Manhattan restaurateur Stephen Hanson is shaking up the hipper-than-thou hotel status quo. His first resort, the James, fuses style, affordability, and wit in an unlikely setting: downtown Scottsdale, Arizona.
It's Saturday night at the lobby bar of the James Hotel, and two clean-cut, square-jawed guys in plaid shirts are hoisting bottles of Corona Extra as a supermodel-thin blonde poured into snakeskin trousers struts past, swinging a handbag made of white marabou feathers. Out on the terrace, the orange flames leaping inside a long, lean gas fireplace are reflected in the half-empty margarita glasses of a quartet of twentysomethings. Projected on the wall above the bar, a larger-than-life Sean Connery spars with Lotte Lenya in From Russia with Love. All heads turn as a strong, silent type wades through the throng on his way to Fiamma Trattoria, the buoyant glass-walled dining room. It's Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa, posse in tow.
Welcome to the new Scottsdale, no longer just a sunny retirement paradise where former CEO's practice their putting while the rich and ennuied hide out at deluxe desert spas. Now it's on the radar of the young and the carefree, thanks to restaurateur Stephen Hanson, whose first hotel ever, the 200-room James, is inarguably the sexiest resort in the American Southwest. It's also the first hotel project for designer Deborah Berke (creator of sleek outposts for Calvin Klein and Club Monaco) and Hanson's partner, Danny Errico, co-founder of Equinox health spas.
Unlike other architecture in Scottsdale that bends over backward to blend with the sandy-red landscape, the James is a full-frontal chromatic assault. Shocking-pink bougainvillea stretches up stucco walls that have been brashly painted red, blue, yellow, and purple in homage to the great 20th-century Mexican Modernist architect Luis Barragán. Young palms unfurl their stiff fronds poolside, shading high-backed teak daybeds shipped from Bali and cabanas where late-night revelers can order moonlight massages. In the rooms, mood lighting is available at the push of a button.
Face it: if Paris Hilton didn't think Scottsdale was happening, would she be cozying up with Nick Carter in the lobby of the James?
Formerly of Seventh Avenue, TGI Friday's (he was maître d' at the original location), and his own Westchester County nightclub, Stephen Hanson made his foray into New York City's formidable restaurant world with Coconut Grill in 1987. He relied on a formula of style-smart, cost-conscious populism to reel in the crowds, and his cheekily named company, B. R. Guest, eventually grew to include 13restaurants in Manhattan, from Ruby Foo's and Dos Caminos to Blue Fin at the W Times Square, and one in Las Vegas, the first Fiamma Trattoria.
Hanson has built his hotel on those same foundations. In Scottsdale, doubles at resorts usually start at about $450 in high season; a room with a balcony at the James rings in at $200 (half that in low season). Even more surprising, room-service menu prices are the same as the restaurant's. It's a glam place for budget-conscious young professionals who are, Hanson says, "busting their butts, moving up the ladder, working ten hours a day, and who want a great hotel with a hot bar and an awesome restaurant where they're treated like somebody." Hyperbole?Perhaps, but the team spent a little less than $30 million ("That's considered minor in the business," Hanson says) with enviable style and panache. "What America is missing," Hanson says, are urbane hotels that have "a New York vibe without being arrogant, that are cool but not so cool you feel out of place, that are youthful without being young." Even the name, James—as in Bond, as in Dean—is an iconic wink to which everyone can relate.
There's no better town in which to launch this revolutionary concept than Scottsdale, the tourism capital of Arizona, where almost every major player in the hotel industry already has a stake. If this outpost proves successful, more than a dozen Jameses are expected to be on the map in five years, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami. General manager Todd Iacono explains the reasoning over lunch at Fiamma Trattoria: "We can learn the trade here and develop the brand." Not to mention attract a clientele that Hanson believes his competitors have overlooked.
In the past, venerable resorts such as the Arizona Biltmore and the Phoenician and spas like the Golden Door avoided the style-free heart of Scottsdale—with its B-grade boutiques and hokey theme restaurants—in favor of the scrubby yet majestic hills on the outskirts of town. But Hanson knows that heat seekers often like their hot spots mixed with down-home familiarity, especially when there's a bit of unexpected grit in the setting. Housed in a seven-building complex that sprawls across seven acres between tourist-trap Old Town (kachina dolls, Western wear, faux saloons) and squeaky-clean Civic Center Mall (a retro seventies-era park anchored by a Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture), the James is an idiosyncratic sight, a peacock preening amid prairie chickens.
As far as some locals are concerned, it's about time downtown Scottsdale, which once called itself the West's Most Western Town, shed its Gunsmoke reputation and got with a more cosmopolitan program. "There aren't any stagecoaches here, and if you want to see real desert, you have to drive almost an hour to get there," says John A. Reyes, sales manager of Bentley Galleries, where paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, John Alexander, and Jim Dine are snapped up by well-heeled corporate types new to town, with money to burn and cavernoushouses to decorate. "If you're young in Scottsdale, you don't want to feel like a Maserati on blocks. You want a cool place to go."
Architect Deborah Berke, in charge of the James's colorful good looks, approached the project as a personal challenge. The property, built in the seventies as a DoubleTree Inn, was, in its most recent incarnation, a dispirited conference center. "The buildings were pure Taco Bell stucco but had the kind of potential you don't often see in third-rate architecture," says Berke, who was game to take on an economical redo. "It was an opportunity waiting to be exploited." The structures were bland yet monumental, with decent-sized rooms and relatively spacious balconies. Better yet, they were arranged around an area big enough to accommodate tropical gardens, a spa and exercise center, and a 115-foot-long pool. Any other urban hotel would kill for those kinds of amenities.
"Accessibility is key," says Hanson, who tends to proselytize, with utmost sincerity, about his lousy experiences as a guest in hotels that cross the fine line between exclusive and exclusionary. He believes it's time to shake up the status quo; that includes putting hotel services back under a single individual's oversight rather than outsourcing the restaurant to one impresario du jour and the bar to another. "The buck stops here," he says. "I control how everything runs. It should be a seamless experience." And brace yourself: he wants to let the masses in on the fun. Don't look at it as dumbing down; instead, it's thinking smart.
For her part, Berke turned her back on a tried-and-true formula, that a lobby is solely for seeing and being seen. "Lord, my father worked in hotels," the architect says. "So I know what kind of wasted space that is." She gutted the main building and reconfigured it into a series of spaces that unfold with origami-like precision, each feeding into the next, angles transforming into curves, passages fragmenting into staircases, solid walls into sheets of glass. It's an organic progression that she calls "one of the big ideas here: style and sexiness moving forward, instead of the old glamour of sitting in a lobby and looking chic." You go up a flight of stairs to the glass-walled entrance, past a bubbling fountain, through sitting areas where you can tap away on your wireless laptop (the whole compound is equipped with Wi-Fi), past the J-Bar, then down broad, shallow steps to Fiamma Trattoria. A curved dining terrace shaded by a swooping steel-and-acrylic awning swans into Civic Center Mall, Scottsdale's Piazza San Marco, a place of public gatherings and outdoor concerts, populated by lively children and local flaneurs.
In contrast to the high-energy public spaces, the bedrooms are sensual and serene, what Berke calls "places for great sex." Stephen Brockman, one of the associates in her office, pulled together interiors that vaguely recall the sixties without falling into the trap of retro indulgence. The décor is a collage of strong details, quietly stated: a combed plaster wall, a minimalist desk of steel and wood, carpeting carved in a wood-grain pattern, a sleek platform bed with soft backlighting. Some doors stretch to the ceiling, giving the boxy rooms—largely unaltered from their original dimensions—a generous sense of scale. The walls are bare; photographs and paintings have been banned. "Most hotel-room art is throwaway," Berke says, "so why even try?" Strategic shots of color, however, more than compensate: a splash of chartreuse here, a hot-pink lacquer wall there, polychrome mosaic tiles in the showers.
Beyond the surface delights, Hanson has equipped the James with roguish accents that lend the rooms a sort of Rat Pack cool. Flirty, bum-skimming striped cotton bathrobes hang in the closets, martini glasses are at the ready, and every room has at least one 42-inch plasma screen and a CD player. Ice buckets are etched with the word chill; the main pool is winsomely referred to as the Play Pool. At times, this studied frivolity can become wearying—there's something frat-house comical in racy bedroom freebies like discreetly packaged condoms and wall-sized magnetic message boards stocked with wink-wink words. But, as Hanson says, "That's the punch line: Did I have fun here?" Which might explain why the James intends to show pay-per-view XXX-rated movies in the near future—straight and gay, Hanson adds, in an effort to be scrupulously fair. It's another departure from the hotel-industry norm that is sure to get as much flack as praise.
Most important, the James doesn't take itself too seriously. At the J-Bar in the lobby of the main building, the staff beams all-American smiles, and drink orders are met with a hearty "Yes, sir!" The latest house music is piped in at easy-listening decibels, and deep, inviting chairs are pulled so convivially close to one another that you can't help but be part of an extended group of celebrants. Imagine an intimate club, only with better lighting and cheery service that doesn't get ruffled even when a tray of dishes goes crashing to the floor. When that happened one busy Saturday night at Fiamma Trattoria, Hanson was quick to see whether the waiter was okay; he then advised a colleague to tell the young man to slow down and relax. "No matter how fast the orders are coming, it's not a race," he said in a tone of paternal common sense that belied all the stories you hear about hot-tempered restaurateurs and browbeaten waitstaff. "Everybody makes mistakes," Hanson added later. "He's a good kid, and he's learning. Hey, we all are."
Hanson himself certainly seems to have been a quick student. "At the end of the day, are the other rooms in town a little bigger?" he says. "Possibly. But I have a swimming pool that kicks anybody's ass. I want people to say, 'Why am I wasting six hundred dollars a night when I can stay in a hotel that's ten times cooler for much less?'"
James Hotel, 7353 E. Indian School Rd., Scottsdale; 866/505-2637 or 480/308-1100; www.jameshotels.com; doubles from $100.
MITCHELL OWENS writes for the New York Times and Elle Decor.