“Don’t you like positive thinking?” Heiko Kuenstle, general manager of New York City’s landmark Pierre hotel, says when I ask if he’s worried that it is about to reopen—after a four-year, $100 million renovation—in a climate of economic uncertainty. “I do believe we were lucky to be out of commission during the worst of the downturn. And I believe that because of our history, reputation, location, and exceptional service, we have a great opportunity.” If, as financial gurus say, investments in hard times pay off in better ones, then India-based Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, which took over the Pierre and launched its makeover in 2005, is poised to profit in spades.
The Pierre-by-Taj refreshes the luxury and exclusivity that have long defined the hotel. From that unparalleled location—at the southeast corner of Central Park—to a reputation for quality and discretion that has attracted and coddled guests of wealth and taste from Britain’s Prince Philip to the Rolling Stones, the Pierre has always been one of New York’s top-tier hotels. But even the top tier has its ups and downs. “It had taken a beating,” says Kuenstle, who’d worked there early in his career and returned to run it for Taj. “It looked tired.” The Pierre looks tired no longer.
The new Pierre—lighter, more contemporary, but still an assured grande dame—was unveiled in stages while the building, which also houses 74 privately owned apartments, continued to operate, its white-gloved elevator attendants always on duty, its housekeeping staff busy. First, Taj hired designer Alexandra Champalimaud to refresh the Grand Ballroom and the Cotillion Room. She brought in Portuguese artisans to restore hand-painted relief ceilings. Then, every room and suite was redesigned by James Park Associates of Singapore. They now hint at Taj’s ownership with Indian-made window treatments and handwoven carpets and South Asian art chosen by a Mumbai gallerist. The Pierre has also installed state-of-the-art electronic systems in every room, and bathrooms have been enlarged and equipped with wall-to-wall marble, deep tubs, and glass showers with rain heads.
The lobby, too, has been subtly improved. Structural columns were removed from the previously forlorn Fifth Avenue entrance, and the main 61st Street entry was enlarged. Corridors between the two were made fluid, the marble skirting and checkerboard floor expanded with new matched stone, and some hidden office space—with original Greek-style pillars and molding intact—has been turned into Two E, a new lobby lounge designed by Champalimaud. In September the first foreign branch of London’s in-crowd restaurant, Le Caprice, will open in the space once occupied by the Café Pierre. “It was a perfect match,” says Des McDonald, Caprice Holdings’ CEO. Both the Pierre and Le Caprice are “about real value,” he continues. “Gimmicks mean nothing now. You just have to look after people.”