With boutique hotels at risk of becoming simultaneously overdesigned and generic, a new generation of hoteliers is opting for low-key, historical authenticity. David A. Keeps visits L.A.'s Sunset Tower Hotel

Catherine Ledner The recently renovated Sunset Tower, an Art Deco landmark, in Los Angeles.
| Credit: 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 The boutique hotel is trying to grow up, and historical references—architectural and decorative—serve as a convenient shorthand for maturity, and a mark of glamour.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.

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 empire.

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 + Leisure.

1117 Prairie St., Houston; 877/348-8800 or 832/200-8800; www.aldenhotels.com; doubles from $195.

Hollywood Roosevelt
7000 Hollywood Blvd.; 800/950-7667 or 323/466-7000; www.hollywoodroosevelt.com; doubles from $169.

Sunset Tower Hotel
8358 Sunset Blvd.; 800/225-2637 or 323/654-7100; www.sunsettowerhotel.com; doubles from $269.

Sunset Tower Hotel

Gorgeously revived in 2006 by hotelier Jeff Klein, this 1929 Art Deco landmark was once an apartment building to the stars (John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra all had crash pads here). Though it’s been a hotel since the 1980’s, the building’s glamorous new incarnation finally does justice to its extraordinary “bone structure”—which includes dramatic cast-concrete exterior friezes and curved floor-to-ceiling windows. The décor in the 74 rooms pays tribute to the Deco era, but subtly: dark walnut furnishings are trimmed in glass and polished brass, and the bold-patterned fabrics and wallpaper are softened by deep tones of chocolate, gold, and rust. The iPod docking stations, plasma-screen TV’s, and glass shower stalls stocked with Kiehl’s products don’t seem out of place—but somehow the rooms, as well as the common areas, hark back to a distinctly more elegant time.

Alden Hotel

An understated counterpoint to its ravishing neighbor, Hotel Icon, the Alden is an exciting player in Houston's downtown revival. Opened in 2006 and run by the Morgans Hotel Group, the Alden began life as the Sam Houston Hotel in 1917, near what was then the bustling Union-Pacific Station. Now low-slung furniture and warm browns and whites predominate, with James Turell-inspired light installations adding subtle glows of color. It's modern, yes, but it's also easily the most elegant, comfortable hotel lobby in town, where downtown office workers and new loft-dwelling residents gather at the end of the day. The low-key comfort extends to guest rooms, which, with their taupe leather headboards and black granite-walled baths, are splendid without being showy.

Room to Book: Any on the seventh floor or higher with a room number ending in 08 for a spectacular view of the roaring crowds at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros.

Tip: Near the theater district, the hotel offers complimentary transportation to shows via Lincoln Navigator.

Hollywood Roosevelt

It’s shocking that this hip, upscale hotel dating to 1927 is so close to the touristy Hollywood Walk of Fame and across the street from the buzzing TCL Chinese Theatre, yet maintains a distinct sense of self. That’s not to say things are tame: there’s something on every end of the spectrum, from a classy poolside brunch at the newly revamped Tropicana Bar and Grill to a wild, raucous night at Teddy’s or Beacher’s Madhouse. The sleek, modern rooms and suites (some named after famous former residents such as Marilyn Monroe) come with premium bedding, flat-screen TVs and designer toiletries. Room service is available 24/7, as is access to the burger bar.