dating back to its original opening in 1904. However, in acquiring it in 2004, Willow Hotels knew it wanted to take the boutique nature of it up a notch in all facets of hospitality.

“What we tried to do is incorporate great customer service and the character of the property into whatever we do,” explained Jeff Harvey, vp and director of operations for New York-based Willow Hotels, which redesigned the hotel itself and kept it open during the $4-million renovation. “But the boutique concept is a little coined now with even franchised brands doing boutique, so we try instead to be a good choice or our clients by adhering to what the property is all about. The Mansfield is an older asset, but clearly it’s got a niche unto itself.”

Many original hotel details were kept intact during the project, including the hotel’s oval staircases with their wrought iron balustrades, the terrazzo floors and the grand lobby’s 16-foot ceiling, which is supported by columns and accented by bobesches.

But figuring out what to keep and what to redo wasn’t clear cut, according to Harvey. “When we first bought the hotel, we saw that its last renovation really didn’t take the property along the lines of its character,” he said. “They instead introduced influences that at the time may have worked, but didn’t really fit in terms of the initial impression of the building from the exterior or in the lobby. So we then tried to make it both aesthetically pleasing and modern with certain things guests expect and look for, especially in New York. So we reconditioned the hardwood floors and introduced fabrics that weren’t flashy.”

The guestrooms, which vary in scale, were made masculine in their design with a neutral color palette of ivory and beige that is accented by dark wood appointments and ebony-stained hardwood floors. Each guestroom also now has a gray suede headboard, 300-thread count linens, wooden blinds, a work desk with a trapezoid leather desk chair and a bay window with a black and ivory-striped velveteen window seat.

“During the last renovation, they tried to put in a window bench, so we tried to maintain that with the bay windows,” Harvey pointed out, adding, “The one thing I felt good about was putting the essence of the property back into the rooms. We wanted modern conveniences, but not necessarily modern style. So I feel we ended up with a representative product that’s much better than what we bought.”

The same could easily be said for The Roxbury Motel roughly three hours north of New York City in the Catskill Mountains, where Masserson Properties originally bought a circa-1860s house with an adjoining strip motel that was built in the 1960s, but subsequently became a rundown welfare motel. Acquired in 2003, Masserson renovated the property itself and reopened with 11 larger-than-average suites. The in 2006, it broke ground on an expansion that would bring the Roxbury to 18 suites in 2007 and practically redefine the definition of boutique.

“The boutique trend has absolutely become cliché with the big chains jumping on it along with everybody else,” asserted Gregory Henderson, the president of Roxbury, NY-based Masserson Properties, Inc. “Most, if not all of these chain boutique hotels, have a cool element in their common area and then one design choice for rooms. It’s rare that you walk into a boutique hotel room even in the luxury chains and see anything about the room that’s new and exciting. With the Roxbury, we took design risks within all the rooms and gave them a ‘wow’ factor like a boutique lobby or a common area would have.”

“In the original part of the property, we made each room different and the catch phrase for the hotel was whimsical elegance,” said Henderson, who along with is partner at Masserson, Joseph Massa, were originally in the theater business and have much experience in set design. “We did that original expansion with a bit or a budget, so there were common room design elements that are more like boutique hotel rooms you see today.”

As part of that original renovation, however, Masserson created what would become known as the Shagadelic Suite – a suite that was completely unique with bright orange and yellow accents, a fuzzy zebra couch and other features that made the guest feel like he or she was in an Austin Powers movie. “That’s what gave us the confidence to do an expansion and go all the way with it,” Henderson added, while also noting that the general strategy behind the design for the expansion was centered on creating rooms based on popular TV shows from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Henderson added that the idea simply materialized from finding wallpaper sample that reminded Massa and him of Jeannie’s lamp from the TV show I Dream of Jeannie.

Not surprisingly, “Genie’s Bottle” is one of the new themed boutique suites at the expanded Roxbury and features Persian rugs, architectural curved walls, custom-made cheetah-print sofas and silk damask-patterned settees. But the centerpiece of the suite is the spherical purple and gold bottle-shaped bathroom, which features a 70-gallon Japanese soaking tub and walls that resemble glass.

Meanwhile, the other suites include “George’s Space Pad,” which was inspired The Jetsons and contains a cherry red chromatherapy bathtub and sink that illuminate from within and space-age orange, Lucite and chrome chairs; “Fred’s Lair,” which is loosely based on The Flintstones and features an 11-foot pebblestone shower and bathroom area, faux fur bed throws and mirrors made from driftwood; and the “Mod Pod,” which is designed to be the epitome of the 1960s and 1970s groove with artichoke-shaped chandeliers and yellow, green, and orange swirling wallpaper. Meanwhile, “Golightly-A-Go-Go,” has a Tiffany & Co. theme; the “Partridge Nest” (based on The Partridge Family) boasts pop-art glass tile work and a bright blue, yellow, and red three-dimensional wallscape; and Samantha’s Cloud (based on the show Bewitched), has sparkling silver glitter-glass mosaic tile and a cloud mural.

But the suite themes may not end there, as Masserson would like to expand this boutique concept one day, especially considering the demand The Roxbury has witnessed. “Our ultimate goal is to franchise this concept. It doesn’t have to be based on films and TV shows,” said Henderson. “But I feel there’s a real need for this kind of concept.” If Henderson is on the right track, then it appears the true meaning of boutique is back.