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Lords of the Chambers

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"Basically, my idea was to shoot the worst unit photography you could ever have from a movie set," says the pope of trash himself, speaking by mobile phone from a Taco Bell in Laramie, Wyoming. But Waters is quite unironic in his enthusiasm for the Chambers.

"Most hotels have what looks like Bloomingdale's-furniture-department art," says Waters. "I'm very impressed whenever I'm in a hotel and I see they have real art, and not 'sofa' art, although sofa art can be good, too, if it's the other extreme, like the worst hotel art."

Drukier, 55, who has been collecting art since college, is equally enthusiastic about Waters, though his personal tastes run more toward surrealists like Max Ernst and the Chilean Matta. "When I first saw Waters's work, I didn't even know about his movies," Drukier says, shrugging.

But maybe you don't have to speak the language of downtown to market the concept of "downtown" -- particularly if you happen to be doing downtown in midtown. These days, the hotel is the new disco. Even nightlife queen Donatella Versace is doing one, albeit in Australia. Much of the credit goes to Ian Schrager, who introduced the "lifestyle hotel" ethic, beginning with Morgans in 1984, demonstrating that a hotel can be not just the place you checked in before you hit the scene. It can be the scene. At first, of course, the hotel-as-disco concept required a celebrity front man to serve as the corporate icon, an impeccably connected, brand-name scenester like Schrager or Balazs, to give the place credibility.

Over more than a decade, Schrager's enterprise has grown into a global chain of tiny, tasteful hotels, all of which feature the same streamlined design, boldface clients, and bellhops-with-portfolio. Last month, he opened his first New York hotel in a decade, the 1,000-room, budget-priced Hudson on West 58th Street with two star-studded A-list bashes that became the hottest tickets of the fall.

It's hard to imagine Born and Drukier pulling in the same crowd, but the pair seem determined to prove that you don't need a fat Rolodex and a squadron of publicists to turn a profit in the hotel business. The numbers support them on this. Last year saw an 11 percent increase in total travelers to New York City over the previous year, which itself set records. Even Schrager admits that the market is so deep you might not need the front man anymore.

"I don't think you're going to see Richard or Ira out there shaking hands and taking bows. But I think their hotel is going to be just as successful as anybody's," says Schrager. "The 'front guy' doesn't make the hotel. The hotel makes the front guy. It's the product."

Indeed, last May saw the opening of the Tribeca Grand, a sequel to 1996's SoHo Grand launched by pet-food mogul Leonard Stern and his son Emanuel. In the next few months, developer and former Schrager partner Philip Pilevsky is opening the Bryant Park Hotel in the American Radiator Building. This month, Starwood, the hotel behemoth that owns the Westin chain, opens another W hotel on Union Square.

But perhaps no one has as much at stake as Drukier and Born -- the city's biggest hoteliers whom no one's ever heard of. Their fourteen-hotel empire, after all, includes mid-priced tourist warrens like the Skyline and the Belvedere, and a Ramada Inn at the Newark airport, but they've never quite had their signature piece, their star turn. Now they do, in a pricey, ground-up construction on a former parking lot in one of the most expensive blocks on the globe.

"It's a fact that we will actually have Ira restyled, his whole image redone, for the opening," deadpans Born, 43, flashing a glance at Drukier's salt-and-pepper Brillo of a hairstyle. Drukier is the sort of tweedy Manhattan ironist whom Sydney Pollack might play in a Woody Allen movie. The two are sitting in the Rockwell-designed Monkey Bar, the restaurant located just off the lobby of the Elysée Hotel on East 54th Street, which they own with boutique hotelier Henry Kallan (Library, the Giraffe).

"I went to André's hairdresser one time. It's on Crosby Street, two guys who made up their shop to look like Shanghai during World War II," Drukier recalls. There he received a vague approximation of Balazs's artful, Caesarean haircut. It didn't flatter him. "It was a stretch," Drukier admits. "It's important to remember, I don't do things the same way André does."

"You mean you haven't done any Allure ads yet?" Born adds facetiously. Balazs's Mercer has become a virtual dormitory for the upper tier of the sag set. Movie stars check in for months at a time during shoots in the city. ("It's like the Roach Motel. They check in and they never leave," smirks Born. "We could book it three times over if we had the room.")

The Mercer Hotel's success was anything but a foregone conclusion when the project was launched. In the frenzied real-estate market of 1988, SoHo was still -- as unbelievable as this seems -- considered a fringe neighborhood in terms of big-ticket development projects. Balazs and then-partner Campion Platt decided to issue an audacious challenge to Schrager on his home turf, bidding to become the hub of the art world -- this back when SoHo, not Chelsea, was still the art world's nexus.

"It was a visionary project, but it was clearly started ahead of its time," Drukier says. "SoHo in 1988 was very different from the SoHo of 1999."

To make matters worse, the city soon lumbered into a recession. Construction throughout the city ground to a virtual halt. "Even in '96, when we got on board, there was no walking into a bank and getting a construction loan for a speculative hotel in an unproven location," Born says. "It was a difficult job to conventionally do. But we did not do it in a conventional way. We put in substantial personal capital and pushed our own banking relationships to get it done."

The numbers, however, were only part of the problem. "The amazing thing," Drukier recalls, "is that $32 million had been poured into construction and nothing worked. It literally all had to go." The Mercer looked like a Hollywood movie that was forever going to be stuck in development. Then one afternoon in the winter of 1996, the partners huddled with Balazs at a booth at Jerry's, on Prince Street.


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