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Design Revolution in New York City's Chelsea

Guest rooms at the Hotel Americano (left and right), in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Photo: Emiliano Granado

The Hotel Americano, the first U.S. outpost of the splashy Mexican hotel chain Grupo Habita, recently materialized on Manhattan’s West 27th Street. It’s situated between 10th and 11th Avenues, at the northern frontier of the Chelsea art district, in the middle of a block best known for its cacophonous, warehouse-scale nightclubs. Why, you might wonder, would anyone want to build a hotel here? But the unpromising appearance of the location is part of the allure. “It’s gritty,” says owner Carlos Couturier, “and I like that grittiness. It feels like what the Meatpacking District was ten years ago. Very authentic.”

Yes, Way-West-27th is authentic—some of the nearest residents are in a cluster of city-owned housing projects—but here, as elsewhere in Manhattan, grit is an endangered species. Just down the block from the hotel is the biggest driver of neighborhood transformation since Vaux and Olmsted put the final touches on Central Park 138 years ago. The first section of the High Line—a boldly designed and landscaped strip of public space atop an abandoned elevated freight railway—opened to endless acclaim in 2009; it now draws 2 million visitors a year. The second section, running between 20th and 30th streets and dotted with newly planted magnolia trees and pussy willows, is set to open this summer, around the same time as the Americano.

All you have to do is look at the buildings that have sprung up along the High Line to understand that Couturier’s hotel, a minimalist slab designed by Mexican architect Enrique Norten, is in precisely the right spot. On nearby blocks you’ll find HL23, an angular 14-story condo tower shoehorned into an impossibly small lot, which muscles its way into the airspace over the High Line; and 245 10th Avenue, a shiny heap of stainless steel that wraps around a gas station at the corner of 24th Street. At the southern end of the High Line, a new Renzo Piano–designed branch of the Whitney Museum is under construction. (The 200,000-square-foot space is scheduled to open in 2015.)

“There’s a spot around 17th Street where you can stand and see buildings by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Shigeru Ban,” says Robert Hammond, the cofounder and executive director of Friends of the High Line, the grassroots organization that saved the railway from demolition. Actually, what you see is 21st-century Manhattan coming into focus—an intriguing mixture of old and new.

Perhaps the most impressive piece of Old New York visible from the High Line is the 1932 Starrett-Lehigh Building, on West 26th Street, a 2.3-million-square-foot behemoth renowned for its windows, eight miles of them, running like ribbons around its perimeter. Originally designed for industrial use—it has elevators massive enough to carry trucks—the building is now occupied by media, fashion, and design companies, including Martha Stewart, Hugo Boss, and Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the design firm that helped transform the High Line into a park. Couturier is betting that the Starrett-Lehigh crowd will embrace the Americano as its clubhouse, which naturally will make the hotel a mecca for designers everywhere.

From the High Line you catch glimpses of the steel mesh that covers the Hotel Americano’s façade, turning transparent or opaque depending on the angle of the sun. Behind the scrim you’ll find a hive of activity, overflowing with Couturier’s ideas about America, New York, and the nature of hotels.

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