Quite aside from aesthetic considerations, Schrager—who recently sold the company he founded and built up for more than 20 years—has something to prove. "I wanted to set the record straight," he says. "I was looking to pull a rabbit out of a hat again." He would like, in other words, to be known as the man who reinvented the hotel not once, but twice. And he is determined to do it at the Gramercy Park Hotel.
It is clearly a new, more reverent day for Schrager, the man who, as the world knows, catapulted to overnight fame in 1977 with the decidedly irreverent Studio 54, the instantly infamous nightclub he created with his business partner, the late Steve Rubell. He went on to write his name large as the stop-the-presses hotelier who turned the hospitality industry on its ear in 1984 with Morgans on Madison Avenue, his first "boutique" hotel, designed by the Paris-based high priestess of 20th-century French modernism, Andrée Putman.
Schrager's idea?Tap forward-thinking designers to reimagine what a hotel might be—a place to dream for a night or reinvent yourself for a day and, of course, a place to see and be seen. Meaning that in addition to the invariably eye-opening design of the interiors, there is a kind of sparkly frisson in the air, an almost palpable buzz, as they say, at a Schrager hotel, where you can always amuse yourself by clocking celebrities: Jade Jagger in the restaurant; Donatella Versace in the lobby; Calvin Klein by the pool; David Geffen on the terrace; Kate Hudson at the bar.
But over the past decade, the notion of "high-design" hotels has become a given, if not a cliché. "People used to think that only people who wore black came to my hotels," Schrager says. "Then, suddenly, it's big business, and I'm getting credit because we changed the industry." With success came imitators: "Everybody's doing it now, not only a bunch of little boutique hotels, but the big hotels as well," he says.
It was time to turn the page, and in any event, the Gramercy Park Hotel presented a different mandate than Schrager's first 10 properties: Morgans, the Royalton, the Paramount, and the Hudson in New York; the Delano and Shore Club in Miami Beach; the Mondrian in Los Angeles; St. Martins Lane and the Sanderson in London; and the Clift in San Francisco. For perhaps the first time, Schrager had acquired a hotel that had the kind of history and provenance that he (rightfully) felt obliged to consider.
Built in two stages—the first completed in 1925 by architect Robert T. Lyons, the second in 1930 by architects Thompson & Churchill—the 18-story Renaissance Revival beige-and-butterscotch-brick pile runs in an L along the corner of Gramercy Park North and Lexington Avenue, an enviable location overlooking the only remaining private square in New York City, the seemingly enchanted Gramercy Park. But the hotel not only had a prime location in a unique neighborhood, it also, like the Plaza, the Chelsea, and the Algonquin, occupied a soft spot in the hard hearts of countless New Yorkers—much the way Angelenos get all warm and fuzzy about the Chateau Marmont. Nonetheless, by millennium's turn, the much loved New York City institution had clearly fallen on hard times.
Though there were those who still found its raggedy charm alluring, in truth you had to be a die-hard fan to remain loyal to the hotel that had devolved so dramatically since its glory days—when an 11-year-old John F. Kennedy and his family lived on the second floor for several months; when Humphrey Bogart chose the hotel as the location for his wedding to Broadway actress Helen Menken; when long-term residents ranged from S. J. Perelman to Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. Though a small, never-say-die set remained true to the place—in recent years you could occasionally see, say, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, filmmaker Gus Van Sant, and a fair number of French fashion magazine editors in town for the New York Collections in the lobby—with time and neglect, the hotel had become exponentially more shabby than chic. Layers of New York City's famous grime seemed to cover virtually every surface, from the frayed curtains and beyond-repair plaster walls and ceilings to the ravaged carpeting and the tiny bathrooms most would have preferred not to take a bath in. Adding insult to insult, clumsy window air conditioners alternated between blasting arctic and stale air.
In short, the hotel was overdue for a massive renovation. And with the current building boom in Manhattan being what it is—frantic, no site or property too small, awkward, or expensive to be overlooked—the owner, Steven Greenberg (who, in 2002, purchased the hotel from the late Herbert Weissberg, who had owned it for 50 years), had many suitors for the down-at-the-heels old dowager. In 2003, the bidding was won by Schrager and his simpatico partner, German-born developer and art collector Aby Rosen.
The Gramercy is the first entry in a portfolio they are putting together for the new Ian Schrager Company, which will feature apartment buildings in addition to hotels. "I'm very interested in residential work. I like building—I'm a builder," says Schrager, who incorporated 23 cooperative apartments into the 1930 wing of the hotel, directly overlooking Gramercy Park. The apartments were designed by architect John Pawson, and set a new New York record by selling for, give or take, $3,000 per square foot. Chanel kingpin Karl Lagerfeld bought one early. "Only two are left," Schrager says. "One is $16 million, one is $10 million."