First Look: The New Renwick Hotel is Bringing Artistry Back to Midtown New York
Creatives have long since fled Midtown Manhattan, now a sanitized sea of corporate high-rises and big-name businesses, for New York's grittier downtown neighborhoods and outer boroughs. But it wasn’t always this way: in a quaint brick building on East 40th Street, luminaries like John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann, and F. Scott Fitzgerald lived and created, producing some of their most inspired work just steps from Grand Central Terminal.
This week, that building reopens as The Renwick, a 173-room hotel whose interiors draw on its own rich history. New York-based architecture and interior design firm Stonehill & Taylor (you kight know their work from the Refinery Hotel, the Ace, and the Paramount’s Diamond Horseshoe) was tapped to envision the interiors. The result? A whimsical world of art that pays homage to past residents and the building’s former life as a studio space. “We wanted each object to channel more of an artist’s residence than a hotel,” says Mike Suomi, the firm’s Principal and VP of Design. “Everything harkens back to the era of what was going on in the art world at that time, which was emerging modernism. We wanted to recall the artistry of the 1920s, but filter it through a modern lens.”
Thanks to the firm’s keen artistic eye and commissioned local artists, every turn at The Renwick reveals details that both delight and engage. Onward, for the most inspiring elements.
The hotel takes its name from American architect James Renwick Jr., the man behind New York’s venerable St. Patrick’s Cathedral (another Midtown landmark), whose eclectic, versatile style—tasteful yet progressive for his time—encapsulates the hotel’s own mission. The wooden backdrop behind the lobby’s reception desk, lifted from the original 1928 building’s dismantled water tower, is its own piece of New York history.
“Our design process focused on the exploration of line, as artists did during that time,” says Suomi of the years the hotel acted as an artist’s residence. “The 1920s was an era of sculpture and modernism, the emergence of Italian futurism and Constructivism, and the notion of acceleration imagined through different shapes and forms. The lobby’s wraparound staircase is one example of how we tried to emulate this idea.”
The hotel commissioned rising artist and “doodler” Gregory Siff, who splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, to paint a mural (seen at left) in the lobby. Known for his unique, graffiti-like style that blurs the lines between Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Street Art, Siff’s work at the Renwick is, at once, emotional, immediate, and personal—a nod to the creative and conceptual thoughts of an artist at work.
Left: Illuminated light boxes serve as room numbers. Right: Tiled ceilings in guestroom bathrooms, an homage to Swiss painter Paul Klee and to 1920s Art Deco geometric motifs, are juxtaposed against modern backlit mirrors.
Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Mann were among a group of artists that were emerging during the '20s; all would eventually become world-famous. “We looked for artists we think will echo that path,” says Suomi. Ben Cowan, Jeff Koons’ former assistant, hand-painted the colorful stools and the distinctive city skylines on window drapery found in each room. Susan Graham, a friend of hotel developer Andrew Zobler, designed the wire birds hanging above the desks, each depicted in varying stages of flight. “You won’t see framed art anywhere here,” says Sherry Dennis, the firm's Interiors Senior Associate. “Every piece is functional.”
Look closely: the poor artist narrative can even be found in often overlooked details, from the inexpensive, industrial-style doors for each room, the hallway lighting that recalls city streets—as if illuminating individual apartments—and in rooms' exposed conduits. “Painting them in a bold color was very deliberate,” says Suomi. “It’s a nod back to origins of the building.”
Three suite categories follow certain themes—Inspiration Suites, Creator Suites, and Author Suites (which might be our favorite). In the Fitzgerald, you’ll find elements of the Jazz Age author's (and Gin Rickey lover’s) personal style and persona: a clutch of cocktail stirrer spoons on the wall; an old typewriter; even a volume of his Flappers and Philosophers short story collection, the pages splayed out and carved in the shape of “Cheers”—appropriate, considering Fitzgerald was the first man to conjugate the word “cocktail” as a verb.
Thomas Mann, another Author Suite, makes strong connections to the writer's classic (and arguably most noteworthy) 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. Here, chevron wallpaper and even cone-shaped paperweights reference that mountain theme. After pulling up old carpeting, the architects discovered—and restored—this room’s original hardwood floors.
From one space to the next, thoughtful details are everywhere: you might find hanging shadow boxes (inspired by American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell), patterned carpets that simulate paint-splattered concrete, even deconstructed Calder mobile lamps, poseable wooden manikins, and poignant quotes stamped into desk covers and across stark-white walls—visable reminders that inspiration lives on within these floors.