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The Chatwal Hotel

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The prevailing approach to landmark preservation in New York tends to be either/or—i.e., if it’s not worthy of embalming, knock it down—which has deprived the city of many fine buildings that might have enjoyed second lives via a mixture of historic and contemporary design. The Chatwal, an 83-room new hotel off Times Square, exemplifies such a mix. Once home to The Lambs, America’s oldest theatrical society, the Georgian-style structure, built in 1905 and doubled in size ten years later, was originally designed by Stanford White (himself a Lambs Club member), and its facade and numerous interior elements were subject to strict landmarking rules. “I love historic preservation,” says architect/designer Thierry Despont—indeed, he oversaw the restoration of the Statue of Liberty—“but one has to be intelligent about what is important to preserve.” Accordingly, Despont’s Chatwal honors White’s work, and infuses it with a present-day reimagining of architectural history.

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  “I was not about to do a Beaux Arts period piece,” Despont explains, referring to White’s original. “At the same time, I was interested in giving it a sense of place—saying, ‘You are in New York.’” Despont turned to what he calls the “Machine Age design” of American Art Deco, exemplified by Donald Deskey’s interiors for Rockefeller Center’s Radio City Music Hall (1932)—“that glorious period when there was an original New York architecture.” Despont opened the lobby ceiling to the floor above. “I wanted you to feel cozy, but part of a larger space where things are happening,” he says.
    “I was not about to do a Beaux Arts period piece,” Despont explains, referring to White’s original. “At the same time, I was interested in giving it a sense of place—saying, ‘You are in New York.’” Despont turned to what he calls the “Machine Age design” of American Art Deco, exemplified by Donald Deskey’s interiors for Rockefeller Center’s Radio City Music Hall (1932)—“that glorious period when there was an original New York architecture.” Despont opened the lobby ceiling to the floor above. “I wanted you to feel cozy, but part of a larger space where things are happening,” he says.
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  Despont locates The Chatwal’s aspect of glamour, not in a specific color, material or decorative motif, but rather lighting and, critically, programming. “If you don’t have good lighting, it’s hard to have a successful space,” he says. “I chose warm, yellow illumination – you look good and feel good.” Glamour also derives from the little bar at one end of the lobby. “For me it has the appeal of an insider’s place, a bit of a club—when you walk in, you feel privileged.”
    Despont locates The Chatwal’s aspect of glamour, not in a specific color, material or decorative motif, but rather lighting and, critically, programming. “If you don’t have good lighting, it’s hard to have a successful space,” he says. “I chose warm, yellow illumination – you look good and feel good.” Glamour also derives from the little bar at one end of the lobby. “For me it has the appeal of an insider’s place, a bit of a club—when you walk in, you feel privileged.”
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  “Architecture is about memories, of things we’ve seen, books we’ve read, movies—the emotional content is very important,” Despont believes. The Lambs Club bar, which overlooks the lobby, was inspired by his memory of Charles Ebbets’ famous 1932 photograph of a group of Rockefeller Center construction workers, seated on a steel beam some 800 feet in the air, eating their brown-bag lunches. Wit edges out kitsch in Despont’s design, featuring “Empire State Building” downlights above an I-beam-shaped bar.
    “Architecture is about memories, of things we’ve seen, books we’ve read, movies—the emotional content is very important,” Despont believes. The Lambs Club bar, which overlooks the lobby, was inspired by his memory of Charles Ebbets’ famous 1932 photograph of a group of Rockefeller Center construction workers, seated on a steel beam some 800 feet in the air, eating their brown-bag lunches. Wit edges out kitsch in Despont’s design, featuring “Empire State Building” downlights above an I-beam-shaped bar.
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  Along with his “contemporary historic” interventions, Despont worked closely with New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to restore the interior’s significant protected elements. Initially the Lambs Club library, the newly christened Stanford White Studio features original oak paneling, pilasters, and deep ceiling beams, all revivified and reinstalled—“a tip of the hat to Stanford,” Despont says.
    Along with his “contemporary historic” interventions, Despont worked closely with New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to restore the interior’s significant protected elements. Initially the Lambs Club library, the newly christened Stanford White Studio features original oak paneling, pilasters, and deep ceiling beams, all revivified and reinstalled—“a tip of the hat to Stanford,” Despont says.
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  The hotel’s Lambs Club restaurant intermingles original and contemporary design elements. The centerpiece overscaled  18th-century French carved stone fireplace was in fact a gift to the club from White (who, liked the fictional Charles Foster Kane, collected and warehoused architectural artifacts), and the walls are lined with photos of past and present members. As for the profusion of red, says Despont, “If you use it, don’t be shy.”
    The hotel’s Lambs Club restaurant intermingles original and contemporary design elements. The centerpiece overscaled 18th-century French carved stone fireplace was in fact a gift to the club from White (who, liked the fictional Charles Foster Kane, collected and warehoused architectural artifacts), and the walls are lined with photos of past and present members. As for the profusion of red, says Despont, “If you use it, don’t be shy.”
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  The restaurant’s chiaroscuro painting, which evokes the easy, well-lubricated sodality of Broadway in its heyday, exemplifies Despont’s use of contemporary artworks (including a double-height mural in the lobby) to locate the design in past and contemporary times. Indeed, “I have difficulty distinguishing history from today,” Despont admits. “If you do a new building, why not bring in elements from the past that resonate?”
    The restaurant’s chiaroscuro painting, which evokes the easy, well-lubricated sodality of Broadway in its heyday, exemplifies Despont’s use of contemporary artworks (including a double-height mural in the lobby) to locate the design in past and contemporary times. Indeed, “I have difficulty distinguishing history from today,” Despont admits. “If you do a new building, why not bring in elements from the past that resonate?”
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  “I worked with Ralph Lauren on his flagship store in London,” Despont recalls. “And he told me, ‘You have to make something that has never existed—but that everyone recognizes.’” In The Chatwal’s guest rooms, this notion emerges in the “steamer trunk” closets, night tables, and desks, which recall the luggage that prevailed in the golden age of the ocean liner. “Today’s traveler is a global nomad,” says Despont, and his surreal design element converts landlocked midtown hotel rooms into oceangoing fantasias.
    “I worked with Ralph Lauren on his flagship store in London,” Despont recalls. “And he told me, ‘You have to make something that has never existed—but that everyone recognizes.’” In The Chatwal’s guest rooms, this notion emerges in the “steamer trunk” closets, night tables, and desks, which recall the luggage that prevailed in the golden age of the ocean liner. “Today’s traveler is a global nomad,” says Despont, and his surreal design element converts landlocked midtown hotel rooms into oceangoing fantasias.
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  Throughout the hotel, Despont has redistributed preexisting elements—wooden double doors featuring a distinctive barrel-lid motif, a handcrafted mantelpiece, the memorial commemorating members lost in the two World Wars—which, like sudden memories, take visitors by surprise. Elsewhere—as with the vintage subway signage in the guest rooms—newly added urban artifacts achieve a similar effect.
    Throughout the hotel, Despont has redistributed preexisting elements—wooden double doors featuring a distinctive barrel-lid motif, a handcrafted mantelpiece, the memorial commemorating members lost in the two World Wars—which, like sudden memories, take visitors by surprise. Elsewhere—as with the vintage subway signage in the guest rooms—newly added urban artifacts achieve a similar effect.
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  When introducing furnishings not of his own design, Despont often reached for midcentury modern icons like the Noguchi coffee table, as well as recognizable pieces by Saarinen, Jacobsen, and others. While this might seem out of character (or simply too easy), says Despont, “There is a continuity between these modernist designs and the Machine Age—abstraction of form, with the comfort of a piece of furniture.”
    When introducing furnishings not of his own design, Despont often reached for midcentury modern icons like the Noguchi coffee table, as well as recognizable pieces by Saarinen, Jacobsen, and others. While this might seem out of character (or simply too easy), says Despont, “There is a continuity between these modernist designs and the Machine Age—abstraction of form, with the comfort of a piece of furniture.”

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