Overcrowded, oversexed, oversized but never overrated, the 1990s mega clubs like Roxy, Tunnel, and Sound Factory had very few restrictions and almost no limits. With loud music, lights, sex and endless wild entertainment, they dominated New York City nightlife.
While we were dancing all night long through the 90s, the unexpected happened. Ian Schrager, inspired by his nightclubs, Studio 54 and Palladium, seized an opportunity and opened Morgans, Paramount, Royalton and Hudson; but no, these were not new nightclubs but, surprisingly, hotels.
Fierce entertainment, cutting edge design and irreverence, once reserved only to nightclubs, poured into the hospitality industry. Sex finally met the city and out of nowhere, an army of “Carrie Bradshaws” and “Samantha Joneses” in the making, embraced these hotels and a new era began.
To better understand this revolution we need to visualize these mega-clubs of the 90s. Palladium was a gigantic concert hall that hosted Kiss, Genesis, Bruce Springsteen and Grateful Dead among others, and was later converted into a nightclub filled with “club kids”–gay, straight, preppy, leather, drag queens–of every race and from every walk of life.
Tunnel, was an abandoned railroad terminal where actor Vin Diesel was once a bouncer, while the Limelight was an unconsecrated church where semi-naked go-go boys and girls danced in cages dangling from the ceiling next to religion-themed stained-glass windows. It was the fusion of sacred and profane.
Always packed with celebrities like Tom Cruise, Grace Jones and Ru Paul, who once gave me a card that I still have, advertising her album “You Better Work” which definitely worked for me.
New York, just out of the 80s looked like hell, but for me it was heaven. Having worked in a trendy nightclub in Italy, called Mazoom, I was accustomed to the spectacle of nightlife, but New York nightlife took me by surprise.
The Macklowe hotel, where I used to work, was conveniently located across the street from “Club USA”, where celebrities like Marky Mark and Salt-N-Pepa once performed. Fashion designer Thierry Mugger created a three-story-high tubular chute where amazed club goers watched the likes of Steve Tyler slide down to the dance floor. The club was, ironically, demolished to build the W Hotel Times Square.
These new hotels took the “beige” predictable and conservative hospitality industry of New York by storm. Prior to their opening, it was hard to tell a Hilton from a Marriott or a Hyatt, since they shared the same corporate, chaste cookie cutter design and lack of personality.
They served the purpose of reassuring guests that, no matter their final destination, they would end up in a safe place with anonymous familiar “Febreze” scented lobbies, ubiquitous dizzy looking carpets and rooms with matching flowery curtains and bedspreads. All the troubles of the 80s and 90s would dissipate in this endless overflow of mixed patterns.
Doormen who dressed as if it were 1850, front desk agents in dark uniforms, and stuffy managers in gray suits were the guardians of an unchanged conservative hospitality industry.
Often, I was summoned to HR due to my “un-corporate” attire, for wearing a two-button jacket, very fashionable in Italy but not yet at the Macklowe, which was still stuck with double-breasted straitjackets, or for the color of my summer suit, apparently not “gray” enough, or actually not gray at all. Once HR was finished with me, I was afraid I was going to disappear into the black marble walls of the lobby.
These new edgy, unapologetic and sleek hotels had swagger and personality. They broke the mold and let “the Limelight” into the daylight, but most of all they envisioned a new concept that reinvented hospitality.
Handsome models wearing black t-shirts and acting like bouncers replaced traditional doormen. Stuffy lobbies were transformed into vibrant stages and dim lights and soft-glow candles took the place of ultra-bright lights, creating a sensual atmosphere; even dowdy guests felt trendy and effervescent. No one cared if rooms were small, furniture cheap and rates high!
Design, sex, sometimes drugs, and certainly rock and roll, started rolling the industry.
Anonymous, post-prom traumatized guests could finally have entrée to the “VIP lounge”, be popular, be seen, and for once, be the queens and kings of the ball. These hotels were the talk of the town.
The cool Paramount hotel, like the Morgans, had no visible sign identifying it from outside. Fresh red roses in tubular vases were placed in the marble walls on each side of the main door.
A Dean and Deluca store was near the entrance on the right and, once your eyes adjusted to the dark interior–much like a nightclub-you would find yourself in a vast high-ceilinged lobby with a nonsensical cement grand staircase placed on the wall on the opposite side, leading literally nowhere, while you were center stage.
An unmentioned (but not-so-secret) place to visit was the men’s room which had mirrors placed on opposite sides of the walls, leaving nothing to the imagination of patrons who had no choice… but to compare.
The Hudson offered tiny rooms called “cozy,” whose size was compensated by a gigantic lobby, where a luxurious oversized crystal chandelier purposely clashed with the cheap colorful plastic chairs of the bar.
When Asia de Cuba, the famous restaurant inside the Morgans opened up, the waitlist was months long. Luckily, the front office manager, my colleague and still good friend, Seen Kei Chew, got me in. To my surprise, the dining room walls were completely veneered with disorienting bright white plastic shower curtains hanging from every wall.
I felt I was having dinner inside Bed Bath & Beyond during a winter white sale, and it was absolutely, genius! Another barrier was smashed, and even for restaurants it was a new start.
Irreverent, bold, and sexual, there was no escaping the lure of these new hotels. While every other hotel was selling guest rooms, they were selling an experience and a lifestyle. No one could compete with them. There is always someone who can do it better, faster and bigger, and often, much, much bigger.
Corporate America quickly caught on to the new trend and in 1998, Starwood bought a small hotel on Lexington Avenue, the Doral, which was renovated and opened as the W hotel. It became an instant hit.
The W Hotels brazenly copied the concept of cool, trendy, fashion and cutting edge, and made it theirs.
Lobbies became living rooms for guests to mingle, the bar ended up being the epicenter of social gatherings not only for hotel guests, but for outside visitors as well.
Guest rooms were decorated with a minimalist design, no flowery bedspreads, bright lights, heavy furniture, or unnecessary objects, but lots of music played by DJs in public areas as if it were a nightclub.
This revolution also affected our personal taste. Before, hotels used to be decorated to look and feel like homes, after, we started decorating homes to resemble hotels. Stores began selling the “hotel collection” sheets & linens, minimalist furniture with hotel style amenities and Westin branded “heavenly beds mattresses”.
But as the big clubs of the 90s’ started fading into the new decade, so did these trendy hotels which were criticized for poor service and rude staff. Today the Morgan is a condo-apartment building and the Hudson is permanently closed. Even good music can be overplayed and some notes sounded off-key.
Meanwhile, the Corporate America of the likes of Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton, highjacked this concept and created sub-brands, like Moxy, W, Tempo, Edition, Andaz, and mass-produced, homogenized and tamed them into predictability, dragging them from K-Rock back to lite FM.
This concept of lifestyle hotels perfectly represented Gotham: irreverent and rebellious; it creates and burns, builds and destroys– or at least, transforms. It had been a remarkable and radical change which had broken the rules and made the impermissible, acceptable. Ian Schrager and a new generation of hoteliers quickly reinvented themselves and a new concept of sophisticated “boutique” and futuristic micro-hotels emerged; question is, will they have the same chutzpah to succeed.