By one definition, cities are fundamentally places where strangers can meet to exchange ideas. The urban sociologist Richard Sennett writes extensively on the public space of cities, and how crucial public space is to the exchange of ideas. Public space means not just streets and parks, but cafés, coffee shops, bars, theaters, cyberspace–and hotels.
Hotels are so fundamental to experiencing a city that we tend to take them for granted. I have been an obsessed student of hotel history and design since I was a kid, fascinated by the layers of public/private spaces, and the mix of people found in these spaces. And I have been unhappy with Birmingham’s lack of a truly great hotel since I was aware of the term. Birmingham’s full-service hotels used to all be located downtown, and all within an easy walk of Terminal Station. The Tutwiler, Redmont, Dixie-Carlton, Thomas Jefferson, Molton and Bankhead were among the best known.
Today, the Tutwiler (in another building) and the Redmont remain, both considerable shadows of their former selves (pleasant enough, but lacking the amenities and vitality these hotels were once known for). The rest have disappeared. There is no longer a true 4-star hotel downtown (much less a 5-star), or anywhere nearby. Which is troubling for the state’s economic and population center, to say the least.
Hotels, in their best urban roles, facilitate the exchange of ideas through a very porous interface with the street. Lobbies, restaurants, bars, lounges, meeting rooms, ballrooms–these are often favorite places to rendezvous, and the multiple entrances facilitate easy access to visitors. The streets around hotels are typically animated with people coming and going. A busy, bustling hotel signifies a busy, bustling city. Think about the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York, where you can enter the lobby, ballrooms, various restaurants and bars all through multiple entrances.
Now back to Birmingham and our dilemma. Over the last decade, there have been numerous studies conducted that show the need for more high quality hotel space in the City Center, and several unrealized proposals. My own office worked on a proposal from Rubell Hotels out of Miami to convert the Thomas Jefferson into a 5-star, independent boutique hotel back in 2000; more recently the Regions Plaza Building was to have converted into a 4-star Marriott Renaissance brand.
If we did have more hotel options, what should they be? The currently proposed Westin Hotel at the BJCC is disappointing for several reasons. It’s location is BJCC-specific and less central than one would like; its ambition is to add room capacity for conventions, rather than to increase street life and provide multiple destination points for urban dwellers. Equally disappointing is the bland aesthetic of the building, which is described over on heaviestcorner.
To judge from the rendering, this is a slightly more upscale (and full-service) version of the limited-service Courtyard, Hyatt Place, and Residence Inn hotels that have opened downtown recently–welcome expansions of our options, but hardly more than clean, efficient places to lay one’s head. Similarly, this Westin appears to have no aspiration to capture the soul of a community, inspire visitors, and lure citizens and travelers alike to linger in its public spaces. The Westin proposal–while satisfying the need for more hotel rooms for users of the BJCC–is not the type of hotel that integrates into the larger urban fabric, with diverse appeal and street porosity that create public interaction.
When we think of certain cities, iconic hotels which seem to embody the city’s soul come to mind. Think of Paris–gorgeous, sophisticated, elegant Paris, whose ancien regime glamor can be summed up by the Hotel Crillon, perhaps the world’s first true luxury hotel (and a favorite haunt of Marie Antoinette).
All marble, gilt, and tapestries, the Crillon exemplifies Paris, and has served as a model for countless grand luxury hotels to follow, from the Willard in Washington, DC, to the Plaza in New York City. When in the Crillon, you have no doubt where you are; there is no generic corporate color scheme or bland, universal detailing to make you think otherwise. It’s all very haute couture. Very Paris.
Hotels don’t have to be 250 years old (or just look that way) in order to become iconic. Take the Delano hotel in Miami Beach. While other boutique hotels (such as the Albion) were the first to renovate delapidated, boarded-up hotels into chic new playgrounds for a resurgent Miami Beach, the Delano was the first to really do it on a grand scale. Suddenly everyone wanted to be at the Delano, and it was the model for many subsequent hotel renovations in the area. It also helped designer Phillippe Starck become the mega-star he is today. The Delano became the “see-and-be-seen” venue for Miami Beach, perfectly capturing the feel of a breezy, celebrity and image- conscious contemporary city.
Where does this leave Birmingham? While all those chains are a necessary part of the corporate travel world today, we are missing that one place that you’ve got to go to–whether reserving a room, meeting friends in the bar, having a special dinner, or just people-watching in the lobby. It should be somewhere special that both reflects local culture, but also rises above mere reflection to become inspiration.
Over in Louisville, KY, two local art collectors helped finance the 21c Museum Hotel in 2006 due in part to frustration that the city lacked an inspired hotel. Just a few years later this hotel won Conde Nast’s Reader’s Choice Award for best hotel in the US, and 6th best in the world—no small feat considering Louisville is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue as a destination.
Adjacent historic buildings downtown were renovated (design: Deborah Berke, one of my favorite architects in NYC) with open, crisp modern spaces inside, lots and lots of contemporary art, and a super-stylish restaurant called Proof on Main adding vibrancy to the street. This has not only become a favorite meeting spot for locals and visitors alike, but plans have been made for extending the brand into other cities that would benefit from having a non-corporate hotel, which is dedicated to helping revitalize the city through contemporary art. We’ve got an amazing Museum of Art and wonderful private collectors here. It’s worked well in Louisville–why not Birmingham?
I will leave you with this quote from Michael Bonadies, CEO of 21c, upon winning the Conde Nast award:
“Too often today, hotels are bland, isolated oases within cities that provide accommodations and dining but are removed from the city’s character and residents.
Thanks to 21c’s accessibility and social vibrancy, our guests have the opportunity to gain a real sense of the people and culture of Louisville as well as contemporary art from around the world. We are honored to be recognized as a destination for this great city and for travelers from around the country and the world.”
Yes, sometimes it takes a great hotel to not just help rejuvenate a city, but to put it on the map.
(PS: I couldn’t resist this pic of the new Standard hotel in NYC, hovering over the new High Line park in Chelsea. It brings interaction with the public realm into a whole new dimension.)
[thanks to tristan appleby for the neon pic; wallyg for the Waldorf; Concorde Hotels for the Crillon; saracino for the Delano; stlbites for 21c Restaurant; Conde Nast for the 21c exterior; Photogrammaton for Standard NY]