Historic Boutique Hotels
Published: April 2009
By David A. Keeps
With boutique hotels at risk of becoming simultaneously overdesigned and generic, a new generation
of hoteliers is opting for low-key, historical authenticity. <span class="author">David A. Keeps</span>
visits L.A.'s Sunset Tower Hotel
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is trying to grow up, and historical references—architectural and decorative—serve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
"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.
He found what he was looking for in West Hollywood's aging Argyle Hotel. Although the property's
over-the-top Deco-revival aesthetic was woefully outdated, Klein appreciated its iconic architecture
and movie-colony mythology. In its heyday as the Sunset Tower, an apartment building with
hotel services, it had been home to celebrity tenants including John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe,
and Frank Sinatra. It was referenced in the 1975 film version of Raymond Chandler's Farewell,
My Lovely, and was reportedly much favored by Howard Hughes. "Hughes lived in the penthouse
for a time, and it was rumored that he owned about thirty apartments in the building, where
he kept his mistresses," Klein says.
Fast-forward to the early eighties: the derelict building was slated for demolition, but was saved by the St. James Club, which poured $46 million into extensively redoing the place, furnishing it in pricey reproduction Deco (and not-so-Deco) pieces and a riot of patterned fabrics that obscured the architectural details of the rooms. It was "Joan Collins Dynasty-era Art Deco," says Paul Fortune, the hotel's current creative director. The new St. James was launched with great fanfare, but by 1994 it had been sold again, to an Asian investor, who gave it a new name, the Argyle, and not much else.
As for its present incarnation, Klein has spent $40 million acquiring and rehabilitating
the Argyle, even restoring its original name: Sunset Tower. Despite its down-at-the-heels
condition, it had, as they say in the trade, good bones.
It is hardly surprising that Klein chose to use a classic building in Los Angeles to put
his personal imprint upon the swath cut by André Balazs (Chateau Marmont) and by Pomeranc.
"After New York, Miami, and even Chicago, Los Angeles has some of the greatest examples of
Art Deco in the United States," says Arnold Schwartzman, author of Deco Landmarks:
Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles. The Sunset Tower, he adds, is one of the city's largest
residential Art Deco buildings, distinguished by continuous columns of windows stretching
the height of the building, and by its somewhat surreal exterior of cast-concrete horizontal
friezes depicting "ﬂora, fauna, and airplanes and zeppelins flying over what appear
to be pagodas."
Gazing up, down, and out through thin floor-to-ceiling casements more than twice his six-foot-plus
height, Klein says, "This is really the reason why I bought this building. You cannot build
one like this anymore."
You cannot, apparently, rebuild one anymore, either. Because the Argyle was listed in the
National Register of Historic Places and by the Historic Preservation Commission of West
Hollywood, any changes made to its exterior had to be vetted, even the paint color, which
Fortune is petitioning to be Navajo white. Although preservationists could not control the
direction the hotel interiors might take, Deco purists were initially concerned—even
when Klein liquidated the lackluster fittings, which subsequently showed up on collector Web
sites at vastly inflated prices. "The truth is," Klein says, "it was Hollywood-set Deco with
weird, elaborate ten-foot-high urns, which I couldn't find in any book."
Klein wanted the interiors of the Sunset Tower to reflect the building's architecture and
glamour without being a slave to it, which is where Fortune came in. It was Fortune's first
hotel commission: Klein chose the man who had designed the former trend-resistant L.A. nightspot
Les Deux Cafés for his distinct sensibility. Fortune's vision, "to restore the hotel
to what it should be but never was," took five minutes to explain and two years to execute.
Designer Marc Yeber, one of the members of the preservation commission in West Hollywood,
believes that the new public spaces refer to the past rather than re-create it. "You have
to treat historic hotels like living, breathing entities," he says. "If you don't allow them
to evolve, then they fall out of favor and their very existence becomes endangered."
From the intimate lobby to the sleek limestone entry ﬂanked by display cases ﬁlled
with Marc Jacobs bags, Fortune has created a low-key salon atmosphere. "It's turn-of-the-century,"
he explains, "but which century?There's a little Wiener Werkstätte, a little early Modernist,
with a nod to the more classic mid century."
Fortune's rooms have a relaxed, tawny palette. His brass-trimmed walnut furniture is a more substantial version of populist designer Paul McCobb's 1950's collections for Calvin; his upholstered pieces make use of decorator silks and velvets; there are curtains that can be drawn to conceal wall-mounted plasma TV's.
Klein learned his trade under Bernard Goldberg, a pioneer of the boutique hotel industry,
whose New York properties included the Shoreham and Roger Williams. When Klein was a child
he was "freakishly obsessed" with hotels, and after graduating from college he wangled an
interview with Goldberg. "I told him I would run his business for him, and he showed me the
door," Klein recalls. "I was so upset I went right over to one of his hotels and became the
only bellhop in New York who wasn't an actor." He worked his way up, becoming a front-desk
clerk and then manager of housekeeping ("probably the most important job in any hotel"), and
finally fulfilled his bold promise to Goldberg by working with him in the creation of a little
Klein has discovered that the Sunset Tower will require all of his prior hotel expertise
and more. Its location and views are enviable, but unlike many nearby hotels, it has no appreciable
grounds. The terraced pool area, which overlooks a steep downhill slope, is being reconfigured
this winter. Piero Morovich, the chef at hot spot Ammo, has been brought in to create a menu
for the restaurant. At night, the lobby lounge softly swings to Page Cavenaugh's live piano
music or Sinatra recordings from the forties and fifties.
When all is said and done, Klein is attempting to deliver a level of service and ambience
that is distinctive yet dignified. His reference points come from a bygone era of travel exemplified
by white-glove service, stickers on steamer trunks, and early-20th-century men's clubs with
accommodations available to privileged guests. In a city deﬁned by presumptuousness,
Klein hopes the Sunset Tower will succeed as a retreat from red carpets and velvet ropes—neither
a Hilton, nor a place where you might encounter one.
David A. Keeps is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel
1117 Prairie St., Houston; 877/348-8800 or 832/200-8800; www.aldenhotels.com; doubles from
7000 Hollywood Blvd.; 800/950-7667 or 323/466-7000; www.hollywoodroosevelt.com; doubles from
Sunset Tower Hotel
8358 Sunset Blvd.; 800/225-2637 or 323/654-7100; www.sunsettowerhotel.com; doubles from $269.