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Lords of the Chambers

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"On the back of an envelope, we came up with a formula that worked for everybody," says Drukier. The partners bought out Balazs's then-partner, the Boston-based hotel company Sonesta. A year later, Leo DiCaprio was striding into the Mercer's Christian Liaigre-designed lobby.

Though relations between Balazs and his two partners remain cordial, Balazs seems a bit territorial now that his partners are starting to claim the limelight that, so far, he has occupied alone. "They're good guys, they're smart guys," he says. But he adds a cautionary note about the prospect of competing with the Hollywood-friendly Four Seasons. "It depends if you analyze 'hip' as a function of what you've got on your walls. That's not the way I look at it."

Schrager is more charitable. "I'm a big fan of Robert and Ira," he says. "They get it. It's not often that you can find someone who can bridge that gap between art and commerce, but they can. They're behind the scenes; they don't get any credit. But the Mercer was languishing around for eight years. Somebody's got to make it happen. Somebody had to 'produce' it. They were the ones that did that. Without Richard and Ira, there is no Mercer."

Of course, Balazs, a chiseled, peripatetic scene-maker married to modeling scion Katie Ford, personally embodies the high-style aspirations of his hotel's clientele. His partners are far less accustomed to the orbit of cool they are now wandering into. Born grew up in Forest Hills, Drukier in Rego Park. Their fathers, in fact, were partners. Robert Born and Charles Drukier developed apartment buildings throughout the city, although the sons were only casual acquaintances.

Drukier, a science standout, eventually went off to Cornell and studied solid-state physics. Before long, he had ridden his Vietnam-era college draft deferments all the way to a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He eventually founded a division of the Microwave Semiconductor Corporation, which made parts for the aerospace industry. In 1979, he cashed out when the German conglomerate Siemens bought the division. Married, with a daughter, 21, the developer has lived in the same four-bedroom contemporary in New Jersey for the past twenty years.

Born, who now lives on the Upper East Side with his wife, three children, and basset hound Lilly, was also a gifted science student. He ended up at New York University's School of Medicine, where he went on to four wearying years in surgical residency. "You're going to spend the next 40 years doing the same five or ten operations for the same five or ten diseases," he says, then adds sardonically, "Creativity is frowned upon."

In the early eighties, each was looking for a new career, so the sons of the longtime partners decided to form a partnership themselves. They started off by fully renovating their Ramada and later graduated to a Holiday Inn, on West 57th Street. As an entrée to Manhattan, it was not exactly Studio 54. But profits from their more proletarian properties allowed them to work their way up the industry's food chain.

Before long, Born and Drukier's BD Hotels controlled a fourteen-hotel empire, with holdings including the Metro -- their own riff on Schrager's "cheap chic" -- in the garment district, the Skyline on West 49th Street, and the stylishly Francophilic update to the Elysée on East 54th Street. They made their first real statement burnishing the faded Beaux-Arts beauty the Stanhope, across from the Metropolitan Museum. Born and Drukier, along with Colony Capital of Los Angeles, bought the Stanhope for $15 million in 1997, only to cash out of it to Hyatt Regency for $58 million two years later.

The success of the chambers, the partners are betting, will be due less to their personal style than to the style they're paying top dollar to import.

The seemingly ubiquitous David Rockwell, whose playful designs have popped up everywhere from Planet Hollywood to Detroit's new baseball stadium to the new Rosa Mexicana, has a history with high-style hotels. Two years ago, Rockwell conjured the "spa" feel for Starwood's 720-room W, and he's currently strumming a postmodern riff on an Edwardian theme for the new W hotel on Union Square.

At the Chambers, Rockwell -- who himself lives in a loft on Hudson Street -- is trying to reinforce the idea of the "loft" with raw-steel doorways, poured-concrete floors, track lighting, and open-plan furniture arrangement.

There are also the typically playful Rockwell touches -- snare-drum-like side tables covered with artist's canvas and desks made of glass tops laid over sawhorses and topped with rolls of butcher paper on which maps of Manhattan are printed, to be torn off whenever a moneyed tourist is heading out into the unfamiliar street grid. But beyond the art theme, Rockwell is toying with the concept of see-and-be-seen that's so integral to the hotel of the moment.

"There's this kind of urban excitement about seeing and being seen," Rockwell says, traversing his Union Square studio to show off a white vinyl chair with a square hole cut in the back. "Even the hole in the chair is sort of playing peekaboo with the views."

For locals, much of the seeing and being seen will be accomplished at town, the soaring restaurant tucked in the rear of the hotel. The minimally named boîte with the lowercase t -- sure to become the bane of copy editors the city over -- is also a graduation of sorts for another somewhat behind-the-scenes hotel star. The restaurant will be the first operated by Geoffrey Zakarian, who manned the kitchen at 44 and consulted Schrager on the Delano's Blue Door in South Beach, both restaurants that leaned on Brian McNally to provide the needed social wattage.

Unlike the Chambers' owners, however, the perpetually suntanned Zakarian did take notes from McNally on how to create a clubby atmosphere out of whole cloth. The chef plans to wander away from the "urban American" cuisine sizzling in the kitchen (he'll unveil a terrine of foie gras with sweet-pepper jelly and a risotto of escargot with black truffles) long enough to chat up the 44 types he expects to be filtering into its gold-hued spaces.

"I hope we get the midtown business crowd and the avant-garde art crowd from downtown," he says. "But with a hotel restaurant, you have a built-in clientele, instantly. You have 150 people living above you. It gets the pistons firing right away."

Born and Drukier will have plenty of activity going on outside Manhattan's prime business quarters by the time the Chambers' doors swing open. They recently opened Townhouse, a "cheap chic" boutique hotel in Miami modeled in part on Balazs's popular Standard on Sunset Boulevard.

Closer to home, the two have commissioned one of the more significant residential buildings to be constructed in Manhattan during the nineties boom. Pritzker Prize-winning modernist architect Richard Meier, who designed the templelike Getty Center in Los Angeles, will do his first Manhattan building in 30 years -- two glassy, fourteen-story superluxury condominium towers overlooking the Hudson River on Perry Street.

"It's the first signature residential building built in New York since the San Remo," says Born, beaming. Jean-Georges Vongerichten will do a café on the lower level of the $50 million building. Apartments -- all floor-throughs -- will sell for between $2 million and $16 million. The project should be complete by the end of 2001.

But despite the flurry of Twin Towers-scale ambition, neither man seems to be getting as grandiose as the recent flurry of activity implies. BD Hotels LLC remains a two-man operation, basically. "Well, we just hired a kid," Drukier says. "Now we just have to figure out what to do with him."

"We don't have a grand vision," says Drukier. But maybe it doesn't matter. "So far," Born adds, "we've been right about a dozen times in a row."


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