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True boutique is back with bolder, more original designs

NATIONAL REPORT— Once the embodiment of cutting edge, one-of-a-kind and stylish, boutique hotel design has lately taken a turn toward 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. But 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.
“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., which recently completed an expansion of its boutique property, the 18-suite Roxbury, in upstate New York. “Most, if not all of these chain boutique hotels have a cool element in their common area and then one design choice for the 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. It may be ultra modern and sleek, but it’s nothing like what you would see done in the bar or restaurant. 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.”
Further south 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.
With regard to the refurbished 126-room Mansfield Hotel, it 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.
“For us, what we tried to do there and at our other properties 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. “But the boutique concept is a little coined now with even franchised brands doing boutique, so we try instead to be a good choice for 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.”
A niche was also the key component in Hersha Development Corp.’s development of the 45-room Duane Street Hotel. The niche in its case, however, was the hotel’s location in the trendy New York neighborhood of TriBeCa, which lends itself perfectly to authentic 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 project manager. “A lot of factors, in fact, 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. Also, I think there was an interest from [Hersha] to branch out a bit and work on something more specialized versus your prototypical franchise, which imposes standards on a project. The boutique direction allowed for a little bit more flexibility.”
Flexibility became the name of the game for the project in more ways the one, though, as it was delayed as a result of such factors as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a lengthy landmark approval process. “The area has a strong community board and is a landmark district, plus the site is a corner site, so it’s very visible, which meant that the architecture had to respect those challenges. So it wasn’t easy to get it approved,” Cardona said. “The color of the building had to be respectful of the neighborhood. For example, the windows are a custom champagne anodized color. In fact, nothing was off-the-shelf. The hotel had to be customized to gain approval. A lot of thought and effort had to be put into it by the owner and architects.”
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 on the exterior and interior.
“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-design seating. There are also benches and credenzas that dot the walkway to the elevator area.
Over at the reception area, Cardona said the front desk is inviting, casual and made of wood with a stone countertop. 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, Cardona said.
Regarding the guestrooms, Cardona explained guests are greeted by eight-foot-tall 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 yellows and light ash. The suites, though, are 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 while 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.
Along those same lines, other 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 of Willow Hotels, which redesigned the hotel itself and kept it open during the $4-million renovation. “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 and felt more like the property did. We introduced things guests would expect, but still kept everything geared toward the property’s character.”
Toward that end, 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.
More specifically, each classic, yet modern, guestroom now has a gray suede headboard, 300-thread count linens, a pillow-top mattress, wooden blinds, a work desk with a trapezoid leather desk chair, a flat-screen LCD TV, an iHome radio with an iPod docking station, and a bay window with a black- and ivory-striped velveteen plush 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 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 it a year later to critical acclaim with 11 larger-than-average suites. Then 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.
“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 his partner at Masserson, Joseph Massa, were originally in the theater business and have much experience in set design. “We designed each of those rooms with as much of a ‘wow’ factor as possible. We did that original expansion with a bit of a budget, so there were common room design elements that are more like boutique hotel rooms you see today, although there is a lot more attention to detail than most boutiques. But none of our rooms are exactly the same. The common elements are often in the bathrooms with the color schemes.”
As part of that original renovation, though, 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. “Families and couples wanted it and the ‘wow’ factor and the escapism. And 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 1970. Henderson also admitted that that idea simply materialized from finding a wall paper 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, architectural curved walls, custom-made cheetah-print sofas, silk damask-patterned settees and “Victoria Ghost” Phillipe Starck chairs. But the centerpiece of this 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 by ‘”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; the Mod Pod, which is designed to be the epitome of 1960s and 1970s groove with artichoke-shaped chandeliers and yellow, green and orange swirling wallpaper; Golightly-A-Go-Go, which has a Tiffany’s theme and plenty of Tiffany’s blue all around; the Partridge Nest (based on the ‘”Partridge Family'”) with its pop-art glass tile work and bright blue, yellow and red three-dimensional wallscape; and Samantha’s Cloud (based on the show ‘”Bewitched'”), which has sparkling silver glitter-glass mosaic tile and a cloud mural.
But the suite themes may not end there, as Henderson noted that Masserson would like to expand this boutique concept beyond the Catskills one day, especially considering the demand the Roxbury has witnessed. “The strategy behind making each room completely different from the others was for repeat guests,” he said. “And our ultimate goal is to franchise this concept. It doesn’t have to be based on films and TV shows. But I feel there’s a real need for this kind of concept.”
If Henderson is to be believed, then it appears the true meaning of boutique is back.’