Vanity Fair “BoHo Renaissance”
Checking in at the Bowery Hotel.
by PAUL GOLDBERGER March 2007
What strikes you first about the Bowery Hotel isn’t what it looks like, but what it’s called. Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson, the entrepreneurs behind New York City’s Maritime Hotel and the Park restaurant, didn’t give their new boutique hotel some grandiose name to cover up the fact that it sits on a street that plenty of people still think of as skid row. Even as gentrification has marched across Manhattan, the Bowery, which runs from Chatham Square, at the southern edge of Chinatown, up to Cooper Square, in the East Village, has retained its air of grunginess. The made it perfect for CBGB’s, the cradle of punk rock that famously closed last October, but it also scared off the developers who were dropping new glass condominiums all over downtown.
The Bowery was never an ordinary street. It has a past. Famous for so long as the last stop for derelicts, it lent its name to a hit song by Charles Hoyt and Percy Gaunt from 1891. “The Bowery” ended with the lament “I’ll never go there anymore” -a testimonial to the street’s decline that is about as far as you can get from Irving Berlin’s swoons over Fifth Avenue. The celebrated WPA Guide to New York City, producing during the Great Depression, described the Bowery as a place where “flophouses offer a bug-infested bed in an unventilated pigeonhole for twenty-five cents a night.”
The street is wide, but it has none of the grace of a boulevard, and it skirts all kinds of neighborhoods-SoHo, Little Italy, Nolita, the Lower Easy Side-without seeming connected to any of them. It’s more a funnel than a place. While the surrounding streets have become studded with fashionable shops, bars, and restaurants, not to mention those condos, the Bowery has remained mostly a mis of old restaurant-supply houses and miscellaneous storefront businesses. There is still a Salvation Army shelter at the corner of East 3rd Street.
The first sign of change on the Bowery came in 2003, when the New museum of Contemporary Art, the city’s most determinedly avant-garde art institution, announced that it was hiring the Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, of the firm Sanaa, to design a home for its collection, at the corner of Prince Street. Sejima and Nishizawa described the Bowery as “tough … less a boundary then a neutral ‘demilitarized’ zone between neighborhoods.” Their building, a tower of galvanized zinc-plated steel, is scheduled to be finished later this year.
Reasoning that the New Museum’s arrival meant their property might be worth developing, the owners of a garage at the corner of Easy 3rd Street, across from the shelter, hastily erected a 16-story tower of little architectural distinction. They never managed to complete it, partially because of a zoning dispute, and Goode and MacPherson bought it in 2004.
“The building was literally built out of Styrofoam, with hideous aluminum windows and cheap air-conditioning units,” Goode says. “But we thought it has good bone structure.”
Turing the “Tower of Bowery,” as the real-estate blog Curbed had come to call the unfinished building, into a luxury hotel was an even bigger challenge than the one Good and MacPherson had faced in their first hotel project, when they transformed the old headquarters of the National Maritime Union into the Maritime Hotel. One of Manhattan’s most endearing, if eccentric, buildings, the Maritime has a sloping, white façade that’s covered with portholes. You can’t fight it-the building has too strong a personality-and Goode and MacPherson were smart enough just to go with the flow. In the spirit of architect Albert Ledner, who designed the building in 1966 they turned it into a crisp temple to 1950s and 60s design.
But the Bowery tower had no personality at all. Goode and MacPherson (who are also partners with the editor of this magazine in the Waverly Inn) had to create one. They stripped the structure of its original skin and recoated it with a large steel-and-glass canopies around the base. The shape of the building, a slender tower with several setbacks, remained the same, but everything else about it was new.
Or new to the Bowery, at least. “For some reason this neighborhood”-the Lower East Side-“is getting the cheapest and worst architecture,” Good said to me as we walked through the nearly completed building early this winter. He was trying to explain why he and MacPherson decided to forgo the sleek, paper-thin modernism of almost every other new building downtown in favor of what Goode describes as “New York factory blended with slightly Gothic.”
There are no other tall buildings in the immediate vicinity, so almost every one of the 135 rooms has an open view, and several have huge terraces. Still, if there is a guiding aesthetic to the Bowery Hotel, it isn’t skyline views but urban salvage- old marble sinks and white tile baths, faded oriental rugs, dark wood floors, stained-glass transoms over the doors. The wide lobby has dark wood paneling, vaguely Art Deco in style, taken from an old building in Philadelphia, and the common areas are filled with Spanish-style iron lamps.
Gemma, the Italian restaurant at the front of the hotel-designed by Taavo Somer, co-owner of the nearby comfort-food hangout Freemans-will have a wall of green glazed tile salvaged from an old Con Edison building. “We kept finding things that took us in a far more old-world direction than we had expected,” Goode says. “It is definitely not the Maritime.”
Nor is it Philippe Starck. But more than two decades have passed since Steve Subell and Ian Scrager hired Andrée Putman and later Starck to invent the hip boutique hotel, and for most of that time Minimalism and retro-modernism have been its modes. At the Bowery, Good and MacPherson are moving not only into a new geographical turf but also into new design territory. While the guest rooms are comfortable and even a bit mellow, it’s too soon to tell if the hotel’s clientele is going to feel that Goode and MacPherson have invented a refreshing new genre or simply figured out a way to sex up the Restoration Hardware look. Good says he was imply following his own free-ranging taste and trying to make the big building fit into the neighborhood. But as the glass towers continue their march across the Lower East Side, the funky mix of the Bowery Hotel may be the design that stands out most of all.