Lords of the Chambers

The plan is making perfect sense, up to the point where you run across that first guy without trousers. And the second.

Ira Drukier, one of the bigger, if quieter, powers in the Manhattan hotel world, is standing in the immaculately white Museum Editions gallery on Vestry Street in TriBeCa. He’s thumbing through a downtown art magazine while describing his vision: a high-end midtown hotel that also functions as a “living museum,” a showplace for real art by serious, “edgy,” of-the-moment painters, sculptors, and installation artists.

The magazine he’s perusing, trolling for talent, features a provocative series of images by Williamsburg painter Tracy Nakayama, who’s 26. Nakayama takes photos from the seventies of guys in aviator shades cavorting with Farrah-haired women in hip-huggers and renders them in moody, expressionist watercolors.

But there’s edge and then there’s edge. Drukier flips a page and sees the next series of watercolors: hard-core gay-porn magazine images of a variety of mustached Dirk Digglers, sans trousers, staring coolly back at the viewer, looking as bored as if they’re waiting for a bus.

Drukier, his eyes widening in surprise, shakes his head. “No, I don’t think we’ll use these,” he says with a smile. “Even we have our limits.”

“They won’t be out there taking bows,” says Ian Schrager. “But their hotel will be as successful as anybody’s.”

But certainly, Drukier and his partner, Richard Born, are working to stretch those very limits. The work in question – the stuff with the clothes, that is – is scheduled to debut not in the Whitney but on the walls of guest rooms in the soon-to-open Chambers hotel on West 56th Street. The Chambers is one of the most ambitiously fashion-forward hotels to open in New York since the Mercer three years ago, and that’s not entirely coincidental, since Born and Drukier were André Balazs’s quiet but invaluable partners in building that SoHo temple of chic.

The Chambers, with the industrial feel of an art-filled SoHo loft, is also the clearest expression of an emerging second wave of boutique hotels in Manhattan. Its opening follows by a month the launch of Ian Schrager’s newest Manhattan outpost, the Hudson. But unlike the Hudson, the Chambers is the brainchild of developers – of backroom guys, suits – not nightlife Barnums and scenesters. Born and Drukier are attempting to import the downtown aesthetic into the backyard of the Sheraton and the Grand Hyatt. Every room at the Chambers will function as an exhibition space, featuring original works by local talent such as Ruth Root, Bill Fick, and Alyson Shotz, all veterans of
P.S. 1’s “Greater New York” show.

In addition, each of the hotel’s twelve corridors will double as an installation space. Guests will step out of the elevator on the fourth floor, for example, and wander into a cocoon of fluorescent pinks and oranges, the walls and the ceiling soaked with undulating Day-Glo colors by Berlin-based painter Katharina Grosse. Visitors to the ninth floor will confront deadpan “instructions” – make your own car; dip records in chocolate – swathed across the walls by the subversive British duo Bob and Roberta Smith.

To be sure, the Chambers’ commitment to underground art will be mitigated by the crowd-pleasing poppiness of the overall design, as rendered by David Rockwell. Still, it’s an ambitious effort, considering that hotel art – be it Motel 6 seascapes or the faceless pseudo-Rothkos that dominate the chain hotels of America – is an art-world punch line, so banal it couldn’t inspire a Jeff Koons parody.

A $32 million project, the 77-room, fifteen-story Chambers will open in late November next to the Norma Kamali flagship. It marks a graduation of sorts, a giant step into the fabulosphere for a couple of low-key guys from Queens – one a former electrical engineer, the other a former surgeon.

Inside the gallery, a couple of assistants haul out for Druckier’s perusal a narrow, seven-foot rectangular photographic frieze by an “emergent” Baltimore artist otherwise known as filmmaker John Waters. Waters will festoon the sixth floor with his “Mark” series, a collection of shots of actors’ feet hitting their “marks” – taped-down X’s – on the set of his film Pecker.

“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.

“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.”

Lords of the Chambers