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Massive makeover positions Grand Hyatt NY for future success

Stepping into the lobby of the Grand Hyatt New York, visitors can’t help but be aware of the most visible evidence of the hotel’s recently concluded, multi-year, $130 million renovation. There, in the middle of the lofty space, sit two dramatic, dream-like, 10-foot tall, white marble sculptures by Barcelona-based sculptor Jaume Plensa.

The choice of Plensa’s work was a particularly bold one on the part of Bentel & Bentel, the architecture and design firm charged with the lobby transformation. The sculptures convey an almost Buddha-like calm at the same time the Grand Hyatt itself sits on top of Grand Central Station, one of midtown Manhattan’s most heavily trafficked, often chaotic locations. 

Yet New York is also one of the world’s great art centers, so it’s fitting that that the Grand Hyatt chose to showcase the work of a world-class artist. In fact, another serene Plensa marble head—this one 44-feet tall—drew accolades last summer when it was installed in the city’s Madison Square Park.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts executives Mark Pardue and Matthew Adams appreciate the halo effect the choice of Plensa brings not only to the new lobby, but to the retooling of the hotel as a whole. Built as the Commodore Hotel in 1919, the hotel was re-flagged as the Grand Hyatt in 1980. Pardue, the hotel’s general manager, speaks of the property’s “dramatic new look,” while Adams, who is area VP and managing director for Hyatt in New York, views the renovation as a “rebirth and reshaping of a New York landmark.”

Yet the new lobby was only the concluding chapter in an upgrade that also saw all 1,306 of the hotel’s guestrooms and suites redone, a new restaurant, a gourmet grab-and-go food concept, concierge-level lounge and event space introduced, and ballrooms and other meeting venues revitalized.

Nor was Bentel & Bentel the only design firm involved. Given the scope of the project, Bentel & Bentel was put in charge of the new restaurant, grab-and-go outlet and meeting and event venues, including the new Gallery on Lex, as well as the lobby. Looney & Associates oversaw the design of the majority of guestrooms and suites as well as the Empire Ballroom, while George Wong Design created the interiors for four premier suites and the concierge level lounge.

Working with three design firms on different aspects of the renovation gave Hyatt Hotels & Resorts the opportunity to tap into three different design sensibilities. Yet the firms chosen shared a certain sensibility, according to Carol Bentel, a principal at Bentel & Bentel. “We have a similar design philosophy. We believe in clean lines, the use of enduring materials, and a preference for handsome colors and tones,” Bentel noted.

David Rogers, director of operations for Looney & Associates, agreed. “There was just enough interaction between the firms during the process to maintain a thread of design continuity through the entire building,” he said. “Because the firms hold a compatible design aesthetic, we were able to work toward the same goals for the hotel.”

Being responsible for all aspects of a project has its advantages and disadvantages as does being responsible for only select components, noted George Wong, president of George Wong Design. “Both approaches have merit. A drawback to using multiple designers might be a lack of consistency throughout the project. But then again, a change of tempo to the overall composition of a project is actually a benefit when it adds complexity and sophistication,” Wong explained.

Both Rogers and Wong noted that the scope of the Grand Hyatt project tipped the scales in favor of the multi-designer approach. “This was such a huge undertaking that our firm would have needed to form multiple teams in order to design the entire project,” Rogers said. “Hyatt was wise to distribute the work, which in the end, yielded a rich outcome from the input of many creative minds.”

Added Wong: “As long as the breakout of responsibility is clearly defined and compartmentalized as was the case here, we don’t see any drawback at all.”

As with any project, large or small, designers tend to have aspects of their work that they’re particularly proud of. Such was the case with Bentel, Rogers and Wong. Bentel focused on her firm’s work on New York Central, the hotel’s new 6,000-sq.-ft. restaurant. The space occupied by the restaurant was already well known to New Yorkers because it dramatically juts out from the side of the building above the sidewalk on 42nd St.

The frame of the restaurant remains in place, but Bentel and her team painted it midnight blue and covered it with a white grill that allows diners to see out. A centerpiece of the 220-seat restaurant is a curving bar that was intended to glow. “It was a challenge because we wanted the bar to glow from the bottom so people could see it from the street. But we were successful,” Bentel recalled.

Another element integral to the design of the restaurant was a custom chandelier that was suspended above the entire space and was intended to accentuate the curve of the bar. “It turned into another success, joining the different areas of the restaurant into a unified whole,” she noted.

For Looney & Associates, the goal of the guestroom renovation was to create the mood of a sleek, modern Manhattan residence. The use of rich woods, including Australian walnut, deeply toned pinstriped carpeting and dramatic lighting all played a part. The color palette included luminous shades of taupe, champagne and plum. Plus a range of fabrics was employed, including tweed, leather, cashmere and brushed silk. 

But Rogers singled out the use of custom built-ins. The hotel’s room inventory included a large number of room types and a correspondingly large number of room configurations. “The built-ins helped us to create a level of residential sophistication,” he said, adding that the firm was also successful incorporating LED lighting within the built-ins in unexpected ways.

Lastly, Wong focused on his firm’s design of the Grand Club, the hotel’s 16th floor concierge-level lounge. Like other such club lounges, guests are free to relax, socialize, go online to check email or prepare for a presentation, and enjoy a selection of light meals and beverages.

The Grand Hyatt lounge, however, in the hands of Wong and his team, is actually more elaborate than many such facilities, consisting of an entry foyer designed to resemble a gazebo, a “living room” with multiple seating areas, a breakfast room and a conservatory. In addition, the club lounge is surrounded by a private terrace outfitted with picnic tables and outdoor oversized lounge chairs. Guests are welcome to step outside and enjoy the views of the skyline.

The breakfast room is Wong’s personal favorite. Aside from the use of natural wood and stone in the room, Wong is partial to the uncluttered surfaces. “A lot of the equipment and controls are either concealed or seamlessly integrated into the millwork,” he explained. “As a result, the effect is ultra-clean and minimal.”

As with design firms generally, the three firms attached to the Grand Hyatt New York project have vendors they relied upon to deliver the quality products the job required. For Looney & Associates’ guestroom renovation, for example, Rogers cited Knoll, Kravet and Valley Forge for their fabrics, Montague for the Australian walnut and other woods used and Clayton Miller for the pinstripe carpeting.

Likewise for its design of the concierge lounge breakfast room, George Wong Design worked with Louis Interiors on the room’s L-shaped seating, chairs and stools. The light fixtures were sourced from 2nd Ave. Lighting and the Saarinen dining tables from Knoll. Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Co. provided a wooden art sculpture. The millwork was done by Petersen Geller Spurge. Fuse Flooring provided wood finishes and Nemo Tile provided the stone work.

On the club lounge’s terrace, the outdoor furniture came from Erik Cabinets and Dedon. Bison Innovative Products were the source of the wood pavers, while Plantscape, Inc. and Commercial Silk International were responsible for the artificial hedges. Aurora Lampworks provided the floor light fixtures.

In the case of pieces that were custom designed, the various firms looked to fabricators to help them realize their creations. At Bentel & Bentel, for example, the chandelier at New York Central was designed in conjunction with Kaplan Gehring McCarroll Architectural Lighting and fabricated by Lukas Lighting. Also at New York Central, the bar lighting was designed in conjunction with Kaplan Gehring McCarroll, though the fabrication was handled by Architectural Woodwork Industries. The restaurant grill work, meanwhile, was designed solely by the team at Bentel & Bentel, though the fabrication was done by Levolux, Ltd.