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Historic Boutique Hotels

Catherine Ledner The recently renovated Sunset Tower, an Art Deco landmark, in Los Angeles.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

From a distance, the photos that hang on the walnut-paneled walls of the lobby bar and restaurant in the Sunset Tower Hotel appear to be autographed 8 x 10's of movie stars. Sepia-colored with age, they feature handsome men and fabulous women, exactly the kinds of guests who might have haunted the halls of this 1929 West Hollywood Art Deco landmark. Look a little closer, however, and you'll see that the people in the photos aren't celebrities at all, actually, they're so-called Hollywood Hopefuls, the ones who never really made it. The display is meant ironically, of course—an acknowledgement of fame's fleeting nature—and also encapsulates the hotel's embrace of history, at least as a design element.

The man behind this self-conscious attempt to conjure the past is Jeff Klein, an independent hotelier from New York (where he owns the City Club) who, along with a few others, has started a revolution in thinking about the future of the boutique hotel. "I loathe the concept of boutique hotels," he says. "I want to create places for people who want something more sophisticated than a nightclub in the lobby. I'm not interested in hotels as theater." The boutique hotel is trying to grow up, and historical references—architectural and decorative—serve as a convenient shorthand for maturity, and a mark of glamour.

"As the boutique hotel industry explores the creative reuse of historic buildings, the interiors are moving away from the ultramodern look of Philippe Starck and Ian Schrager collaborations," says Brooke Hodge, curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "Relentless minimalism has lost its edge. Today, a traveler needs a place to work comfortably and get a good night's sleep." As a result, she says, "hotels are becoming domestic, and the more historic a property is, the better suited it is to become intimate and cozy."

The first wave of boutique hotels arrived in 1988 with eye-candy furniture and a contemporary dance-music sound track, the common hotel lobby recast as a swank setting for social intercourse. More recently, however, the boutique phenomenon began to lose its original luster, as the hospitality industry adopted a cosmetic approach to the concept. Major chains took on a "design matters" mandate. Starwood's W brand influenced the pricey redecoration of airport Sheratons by the ultrahip Kor Hotel Group. Even Vegas venues with 600 rooms now call themselves boutique hotels.

"So many people have jumped on the bandwagon of interesting décor, thinking it will solve their woes," says Tim Miller, the Ian Schrager protégé who just opened the 97-room Alden hotel in Houston. "But the essence of a great hotel is more about what you believe in than what your furniture looks like." Learning the trade at the height of the boutique era, Klein and Miller have embraced a new paradigm: playing down dramatic design and beefing up services and amenities, they have been transforming pedigreed properties into establishments they hope will stand the test of time rather than be flavor-of-the-month fashionable.

They've also found that a little bit of legend can go a long way. "You cannot duplicate the grandeur," Jason ­Pomeranc says, referring to his own latest venture, the Hollywood Roosevelt, which was home to the first Oscars ceremony back in 1929. Even so, "guests feel connected to the magic of a glamorous past. The trick is reinterpreting that history into something that works now."

Klein's first hotel was the City Club, where he renovated a 1904 Times Square building and created two-story suites that retained the hand-plastered ceiling of the structure's original ballroom. The interiors were by Jeffrey Bilhuber. Although it opened only months after the September 11 attacks, the City Club was soon able to charge room rates of $495 to $1,600 per night. A year later, Klein was in the market for a new property.


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