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St. Regis, New York's Makeover

A couple of weeks later, O'Neill met again with the designers to see how they were advancing. "In conversations with Barry, you pick up clues," she says. "So if before a presentation I see something I know he hates, I let the designers know." (Remember the monkeys.) "I tell them, 'You leave it in or you take it out, it's up to you, but I see a red flag here.' On the other hand, sometimes I'll say, 'Punch up that blue,' especially if it's for a resort. Barry loves blue for a resort."

During their White Plains immersion, Sills and Huniford had evidently paid attention: O'Neill liked their early concept boards, especially the one illustrating how windows would be handled. It recommended sending heavy existing pelmets to the Dumpster and tucking curtains directly under the rooms' egg-and-dart molding, a change that promised to let in more daylight and to dramatize the 11 1/2 -foot ceilings. The curtains were also pulled crisply back to expose the lyrical Art Nouveau ironwork on the other side of handsome casement windows.

At Sills and Huniford's show-and-tell, Sternlicht did most of the talking for Starwood, "asking questions and looking for signs that they'd be aggressive and proactive with sourcing," recalls O'Neill. "I always tell designers to bring a lot of stuff—swatches, 'hardscape' materials like stone and tile—because Barry likes to play. Aparia Design, which last year won the bid for the Centre for Well-Being at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, hacked off a piece of Camelback Mountain just so they could show us their color inspiration. That's the kind of thing we love."

It would be more exciting to be able to report that the race for the St. Regis was won by a thread, but that was not the case; Sills and Huniford's renderings simply blew Siegel's away. Contracts were signed, though Sternlicht says he would have broken them if he had not been happy after the model room went up. In the event, he was ecstatic. "I wanted the room to read as rich and expensive, and it did."

Sills says the old style Zeuses who famously set up housekeeping in New York hotels, including Cole Porter at the rival Waldorf Astoria, were always in the back of his mind when he was working on the St. Regis, giving him something to live up to. Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl), the steel magnolia credited with inventing the métier of interior designer, was handed a St. Regis apartment in the thirties for a derisory rate in exchange for her furnishing it (with ravishing antiques and objets de virtus that dealers loaned her and she sold on commission), entertaining her well-connected friends in it, and making sure she and her lair were photographed. Everybody got their money's worth when de Wolfe's living room—lavished with the fern pattern that was her trademark—landed on the cover of House & Garden in 1941.

"If Elsie was feeling restless and moved to another suite," Jane S. Smith wrote in her biography of de Wolfe, "that was quite all right with the management, since they would raise the rents on the rooms she had vacated, knowing they could command a premium for anything decorated by the Lady Mendl."

The extravagantly chic Babe Paley was so in love with the fantasy sitting room Billy Baldwin spun for her at the St. Regis in the fifties that she hired Sister Parish and Albert Hadley to re-create it when she moved uptown. What becomes a legend most?Tented walls, a needlepoint carpet stitched with blackamoor heads, and a 19th-century Venetian chandelier incorporating a chinoiserie clock.

A swooning press account remembers the suite Cecil Beaton confected in 1967 for its "light biscuit walls....Tangerine velvet draperies and specially woven Axminster sulphur yellow carpeting...of course, his own paintings on the walls, [and] jars of laurel leaves at the windows." Heady stuff. After noting that all of the hotel furniture had been upholstered in white, the writer concluded with a reproving flourish that must have elicited a laugh from Beaton, "[This] suite is not for small children!"

Three years later, David Hicks stole Beaton's thunder with an apartment he zapped with modern chromed aluminum bookshelves, bleached antelope skulls on Perspex pedestals, a mica coffee table, and a baldachin bed in one of his trademark geo-florals. The bathroom was a blizzard of interlocking H's: Logo sheets Hicks was then designing for J.P. Stevens were used for the shower curtain, wall covering, vanity skirt, folding screen, and more.

Like Beaton's suite, Hicks's was put into the inventory of accommodations to let when he was not in residence, an arrangement that ended in tears when one day at check-in he was told that Liza Minnelli was in his room, and would he mind taking another?You bet he would. Hicks, who had a monstrously high opinion of himself and was nothing if not grand (his widow is the queen's cousin), turned promptly on the balls of his well-shod feet, marched out of the hotel, and never returned.

Unfortunately, Hicks and even full-timers like the Paleys were never invited to purchase their St. Regis digs, a policy Starwood has rethought: For the first time, you can actually own a piece of the hotel, in the form of a condo. Sills and Huniford are sweetening the deal by investing many of the units with the same courtly mien as the guest rooms.

But how to explain the rooms' new paisley carpets?Paisley is another Sternlicht bugaboo. There are three possible scenarios. One is that Sills and Huniford are trying to put one over on Sternlicht (unlikely). The second is that he is so enchanted with their work he is even willing to accept a motif he normally finds indigestible (doubtful). The last is that the paisley is so small and out of focus, Sternlicht never noticed it.

St. Regis Hotel, 2 E. 55th St., New York; 800/759-7550 or 212/753-4500; www.stregis.com; doubles from $745.

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