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Two firms create a brighter,
bolder Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach

PALM BEACH, FL— Two independent design teams with a shared vision, working over a period of two-and-a-half years, overseen by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.’s internal design team with the active support of the property’s new owner has resulted in the reinvention of the stately Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach. What had been formal and rather dark is now more relaxed and light filled. And in the process of the transformation a new template has emerged for what constitutes luxury resort design today, not just in Palm Beach, but in any resort setting where high worth individuals gather to unwind, socialize, and— if attending a business meeting— strategize.
“For a long time, Ritz-Carlton hotels had been associated with very traditional design that communicated elegance and exclusivity, but was also a bit stuffy. The design challenge we faced here was to retain that sense of elegance, but to reframe it in a much more casual way,” said Malcolm Berg, a principal for RTKL Associates based in Coral Gables, FL. “What’s more, little about the interiors of these resorts reflected their location, so there was an opportunity here not only to add elements of Palm Beach, but also, given the breathtaking ocean views right outside the back door, to bring a sense of the outside inside.”
Berg and his team were charged with doing the existing guestrooms, an elaborate, 3,000-square foot outdoor terrace, and— in their capacity as architects— to replace what had been a self-contained corridor with a new five-story guestroom tower that would add 24 rooms and suites to the hotel’s original 270 keys. With other reconfigurations, the total room count is now 310.
“We began to think of our approach as ‘transitional Beach’ in the sense that the look and ambience we created was somewhere between staid Palm Beach and more trendy/contemporary South Beach,” Berg noted.
Todd-Avery Lenahan, a principal in the Las Vegas-based ABA Avery Brooks & Associates, concurred that while a new look was in order, a radical break with the past wasn’t warranted either. “We didn’t want to lose that storied Ritz-Carlton elegance. The resort has so many loyal guests and it wasn’t as though it was losing market share or anything. We felt a responsibility to preserve some of that legacy,” said Lenahan, whose firm was responsible for the design of the lobby and other public spaces, the restaurants, and a major new spa.
Likewise, Berg and Lenahan both agreed that adding a brighter, bolder color palette was an important first step. “We opted for a mix of rust, bright mustard, celadons and even oranges, at times combining warmer and cooler tones,” Berg explained.
“We wanted the color to be an infusion of daylight, to add a more youthful sensibility,” Lenahan added.
Guestrooms now feature 32-inch flatscreen televisions and bedside remote-control “pamper panels” to adjust lighting and temperature. Suites boast bathrooms with free-standing, cast-concrete soaking tubs with ocean views and vanity mirrors that conceal a television.
For the lobby, Lenahan opted to contrast the now “sun-washed” palette by using furniture pieces that were “rich with detail and ornamentation, many influenced by European antiquity. The contrast is dramatic,” he said.
Bringing the “outside inside” entailed more than masterful design touches, however. To open up the ocean vistas from both the new terrace and the lobby, the hotel received permission from the city government to lower the berm along its entire length of beachfront. In addition, all concrete and asphalt that had been on the property was removed and replaced with natural stone.
The Ritz-Carlton has the only oceanfront terrace in Palm Beach, so maximizing the view as much as possible made good business sense. Other features of the terrace include a 55-foot-long water fountain wall and a blazing fire pit. Elsewhere on the grounds, a second swimming pool was added.
The resort remained open during the first phase of the work when the existing rooms were being refurbished, but when construction of the new tower and work on the public spaces got into full swing, it made more sense to close, according to general manager Brad Cance. The property closed for eight months, reopening in March. While costs specific to the new design are hard to pin down, the cost of the entire project, which includes construction of the guestroom tower, spa and terrace, is estimated to be $60 million. The price tag for renovation of each suite was $100,000.
“Working with two different design firms didn’t pose a problem since RTKL and ABA shared a common vision of the direction the property needed to take,” Cance said. Ritz-Carlton’s internal design team helped coordinate communication between the two firms. “It was as if we were all seated at a large table and each firm had a seat as did the Ritz-Carlton team. The owner and the asset manager each had a seat as well.” Both the owner, Simon Lewis, and Acorn Asset Management were actively involved in discussions.
Work continues on the new 28,000-square foot spa, which is scheduled for completion this summer. “As in other resort destinations, spa has become an essential amenity for us,” Cance noted.
In approaching the design of the spa building, Lenahan thought of it as part of the larger resort, but still distinct from it. “In a way, it’s its own destination, its own venue. We wanted the design to evoke first the glamour of Palm Beach, but also a sense of European beauty and the Beaux Arts,” he said.
The spa has its own large courtyard to ensure that— like the resort itself— the indoor and outdoor merge. One design influence Lenahan made a point of avoiding was any reference to Asia. “Asian accents have become so overused in spa design as to become a cliché, so there’ll be no ginkgo leaf, no bamboo,” he said. “The spa services themselves will reflect an Eastern influence. That’ll be enough.” Still to come are facilities for separate kids’ and teens’ programs.
In using design to reinvent the resort, Cance, Berg, and Lenahan each acknowledged that the luxury resort guest has changed in recent years and it was incumbent on an operator like Ritz-Carlton to keep pace with the change. “Not only are guests likely to be younger, but they’re much more casual. It’s no longer about your grandfather going ballroom dancing. They embrace technology. The question for us becomes ‘What fits with our brand image, but is relevant today’,” said Cance.
Guests may be younger, but that doesn’t mean their expectations are any lower. “To the contrary, their expectations of what a luxury resort experience is may even be higher than the previous generation’s. They’re more active, but they still expect ultimate comfort and service delivery,” explained Lenahan, whose other recent luxury assignments include the Wynn Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel planned for Chicago.
“It’s about feeling comfortable, but it’s still about exclusivity,” confirmed Berg, whose projects include extensive renovations of the Marriott Marco Beach and Ritz-Carlton Naples, both in Florida. “A billionaire’s a billionaire. The guest today arrives in jeans, a tee-shirt, a baseball cap and a Bentley.”