Tag Archives: Williamsburg

Checking in (3)

Your Polish great aunt may be disoriented

We’ve discussed good urban hotels (or the lack thereof) in a couple of previous posts (here and here). As innovative boutique hotels have gone up in cities large and small, somehow Birmingham still lacks a truly memorable urban hotel that captures the city’s spirit. Yes, the Tutwiler Hotel has its charm, but the Hampton Inn vibe holds it back. We look forward to the new 4-star Westin–although its location at the BJCC and the new entertainment district makes it feel less integrated with the historic core (as can be the case with convention-oriented hotels). We dream of a Birmingham version of the new Wythe Hotel, shown above, rehabbed in an old factory in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that meshes the rough-hewn, immigrant aesthetic of that historic place with the uber-hip(ster)  reality of its modern-day environs. Think custom beds made from the building’s reclaimed pine beams and in-room surround-sound controlled by your iPhone.

Just use your imagination

Recently it was reported in the Birmingham News that the developer of the new downtown Westin, National Ventures Group, has been analyzing the former Regions Plaza building–currently vacant after Regions‘ merger with AmSouth–as a mixed-use development including a 4-star Wyndham Grand hotel at the lower portion (above, looking west along 5th Avenue North towards 20th Street). A 2007  plan for this site called for redevelopment into a Marriott Renaissance hotel, but this plan fell victim to the recession. National Ventures is quoted as stating the hotel would be unique to the state of Alabama, and inspired by–of all places–the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, Russia.

That’s a lot of old-world imperial glory to inspire us

The Russian reference is odd because of the severe difference in architecture between the two buildings. The Regions Plaza–formerly First Alabama Bank Building–is an early-1970’s bronze and dark-tinted-glass period-piece of limited elegance and panache. The 5-star hotel in the former capital of the Russian Empire (above) is all neoclassical opulence, inside and out–from the fine stone carvings and cornices, to the crystal chandeliers, to the Art Nouveau woodwork of 1910 (the structure dates from 1875).

The way we were

Ironically, the Russian inspiration might make more sense if we still had the original building on the site–the Tutwiler Hotel (above, looking east along 5th Avenue North, ca. 1956). Constructed in 1914 and demolished in 1972 to make way for the current structure, its grandeur and luxury were–at least for a time–renowned throughout the South. Stylistically it certainly shared more with the Europe than its replacement does. It will be interesting to see how this project develops.

A less glamorous precedent

A quick search of Wyndham Grand hotels turns up the above, in downtown Pittsburgh. Now that’s a long way from St. Petersburg, but perhaps a more realistic precedent for understanding the possible look of the proposed hotel here. Because while the renovation cost of $30 million estimated by National Ventures isn’t insignificant, you can be pretty sure that doesn’t include recladding the building in plaster, limestone, and carved cornices.

Will the Wyndham answer our desire for a great, memorable urban hotel? Probably not. Could it fill a need for 4-star service in the heart of the CBD, activating the street fronts with bars and restaurants? Hopefully. If it–and the Westin–prove successful, could it help give confidence to that innovative developer to create that special boutique hotel of our dreams? Just possibly.

[thanks to Wythe Hotel for the exterior view;  deldal for Grand Hotel Europe; Birmingham Public Library for the Tutwiler; marcanadian for the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh]


Due to some travels (and preparations leading up to same), it won’t be until later in August that regular posts occur again on this blog. In the meantime, I thought I’d send a very brief snapshot of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I’m staying the first part of my trip and where I lived way back in 1995. The brick commercial loft building above is where I lived–a 3500 SF loft on the second floor (facing North 10th Street which is the facade you see here). It was an illegal sublet, rented to us by an artist who’d used the place as a studio. At the time Williamsburg was full of artists living in cheaply converted space, with rents extremely affordable compared to fancier parts of Brooklyn, not to mention Manhattan. I was one of a first wave of “invaders”–donning a tie and taking the train back into the city during the week to work a professional job–and I was fascinated by the mix of artists, elderly Polish-Americans, and those like me who found the run-down, somewhat bleak nature of Williamsburg a refreshing break from increasingly gentrified Manhattan.
Today, although my building still appears as untouched and run-down as ever, the surrounding neighborhood has transformed. Below is directly across Berry Street from my old place, where there used to be a vacant lot and a storage warehouse with amazing graffiti:

The new Berry Street

These luxury loft condos are but one example of new construction that has popped up everywhere, along with vacant storefronts and repair shops converted to ultra-hip lounges and restaurants. The lonely, sparse sidewalks were literally choked this evening with hipsters, wanna-bes, and kids from Manhattan in for a Saturday night fling. The quiet sense of possibility I knew back then has been replaced with American Apparel and all sorts of consumption.
There is even a huge new complex at the river, which used to be lined by empty warehouses and weedy yards. Now 35-story condo towers are preparing to open, with new pedestrian piers, tens of thousands of square feet of available retail and restaurant space, and parking garages. An immense old warehouse designed by the architect Cass Gilbert (who is perhaps best known for the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan, in 1913 the tallest building in the world) in the rarely employed neo-Egyptian style has been totally renovated and is currently renting out with amenities (and prices) not before seen this side of the East River.

From Egyptian warehouse to luxury lofts

The amount of gentrification in the old neighborhood just boggles the mind. It shows how quickly an urban place can transform, within the context of vast numbers of people and dollars that is New York. Does it all feel right? No; I miss the grittiness of the old place. A lot of the new architecture is banal. Most of the artists have departed for cheaper digs further out in Brooklyn or Queens.

But hey, if you just have to have that perfect pomegranate mojito, you no longer have to take the train into Manhattan to get it.

Birmingham, I won’t be around to attend Design Review this coming week, comment on the latest (non-drive-through!) plans for Chick-Fil-A, etc. But we’ll be back and ready to examine lots of new topics in just a couple short weeks. Stay cool.