There was a time in the not so far-off past when hotels lived or died by being an out-of-towner’s fantasy: the Plaza, the Four Seasons, the St. Regis.
Then, as new money poured into real estate in the mid-1990s, and as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cracked down on dance clubs like the Sound Factory and Tunnel, as food culture ascended and laptop computers and Startac phones enabled the self-employed to work outside their homes, a new group of boutique hotels became the new New York’s fantasy of itself: ritzy, but not fusty.
Gender-nonconforming sex workers cycled out, star chefs rolled in. Guests at the city’s boutique hotels engaged in spirited debates about which “Sex and the City” character they were: Charlotte, Carrie, Samantha or Miranda. Self-employed, Helmut Lang-clad creative types too good for Starbucks conducted business in the lobbies. And D.J.s played in their basement nightclubs.
New Yorkers like to take credit for everything — roller coasters, pop art, air-conditioning — but this hotel trend really began in Miami, where, in 1994, Ian Schrager, a former owner of Studio 54, turned the Delano, a 14-story Art Deco hotel, into the social hub of South Beach.
Philippe Starck brought the furnishings, David Barton designed the gym, Gianni Versace hung out in the cabanas in the back.
Mr. Schrager and his competitors blanched at having their establishments referred to as “boutique hotels.” The goal was to create so-called cinematic experiences aimed less at tourists and more toward locals or those returned from Paris and Los Angeles to hatch film deals and complain about fashion week.
The hotel that really defined the first part of the era in New York was Andre Balazs’s Mercer Hotel, which opened on Prince Street in SoHo in 1997.
On one side of the basement was a restaurant run by Jean Georges Vongerichten. On the other, a nightclub called the SubMercer, which, because it was small, invitation only and closed on the early side, managed to operate seemingly unimpeded by the police.
After that came the remixes.
Sixty Soho (2001) ushered in the trend of rooftop bars. The Gansevoort (2004) attempted to one up Sixty Thompson with an outdoor pool. The Ace (2009) housed a luxury goods store, Opening Ceremony. The Standard (2009), a “Mad Men”-style nightclub with panoramic views of New York.
The party traveled to the Upper East Side with the Mark (2009) and across the river to Williamsburg with the Wythe (2012).
But now, the beer garden at the Standard in the meatpacking district is boarded up. The Ace’s Michelin star restaurant, the Breslin, isn’t even offering delivery through UberEats or Door Dash. Harvey Weinstein, once the mascot of the Mercer, is serving a 23-year prison sentence after being convicted of sexual assault and rape. And recently it was announced that the Times Square Edition, a hotel Mr. Schrager opened last year in conjunction with Marriott, is closing permanently this summer.
The best hope of saving this whole little world, according to Izak Senbahar, the proprietor of the Mark?
“A vaccine!” he said in an interview earlier this week.
Setting the Standard
For a hotel to become a cultural signifier, great architecture helps. So does hosting characters.
The Algonquin had Irving Berlin and Dorothy Parker, the Plaza had Marlene Dietrich and Eloise.
Perhaps because apartments are made for marriages while hotels enable affairs, bad news often adds to the legend, as Sid Vicious proved in 1978 when the body of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was found beneath the sink of Room 100 at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan.
Helmut Newton died in Los Angeles in 2004 when he crashed his car into the wall of the Chateau Marmont, prompting Karl Lagerfeld to comment on how fitting it was for such a delightfully noirish figure of photography to die such a delightfully noirish death.
For the last 30 years, the Chateau has been operated by Mr. Balazs, whose restoration of the hotel maintained the slightly haunted aura of the original and helped bring the boutique to Los Angeles.
In 1997, Mr. Balazs — who is currently ensconced at Locusts on Hudson, a 78-acre estate and farm he owns in Staatsburg, N.Y., and declined to comment for this article — opened the Mercer, a New York creation that, much like Madonna, can be seen as representing either the end of its beginning or the beginning of its end.
Mr. Balazs got into hospitality after dabbling in the club scene.
He is the son of a Hungarian research professor at Harvard University; his ex-wife is the modeling world scion Katie Ford. Mr. Balazs early on invested in M.K., which opened in 1988 and had a brief run as a rare A-list New York disco with a kitchen and restaurant.
The fact that Mr. Balazs is movie-star handsome and, after divorcing Ms. Ford, went on to date Uma Thurman, Courtney Love and Chelsea Handler, probably wasn’t incidental to the aura he acquired. (One that took on a different cast in 2017 after four women accused Mr. Balazs of groping them. He did not respond publicly.)
Haughtiness was built into the Mercer’s sales pitch.
“I always found that lobby to be slightly predatory, actually,” the writer Jon Robin Baitz said. “It had a calculated cool to it, and it implicated you, that merely by sitting there, you were signifying membership in a class of creative vagabonds and flaneurs who wore the same neutral clothing and had the same slightly oud mixed with citrus scent. The books on those shelves were not meant to be experienced as anything other than props.”
In 2005, Russell Crowe was arrested at the hotel after hurling a phone at a concierge who’d failed to help him place a call to his wife, Danielle Spencer, in Australia. He was charged with felony assault and pleaded guilty, although not before his publicist blamed a “faulty phone” in his room and a “clerk on duty” who gave him nothing but “attitude.”
Perhaps besides the point; perhaps also true.
In 2009, Mr. Balazs opened the Standard, an 18-story block of industrial design where the rooms were best known for the nonreflective windows, which showed everything that went on inside.
During the last days of construction, the hotel placed ads online inviting people to come for preview stays. “We’ll put up with your banging if you’ll put up with ours,” the ads said.
To gain access to the Boom Boom Room, the party space on the 18th floor, one had to have a membership, appear on a guest list or gain the approval of a discerning door guy named Joey Jalleo.
“The fact that Boom had a secret V.I.P. bathroom with two toilets side by side, sans stalls, sort of says it all,” said Christopher Tennant, a former editor at Vanity Fair and the author of “The Filthy Rich Handbook.”
In 2014, Solange Knowles attacked her brother-in-law Jay-Z in an elevator while on the way up to the Boom Boom Room for a post-Met Ball party.
No one ever admitted to leaking the black and white security cam footage of the fracas. Representatives for the hotel professed to be “shocked” it landed in the hands of reporters. But it definitely didn’t hurt business.
‘On a Different Level’
Like Mr. Balazs and Mr. Schrager, Sean MacPherson is known for having trendy hotels and fashion world friends. He also started in night life, with a series of successful bars in Los Angeles.
A longtime surfer with stringy blond hair that leaves him looking like a male version of Kim Gordon, Mr. MacPherson brought to the boutique hotel business a homey, manicured dishevelment. His pièce de résistance is arguably the Maritime Hotel at the old Covenant House in West Chelsea, which opened in 2001, with a nautical theme that made it appear as if it were a Wes Anderson movie come to life.
In 2007, Mr. MacPherson and Eric Goode (a founder of the seminal 1980s club Area) opened, with Graydon Carter, the Waverly Inn, a West Village homage to Elaine’s. Mr. MacPherson and Mr. Goode also opened the Bowery Hotel, with Ira Druckier, on the Lower East Side. A year later, on the West Side Highway, they debuted the Jane, where barely solvent fashion brands hosted parties.
Daniel Day-Lewis camped out at the Marlton Hotel, which arrived on Eighth street in 2013 and helped end the block’s status as the Doc Martens capital of the world.
Mr. MacPherson’s latest job is a restoration of the Hotel Chelsea, which will likely pay homage to its bohemian history but will sell luxury condos, rent hotel rooms and house a Japanese restaurant.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. MacPherson was driving back to Montauk from Manhattan, where he’d been doing a walk-through of the hotel.
During his stay, he’d been to the Hudson River Park and seen scores of millennials socializing and not wearing masks. Which was an indication that prognostications about the end of going out and spending money rarely wind up being true.
People have short memories. They get sick of staying home, especially when forced.
He’s also been reading Ernest Hemingway’s writings about the Spanish flu. “This terrible, terrible event and we slogged on,” Mr. MacPherson said. “I imagine that’s what will happen here.”
He puts in the plus column that hotels are “pretty good at disinfecting things and creating a sense of cleanliness.” He believes rapid testing will enable things to open more successfully. And that people want to socialize.
Still, he grew up in Malibu during the first series of devastating fires, operated numerous hotels during Hurricane Sandy and survived the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. Speaking about the travel industry, he said, “This is on such a different level. I’m not sure how we get out of this thing.”
Jeff Klein at least has something of a parachute.
He was 31 when he was a partner in the City Club, which opened in Times Square in 2001. Back then, he said, there was no “master plan” to become the proprietor of the most Hollywood of Hollywood hotels.
City Club opened shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks. What saved it was a $27 hamburger, courtesy of the celebrity chef Daniel Boulud, which became a hit with nearby editors from Condé Nast, who worked a block away and ate at DB Bistro Moderne.
“What that taught me is that soul of a hotel is the restaurant,” Mr. Klein said.
Three years later, after the economy rebounded, he pulled together $25 million in financing and headed to Los Angeles, where he renovated an Art Deco hotel on the Sunset Strip. He called it the Sunset Tower and installed at its restaurant, The Tower Bar, a quirky maître d’ named Dimitri Dimitrov, whose skill of not lingering too long at the tables of movie stars helped him become sort of famous.
“True tourists,” Mr. Klein said, were never the hotel’s target customers. “Insiders” were: those who either lived and worked in Los Angeles, or who came from New York but had jobs in entertainment, fashion and media.
Vanity Fair moved its Oscar party there from Morton’s in 2009. In 2016, Cindy Crawford and Randy Gerber hosted Amal Clooney’s birthday there. As Instagram took over the world, Mr. Klein declared that privacy was the new luxury and opened a cellphone-free, members-only club called the San Vicente Bungalows.
Rooms at the Sunset Tower have gone mostly empty for much of the spring, but the downstairs restaurant is due to reopen on June 16 and Mr. Klein said he feels prepared for dining in the era of social distancing.
“Celebrities have had extra space between their tables for years,” he said. “Now I just have to do it for everybody.”
Trying Not to Panic
It’s hard to imagine a lot of people traveling to the epicenter of a pandemic when restaurants aren’t fully open, Broadway is shut down, and museums remain closed, but Jason Pomeranc is also trying not to panic.
That’s part of why he kept Sixty Thompson in SoHo open for the last three months, despite having watched occupancy drop from 70 percent nightly to less than 10 “seemingly in minutes.”
The hotel first opened on Sept. 10, 2001, and catered to the Hamptons Magazine/Ocean Drive set. “Impeccable timing,” he said.
But after the disaster that followed, the enemy was clear, the devastation finite.
Capitalism became a cause, with elected leaders imploring people in 2001 to “get out there, go to restaurants, spend money. The idea was don’t let the terrorists win,” Mr. Pomeranc said. “Now we’re being forced into the opposite reaction. In order to beat this thing, we have to not go out.”
He thinks travelers will return to New York, but maybe not this summer. And there are an awful lot of people like Mr. Baitz, who said that dining in a clubby restaurant “with everyone in masks feels too close to the Roger Corman version of Edgar Allan Poe for my liking.”
Before the coronavirus and now, “during our much needed reconsideration of our relationship to law enforcement, so much feels like those horrid people in the big city in ‘The Hunger Games.’”
And hotel management is a difficult business, highly leveraged with low margins.
“Pretty much every hotel is restructuring their debt,” said Sean Hennessey, who runs Lodging Advisors, a travel consultancy that’s worked for storied names like the St. Regis and the Plaza. “They either need to get more equity pumped in to sustain themselves, or they need to reach an agreement with lenders to get their debt extended.”
“Unlike office buildings, where leases typically last for five to 10 years, hotels have guests for an average of a night and a half,” he said. “That’s why whenever there’s a downturn they are one of the first industries that gets walloped, along with airlines and cruise ships.”
Besides the closing of Mr. Schrager’s project with Marriott, Mr. Balazs, Mr. Klein, Mr. MacPherson and Mr. Pomeranc have all laid off or furloughed staff.
Several in the industry said that Mr. Senbahar is barely staving off losing control of the Mark Hotel, despite rates among the highest in the city and great reviews.
In an interview, Mr. Senbahar said he thinks he will be fine, although he acknowledged that there have been some financing issues.
He’s seen colleagues in the industry say that their bookings have dropped 70 percent. Which he thinks is nonsense.
“No one has any guests,” he said.