With his ambitious renovation and redesign of a New York City icon—the Gramercy Park Hotel—Ian Schrager hopes to reinvent the very idea of the dramatically grand urban hotel
Julian Broad The Jade Bar at thhe Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City.
| Credit: Julian Broad

Hip, hot, cool, cutting-edge are the sorts of overexcited words inevitably chosen to describe the 10 entries in the high-profile portfolio of high-profile hotels that high-profile hotelier Ian Schrager has built over the past 23 years. But with the reopening of the venerable Gramercy Park Hotel at 2 Lexington Avenue in New York, such breathless words no longer apply. This time around, words that better describe Schrager's $210 million renovation of the formerly 506-room hotel are different, the very antithesis of all that heart-racing hyperbole.

Evocative, eccentric, eclectic, personal are the words best suited to characterize the now 185-room hotel, which announces its departure from Schrager's familiar modern aesthetic at the street, where the hotelier played it polite, installing a new limestone façade at the building's two-story base. Indeed, in the scheme he opted for at the Gramercy, Schrager turns his back on virtually everything he has done to date. Good-bye, Philippe Starck, Schrager's designer of choice for eight of his 10 hotels. And good-bye to everything that ultraprolific Paris-based enfant terrible of design stands for—slick, tongue-in-cheek wit, irony, surrealism, whimsy, and jet-set modernism. Hello, Julian Schnabel, the artist and old friend Schrager entrusted to reinvent the Gramercy Park Hotel's brave new old-world aesthetic...meaning hello flamboyant gestures and grand allusions and chic sensuality; hello regal, overscale furniture and bronze fittings and lush carpets and massive fireplaces and enough red silk velvet to outfit a turn-of-the-20th-century bordello in Paris.

Standing in the lobby is an exhilarating experience, as you look around and try to get your bearings in the extravagant—in concept, execution, and detail—space that manages to evoke simultaneously Venice, Havana, Barcelona, London, and Paris, as well as Addison Mizner's Palm Beach, William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon, and several of the sets from Orson Welles's 1941 Citizen Kane, minus the lonely gloom. One of the most dazzling features of the downstairs public rooms is the monumentally scaled artwork (from the private collections of Schrager's close friends) by, among others, Cy Twombly, Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and, no surprise, Schnabel himself.

"It's not just a hotel, it's an experience we're selling here," says Schrager. "We wanted to capture the kind of spontaneity you find in an artist's studio or an artist's home...not a gallery, not a museum, but a kind of singular, eclectic vision.... Bohemian. Very bohemian. And edgy."

As for the particular school of "bohemian" and "edgy" Schrager opted for at the Gramercy Park Hotel, do not think "starving young artist in an East Village tenement." Think Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, at home in her art-filled Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. Schnabel's first act was to remove the low ceiling and create a double-height space for the lobby. "You walk in and you don't expect it," he says. "It's a nice scale—not gigantic, but the volume is right, and that feels good." Schnabel also laid down a black-and-white chessboard floor in the lobby, made from nine-by-nine-inch rough-concrete tiles from Morocco. (No Trump-style slippery-when-wet polished marble here.) The irregular, imperfect floors help create a highly textured envelope, one that clearly values the look and feel of patina, as opposed to the look and feel of brand-spanking-new.

Into this space, Schrager and Schnabel have inserted some dramatically refined elements, such as an enormous Venetian chandelier suspended above an elaborate cross-shaped Aubusson carpet that features the hotel logo, GPH, which Schnabel designed. Also by Schnabel is the slightly menacing sawtooth chandelier in the adjacent Rose Bar, an area he conceived of as a living room, at least until Schrager brought him up to speed on the kind of Day-of-the-Locust throngs he knew were on their hurried way.

The furniture and fittings of the lobby are a collection of pieces that Schrager's team assembled coupled with the Schnabel-designed contributions: two Giacometti-inspired bronze tables; bronze door handles, curtain rods, and finials; and a pair of monolithic, 10-foot-high, hand-carved stone fireplaces. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel or make any kind of statement," Schnabel says. "It's about having a place where everything is not generic. The more specific the better. The more personal it is, the more human it feels."

Schrager agrees: "The idea I had is—forget about doing something subversive to the status quo, forget about trying to do something hip or underground. There is no more underground. There is no more hip. It's impossible to do it because everything is instantly out there. I wanted to do something that was an alternative, something personal."

Quite aside from aesthetic considerations, Schrager—who recently sold the company he founded and built up for more than 20 years—has something to prove. "I wanted to set the record straight," he says. "I was looking to pull a rabbit out of a hat again." He would like, in other words, to be known as the man who reinvented the hotel not once, but twice. And he is determined to do it at the Gramercy Park Hotel.

It is clearly a new, more reverent day for Schrager, the man who, as the world knows, catapulted to overnight fame in 1977 with the decidedly irreverent Studio 54, the instantly infamous nightclub he created with his business partner, the late Steve Rubell. He went on to write his name large as the stop-the-presses hotelier who turned the hospitality industry on its ear in 1984 with Morgans on Madison Avenue, his first "boutique" hotel, designed by the Paris-based high priestess of 20th-century French modernism, Andrée Putman.

Schrager's idea?Tap forward-thinking designers to reimagine what a hotel might be—a place to dream for a night or reinvent yourself for a day and, of course, a place to see and be seen. Meaning that in addition to the invariably eye-opening design of the interiors, there is a kind of sparkly frisson in the air, an almost palpable buzz, as they say, at a Schrager hotel, where you can always amuse yourself by clocking celebrities: Jade Jagger in the restaurant; Donatella Versace in the lobby; Calvin Klein by the pool; David Geffen on the terrace; Kate Hudson at the bar.

But over the past decade, the notion of "high-design" hotels has become a given, if not a cliché. "People used to think that only people who wore black came to my hotels," Schrager says. "Then, suddenly, it's big business, and I'm getting credit because we changed the industry." With success came imitators: "Everybody's doing it now, not only a bunch of little boutique hotels, but the big hotels as well," he says.

It was time to turn the page, and in any event, the Gramercy Park Hotel presented a different mandate than Schrager's first 10 properties: Morgans, the Royalton, the Paramount, and the Hudson in New York; the Delano and Shore Club in Miami Beach; the Mondrian in Los Angeles; St. Martins Lane and the Sanderson in London; and the Clift in San Francisco. For perhaps the first time, Schrager had acquired a hotel that had the kind of history and provenance that he (rightfully) felt obliged to consider.

Built in two stages—the first completed in 1925 by architect Robert T. Lyons, the second in 1930 by architects Thompson & Churchill—the 18-story Renaissance Revival beige-and-butterscotch-brick pile runs in an L along the corner of Gramercy Park North and Lexington Avenue, an enviable location overlooking the only remaining private square in New York City, the seemingly enchanted Gramercy Park. But the hotel not only had a prime location in a unique neighborhood, it also, like the Plaza, the Chelsea, and the Algonquin, occupied a soft spot in the hard hearts of countless New Yorkers—much the way Angelenos get all warm and fuzzy about the Chateau Marmont. Nonetheless, by millennium's turn, the much loved New York City institution had clearly fallen on hard times.

Though there were those who still found its raggedy charm alluring, in truth you had to be a die-hard fan to remain loyal to the hotel that had devolved so dramatically since its glory days—when an 11-year-old John F. Kennedy and his family lived on the second floor for several months; when Humphrey Bogart chose the hotel as the location for his wedding to Broadway actress Helen Menken; when long-term residents ranged from S. J. Perelman to Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. Though a small, never-say-die set remained true to the place—in recent years you could occasionally see, say, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, filmmaker Gus Van Sant, and a fair number of French fashion magazine editors in town for the New York Collections in the lobby—with time and neglect, the hotel had become exponentially more shabby than chic. Layers of New York City's famous grime seemed to cover virtually every surface, from the frayed curtains and beyond-repair plaster walls and ceilings to the ravaged carpeting and the tiny bathrooms most would have preferred not to take a bath in. Adding insult to insult, clumsy window air conditioners alternated between blasting arctic and stale air.

In short, the hotel was overdue for a massive renovation. And with the current building boom in Manhattan being what it is—frantic, no site or property too small, awkward, or expensive to be overlooked—the owner, Steven Greenberg (who, in 2002, purchased the hotel from the late Herbert Weissberg, who had owned it for 50 years), had many suitors for the down-at-the-heels old dowager. In 2003, the bidding was won by Schrager and his simpatico partner, German-born developer and art collector Aby Rosen.

The Gramercy is the first entry in a portfolio they are putting together for the new Ian Schrager Company, which will feature apartment buildings in addition to hotels. "I'm very interested in residential work. I like building—I'm a builder," says Schrager, who incorporated 23 cooperative apartments into the 1930 wing of the hotel, directly overlooking Gramercy Park. The apartments were designed by architect John Pawson, and set a new New York record by selling for, give or take, $3,000 per square foot. Chanel kingpin Karl Lagerfeld bought one early. "Only two are left," Schrager says. "One is $16 million, one is $10 million."

Of his strategy for his new portfolio of some seven projects, Schrager says, "I have no strategy. But I am not looking to do the big company thing. I did the big company thing, and you know what?I didn't like it. In 1996 or '97, I sold 70 percent of my company, Morgans Hotel Group. I was an administrator for the past four or five years, and I was miserable. I thought, 'Life is too short, I'm not happy.' So, I got up and walked away with 30 percent" (which he recently sold). "There was no acrimony. I just didn't want to do it anymore."

Schrager knew from the start that collaborating with an artist was not going to be a streamlined process. "There were some dark periods," he says. "It was treacherous, the hardest job I've ever done." Schnabel adds: "It's a long friendship and it's a collaboration. Ultimately, we have different styles. Ian's a modernist at heart, and I'm an old-fashioned guy. But I think he tried to stay as true to my suggestions as he could." Schrager had a reassuring, can-do partner in the project—Anda Andrei, the Bucharest-born president of design for the Ian Schrager Company and a 22-year veteran of Schrager's office, who is all émigré allure on the outside, nerves of steel on the inside. "She is the person who makes everything happen," Schrager says. He also had Michael Overington, his head of development, who has been at the hotelier's side since 1977. "Michael makes the design happen from the practical and construction point of view," Schrager explains.

If Schrager was committed to his idea of an artist's space, undeterred by the prospect of a tug-of-war between himself and Schnabel, it was, perhaps, because he knows his way around artists. He has been working with them since 1984, when he commissioned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to provide the art for Morgans's guest rooms, large-scale black-and-white portraits of flowers signed by the late controversial artist. At the Palladium—a second nightclub he opened in 1985—he commissioned Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf, among others, to create large-scale installations that capitalized on 80's pop-culture's fascination with this small stable of high-flying young artists. For the "cheap chic" Paramount on West 46th Street in the Theater District, Schrager brazenly co-opted details from Vermeer's paintings for the 1990 hotel's oversize plush headboards, and at the Hudson on West 58th Street, completed in 2000, Schrager invited Francesco Clemente to design an otherworldly ceiling for the glass-floored bar and the shades for the swing-arm bedside lights in the 1,000 guest rooms.

Schrager's previous hotels could be counted on to remain up to the red-hot aesthetic minute, but at the Gramercy he conscientiously steps away from all things trendy. "I wanted to use a classic vocabulary, but mix it up," says Schrager. "The whole thing tiptoes right up to the edge of being retro and gaudy and too much, so it took some editing."

Given Schrager's agenda, his choice of Schnabel was inspired. For one thing, Schnabel's name is synonymous with a certain timeless grandeur. For another, unlike most painters and sculptors, his oeuvre is hardly limited to paintings and sculptures. Over the years, he has shown himself to be fearless, taking on a range of endeavors and projects with considerable panache. In addition to designing the spaces he lives and works in himself, which are heroic in scale and riveting in detail, he has directed films (Before Night Falls in 2000, Basquiat in 1996), created album covers (for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lou Reed), and designed lighting, carpets, and furniture, including a particularly imposing sleigh bed, which he makes for friends in either bronze or hot-rolled steel. (Schrager recently bought a bronze one for his rambling summer house overlooking the Atlantic in Southampton.)

"I have no ambitions of being an architect or an interior designer," Schnabel says. "Ian asked me to come over and look at the hotel. So, basically, I said I'd take out the ceiling in the lobby. I gave him a few other suggestions. I did as much as I could to help him out." And then Schnabel planned to walk away, leaving Schrager to build his hotel. But Schrager persisted in his idea of having Schnabel be hands-on, a true collaborator.

If working with his old friend Schrager struck Schnabel as an appealing proposition, also appealing was the hotel and its environs. "Gramercy Park is a wonderful address. But the place had been run-down for years. I'd stayed there before, and it wasn't fun," Schnabel says. "When I first walked into the rooms, I had no interest in decorating them. But then I started thinking how to redirect the space. I thought it should be like going to some crazy rich person's house and staying in the attic." It is a seductive idea, certainly, but one difficult to translate into bed-and-bath and high-speed Internet-access reality.

So what, to Schnabel's mind, did Schrager want?"What he tried to do was make a place that kind of looked like my house, and I just told him what I would do, and then he sort of did what he wanted... Ultimately, Ian is the author."

According to the hotelier, the 185 guest rooms proved especially challenging. "We must have looked at fifty side tables, fifty chairs, fifty lamps, fifty drinks cabinets," recalls Schrager, who is famous for complicating the process and threatening the schedule by bringing in, at various stages, what he calls his brain trust, a group of loyal friends—from fashion designer Norma Kamali to celebrity floral designer-cum-party planner Robert Isabell—to whom he perennially looks for opinions, ideas, and reactions, which he uses to help inform his final "edit."

Asked to describe the school of interior design to which he subscribes, Schnabel says, "I don't have a school. I'm out of school. It's more like the Miss Havisham School of Disrepair." Then, reconsidering his position: "I always have opinions about everything. And I'll be pretty consistent with that way of seeing space. I'm always moving things around. Maybe I am a frustrated interior decorator."

Schnabel is too modest about his role at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Virtually everywhere your eye travels, in fact, the artist's touch is in clear view. Here and there, the rheostat on his red-velvet-draped vision has been turned up or down a notch or two, but even when it's down, Schnabel's vision for the hotel is conspicuously present.

As for the guest room that he originally proposed, Schnabel says, "I made a room that I would stay in. And then Ian thought, 'Ah, Julian's not exactly a normal person.' So, he made choices about what would be more accessible. And that, I think, is fine."

Color proved to be an especially important part of the design. "We wanted the rooms to look like paintings, so we used very Raphael kinds of roses, jades, and blues," says Schrager, who ebonized the hotel's preexisting oak floors to provide a dense backdrop for the palette. Somewhat surprising, considering the potpourri, is the fact that the rooms can fairly be described as both comfortable and cozy.

The velvet-upholstered beds are based on a Schnabel design, which the artist derived from a studded and embroidered Spanish chair and love seat he has at home. Also by Schnabel are the penguin-shaped leather table lamps with bronze-shaded bulbs perched on top like two pert ears.

And for each desk there is a pair of tapestry-covered chairs with swinging tassels on the back that are based on a 19th-century women's dressing chair that Schrager and Andrei found during a whirlwind, weeklong shopping spree they took last July in Schrager's Gulfstream to London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Florence, and Madrid—where Schrager picked up four colorful and elaborately decorated matador's outfits, called trajes des luces ("suits of lights"), one of which is on display in the hotel lobby on a bronze stand designed by Schnabel.

Depending on the size of the room—more than half of them are configured as suites with one set of French doors separating the living and sleeping rooms, another set separating the sleeping rooms and the wood, tile, marble, and Corian bathrooms—each guest has either one or two flat-screen televisions. Wedged into a corner next to the sofa is an adjustable black-metal long-armed lamp, inspired by Jean Prouvé, that illuminates the desk, which is the lower-than-normal height of the tables in Harry's Bar in Venice.

The overstuffed lounge chair in each guest room looks as if its black-charred wood frame (preserved with clear epoxy) only barely made it out of a four-alarm fire. This chair, specially designed by Dutch artist and product designer Maarten Baas, is akin to many of the pieces in Baas's popular "Smoke" collection. "He's a really creative guy; I would have liked him to do more," says Schrager, who also commissioned from Baas a trio of custom-designed coffee tables for the lobby and a billiard table for one of the bars downstairs.

Since art was to be not only the guiding light but also an integral part of the hotel, Schrager was determined to include it in the guest rooms. To that end, he commissioned Leslie Simitch to edit a collection of some 2,000 photographs from the archives of Magnum, the venerable photo agency. There are between three and six images, some vintage, some contemporary, in every room. The only constant among them is a portrait of Schnabel's old friend Andy Warhol—one per room.

Asked how Schnabel took to being "edited" and "reinterpreted," Schrager says, "He was accepting. And I only want to do what's right for the project...because, in the end, I don't make the projects, the projects make me." For his part, Schnabel says, "I really care about Ian and I wanted him to get what he wanted."

Not under Schnabel's purview is the hotel's main restaurant, Park Chinois, slated to open this month: That is being overseen by Michelin-starred chef Alan Yau, well known for his London restaurants Hakkasan, Wagamama, and Yauatcha. To do the design honors for the 150-seat Chinese restaurant, Yau, with Schrager's enthusiastic support, looked to the young Paris-based husband-and-wife duo of Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier, who, before setting up shop themselves, worked, respectively, in the Paris offices of Philippe Starck ("which gives you the levity," according to Schrager) and Christian Liagre ("which gives you the chic").

Up on the 18th floor, there is also the now-under-construction Roof Club, scheduled to open in December. Based partly on a Viennese coffeehouse, partly on a London gentlemen's club, the 6,000-square-foot space is for hotel guests and members only. It will be a calm, quiet alternative to the hotel's more heavily populated public areas, and include some 3,000 square feet of outdoor space, designed by Schrager's loyal landscape architect, Tangier-based Madison Cox.

"You can rent it out for the evening and have a seated dinner for 200," says Schrager, noting that there will be no "scene" at the Roof Club.

"The visuals here are not the first priority, the service is," says Schrager, who describes that service as "not obsequious, but very, very attentive." Noting that the average room rate is in the $500-per-night vicinity, he adds, "This will compete with the top hotels in New York." Historically, service at Schrager's hotels has been the subject of considerable grumbling. But the hotelier is determined to change that, and each guest will be offered the services of a personal assistant. These assistants will "work hard to be more personal than the guests' own personal assistants," Schrager promises, and will supplement an "unparalleled concierge, bellman, and runner staff." Their "non-uniforms" are by New York fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez.

Now that the last picture has been hung, the last Do Not Disturb tassel approved and dangling from its doorknob, the hotelier plans to return to the drawing board, where several other projects currently await his attention. "If I don't work, I'm miserable," says Schrager, who is personally, as well as professionally, on the move. He has reserved for himself the 8,500-square-foot penthouse triplex at 40 Bond Street, a 28-unit condominium (with five town houses) in NoHo, set to be completed early next year, that he developed and built with Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

Schrager is also hard at it on another residential project, this time in Las Vegas, where he is working with esteemed developers the Fisher Brothers on the planning and design of some 10,000 apartments to be deployed over 40 buildings on a 100-acre site. "I'm going to do my thing out there," he says. "I'm not building some corporate monolith like MGM." In Miami and Miami Beach, Schrager recently purchased two hotels, which he plans to renovate and reopen. He has already dubbed one "a monastery on the beach" and has tapped Pawson for the project. And then there's One Madison Avenue in New York, the Clock Tower Building, where Schrager has acquired some 200,000 square feet of space that he will transform, with New York architects Polshek Partnership, into between 130 and 150 apartments and, perhaps, a 20-room hotel.

None of these projects bears even the slightest resemblance to the Gramercy Park Hotel, of course. As Schrager says, "There won't be another." But then, that was never a question.

Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y.; 212/920-3300; www.gramercyparkhotel.com; doubles from $525.

Gramercy Park Hotel