America's classic hotels are more aware of this than ever: they are polishing themselves up, making themselves over, and generally searching their souls as never before. It's a matter of survival. A "freshening up" is hardly noticed anymore, not when boutique hotels are spreading the gospel according to Miuccia, Tom, and Karl. Nor is reputation enough to compete with lily-filled lobbies and marble bathrooms and "My pleasure, sir" service from global webs of branded comfort like Four Seasons. Striking the pose of a grande dame can carry a hotel for only so long. Anybody who has spent time with real grandes dames knows that the Auntie Mames are few and far between. That charming old bouclé suit sometimes just belies dirty fingernails and an arrogant streak.
With the debut of every smooth new competitor, the old buildings' problems grew more apparent. They were not so comfortable, with rooms that were all different, bathrooms that were too small, and "the perception that they represent an inability to satisfy contemporary needs," says Brian Richardson, vice president of brand marketing and communications at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Service was starting to feel stale, too; good old-fashioned obsequiousness had become either comical or deadly. "Guests had much different expectations not so long ago," says Peter French, managing director of Manhattan's Carlyle hotel. "There would be silver chafing dishes and a waiter hovering over a room service breakfast. People won't tolerate that level of intrusion now."
Europeans have been confronting their own legacy of grandeur for years, and adapting it quite naturally. Even the most moribund of the great hotels of Paris have reinvented themselves in recent years; the Plaza Athénée and the Meurice, to name just two, have found fresh, stylish voices without even changing their names. In London, Claridge's has a whole new feeling, with its shimmering Art Deco bar and Dale Chihuly chandeliers, yet it is still unmistakably Claridge's.
So now it is our turn. Every classic hotel holds certain high cards: sentiment, location, a name that confers instant status, a staff that has seen it all. And there is a new card that trumps any hand: they are unique. They are today's true boutique hotels. Just look around and see what they're doing with that extraordinary realization. From the Willard in Washington, D.C., to the Driskill in Austin to the Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the classics are striking back.