The New Rules of Hotel Renovation

High-end hotel renovations stretch far beyond adding a fresh coat of paint or installing new carpeting. They pour millions of dollars into splashy upgrades like speakeasy bars, rooftop terraces, and specialty suites with wine caves. Despite staggering investments and time-consuming challenges that are part and parcel of such massive undertakings, some of the most ambitious makeovers are anchored by basic goals: increasing guest satisfaction, generating some buzz, and boosting overall revenues. Here’s a look at how three distinct properties—a chic Southern boutique hotel, an urban Midwest flagship hotel, and a historic landmark hotel in New York City—executed multimillion-dollar renovations and strategically reinvented themselves.

The New York Palace

The challenge: To maintain historic details while adding a modern edge
Time it took: 18 months
Price tag: $140 million


Financier, ambassador, railroad magnate, and owner of The New York Post Henry Villard built the famed Villard Mansion on Madison Avenue in 1882. Today, the brownstone palazzo serves as the entrance to The New York Palace Hotel, an architectural gem with opulent gilt ceilings, marble walls, stained glass windows, and Italian marble fireplaces. In the mid-1970s, the Archdiocese of New York, owners of the land, cleared the way for a hotel development that blended the landmark mansion with a contemporary 55-story tower. The hotel opened in 1980 as The Helmsley Palace (the name was changed to The New York Palace in 1992 when it came under new management), operated by Harry Helmsley and his wife, Leona, who was dubbed the “Queen of Mean” for her strict and intolerant management style.

To ensure the success of the recent high-profile restoration of The New York Palace, the hotel’s executives pulled together a dream team of designers, architects, and contractors to handle the 18-month project. Such a massive collaboration would seem daunting, says General Manager David Chase, but it yielded impressive results that strike a balance between historic and modern elements. “This is a once-in-30-year renovation,” he says, “and it was the right approach.”

As a New York landmark, the Villard Mansion section of the Palace requires any changes to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. When the Mansion was restored to its original grandeur in the 1980s, all interior sections had to be relaid in precisely the same pattern and positioned to reproduce the landmark-protected interiors. When embarking on a $140 million renovation in 2012, the current owners, Northwood Investors, faced similar challenges. The designers had to find innovative ways to meld the hotel’s rich and storied past with present-day amenities while also following strict landmark rules, Chase says. “Some designers would like a clean slate, but our designers thought it was kind of neat. You just have to work with things that are already there.”

For example, the hotel’s new brasserie, Villard Michel Richard, is located in a landmarked space that was originally intended to serve as Henry Villard’s music room. It has an elaborate suspended balcony designed as a performance stage for musicians and wall panels adorned with images of musical instruments and garlands of foliage. When designer Jeffrey Beers updated the restaurant, which was formerly home to fine dining outlet Gilt, he could not alter the walls or ceilings in any way—not even attach anything to them. “So he installed new furniture and a new bar setup that’s not fastened to the wall,” Chase explains. “There is this 1800s stone and mosaic work and beautiful handworked wood, so it all plays beautifully together.”

The massive two-phase renovation project, completed in the fall, included input and work from two project management firms, two construction firms, and four premier interior design firms: Jeffrey Beers International, BAMO, Champalimaud, and BBG-
BBGM (acquired by HOK in December). They added six culinary destinations and redesigned the meeting spaces, the hotel’s 909 guestrooms and suites, including 176 exclusive towers accommodations, and the lobbies. “There is no question that this needed to be done,” Chase says. “The rooms were overdue and the public space, which was very classic and traditional, needed an update.”

The hotel is also attracting extremely wealthy foreign visitors for longer stays in its two residential-style, specialty triplex suites, which start at a whopping $25,000 a night. Caroline Bertrand and Dianna Facci, senior associates with HOK New York, designed the 5,000-square-foot suites, which are located on the 53rd floor. The Champagne Suite has a rustic wine cave for hosting exclusive tastings led by trained sommeliers, hewn woods representing aged grape presses offset by crystal fixtures, and a classically inspired library. The Jewel Suite by Martin Katz, a renowned jeweler to the stars, offers a romantic ambience with its Port Laurent stone floors, diamond-like wall coverings, a grand piano, and a 20-foot cascading chandelier at the entryway. Both suites have floor-to-ceiling windows, wood burning fireplaces, and private outdoor terraces with Jacuzzi spas.

Among Chase’s favorite additions is the reclaimed space underneath the grand stairway in the ground-floor lobby, which was transformed into Trouble’s Trust, a stylish, hideaway bar named after the late Leona Helmsley’s famous dog. Architect Louis Hedgecock, senior principal and director of hospitality for HOK New York, conceived of the idea to use the space for a bar, and Champalimaud designed it. “Sometimes you modify, sometimes you redecorate, sometimes you renovate,” Hedgecock says. “You’ve got to make a lot of judgments about what part of the hotel’s original fabric is really meaningful and which parts you really want to preserve. I walked by last night, and it was buzzing, buzzing, buzzing.”

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