The Rivington Saga

The Stallings Family
Space 900 square feet
Location Lower East Side
Lived There Apartment now ready for occupancy

Like it or not—and there are good reasons to at the very least feel pretty uncomfortable about it—Paul Stallings is a Lower East Side visionary. He’s imposed his twenty-story glass-and-aluminum conception—the Hotel on Rivington—on the area’s self-consciously bohemian tenementscape.

This has taken years. The unfinished Tokyo-esque building has loomed over the southern end of Avenue A, seemingly an artifact of the go-go nineties gone bust. Construction started at the end of 2001. There were delays as the place was redesigned. Costs soared, and Stallings had to come up with more money. But now, just as the neighborhood was getting used to having this arrested development in its midst, it’s actually about to open.

Stallings loves the building so much that he and his wife, Rena, have built a spare, open apartment on its seventeenth floor. “From before we broke ground, we knew that that was something we wanted,” he says. It has 86 feet of continuous floor-to-ceiling windows, and bunk beds equipped with built-in flat-panel TVs for their six children. At 900 square feet, it’s a lot smaller than their nine-bedroom “grand old Gold Coast white elephant of a house” on ten acres in Oyster Bay (plus, it lacks a kitchen). Instead of goats, ponies, and a barn, there’s a commanding view of the East River.

Which makes it easier to understand why the Stallings have done this. In a city of uninspired development, there’s something refreshingly hubristic about their new hotel. It’s the kind of building Trump might erect on Rivington Street if his tastes ran more toward Blade Runner than Dallas.

Twenty-five years ago, Paul Stallings was a 29-year-old Wall Street lawyer from Illinois who decided to invest in some real estate on the Lower East Side. This took a certain amount of optimism. “New York was falling apart,” Stallings remembers. We’re sitting in the hotel’s office next door—you pass a nail salon to get to it, which seems to cause Rena some eye-rolling discomfort.

“I guess I came here with this sort of advantage, not having the baggage of historic perspective on neighborhoods in the city,” he says. Plus, the buildings were cheap. “I literally bought them with excess of credit lines on my Visa card.” It was the dawn of the urban bourgeois bohemian, and Stallings started renovating buildings for people like himself. “I understood my own market because I was that market,” he says. At the time, that didn’t mean glass towers.

“I was into exposed brick walls, a crunchy granola aesthetic,” he says. That worked pretty well for the six-story walkups he traded in, though there were some bumps along the way, notably when he was voted one of the city’s ten worst landlords by the Village Voice in 1984. But the investment proved provident.

By the early nineties, he’d married Rena and they were living in a loft on Broome Street. She’d given up her advertising job after having their first child, Henry, and decided that she’d open a kind of urban-antiques store downstairs in their building. Henro, the store, helped pioneer distressed country-farmhouse-in-a-loft décor. “I’m from North Carolina, so when you drive around the back roads, you see these falling-down shacks,” she says. “We drove truckloads of junk from down there back to our home, just for fun.” (Henro shut this year.)

The family moved to Oyster Bay in 1995. Around the same time, Stallings was seeing more and more professionals—the quasi-edgy sorts with a “secret tattoo,” he says—looking in the East Village, and decided to build a doorman rental building on East 7th Street, between B and C. It’s large, brick, and unassertive—he says he wouldn’t make it that demure if he did it today. After that was a success, he began buying up the air rights of buildings along Rivington Street between Essex and Ludlow. The original plan was for a brick tower with balconies. “This project was conceived four years ago,” he says. “At that point, there was no economic justification to do anything that’s not … I don’t want to say plain vanilla, but a little more affordable. As the project began to unfold, so did the neighborhood.” Clinton Street’s restaurant row was flourishing, the Town Cars were circling. Stallings had an idea: Why not open a boutique hotel?

He approached André Balazs, proprietor of the Mercer, to invest in and operate the place. At that point, the design still called for brick. “I was intrigued by the location, but I told him the building was horrific,” Balazs says. Mostly he didn’t become involved because the plan was so “complicated.” The building was financed as a hotel-condominium, which made it easier to get money from banks, and the plumbing is still there to make that conversion (the closets have all the utilities running to them to allow a quick transformation to kitchenettes). Stallings admits to a creative development approach to get the building built.

Once construction started, his ambitions swelled.

“I mean, I’ve done other apartment buildings before, which I certainly take pride in, but this became something larger-than-life,” he says. “There was an economic justification to take the project to another level aesthetically. And hopefully this isn’t just a vanity thing.”

His architect, Amador Pons, brought in Matt Grzywinski to design a less plain-vanilla interior and re-skin the tower in a Mondrianish pattern of glass panels. Grzywinski, who’s 28 and lankily handsome enough to work the front desk at an Ian Schrager hotel, has his Howard Roark patter down cold: He calls the structure “unapologetic.”

And Stallings doesn’t apologize for the fact that it’s about looking out over its low-rise neighbors. “The whole passionate guiding force here was to create a restful environment where you can experience the city from,” Stallings says. “You’re free to embrace the views.”

Up on the seventeenth floor, Rena and Grzywinski show off the Stallingses’ walk-through closet, which provides a back entrance to their bedroom (“such as it is,” says Grzywinski) when motorized curtains have enclosed it. A balcony runs the length of the apartment’s north wall, like the bridge of a ship. “Rena wanted to completely glass over the terrace because she’s so paranoid that one of our children is going to go off the edge,” says Paul.

When he came to me, it was very clear that he wanted to make it a very beautiful sort of design statement,” says Jeff Klein, who runs City Club in midtown. (After Balazs, Stallings had made the rounds of other hoteliers; he ended up hiring a former manager of the Mercer.) “I said, ‘I think this should be condos,’ ” Klein says. “And he said, ‘No, I want it to be a hotel.’ I didn’t know if it’s his last hurrah, but it’s definitely his hurrah.” Klein wasn’t sure the hotel could make money: The building was expensive and Stallings would have to charge rates (the plan now is for $265 to $5,000 a night) that would require the area to become the meatpacking district—and fast.

For most of its gestation, the Rivington was known as the Surface Hotel, named after the style magazine. Its publisher, Riley Johndonnell, had been looking to do a real-world brand extension. He brought on Will Candis, a publicist and sometime journalist, to scout for projects. Inspired by what a good idea it was for W magazine to open the W hotel, not realizing that the two are unrelated, Candis contacted Stallings. Surface would wangle top-notch design talent, calling attention to itself as a tastemaker in the process.

Johndonnell worked his connections: The rooms were decorated by India Mahdavi. The biomorphic-egg entryway is by Marcel Wanders. And the coup de grâce is the penthouse, by Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker Prize.

But as the hotel moved toward completion, it lost that name and the magazine’s involvement (the as-yet-unfinished Hadid rooftop—site of a recent Moby party—will still be named the Surface Penthouse). Stallings is blasé about what happened: “Basically, Surface had the role of introducing us to three of the designers.” A Surface spokeswoman called the split-up “mutual.”

Last year, when the hotel was first supposed to open, Keith McNally opened Schiller’s Liquor Bar down the block, and Stallings appeared prescient—again. “I certainly would have been someone who, ten years ago, would have been aghast at the notion of a twenty-story glass tower being built in the Lower East Side,” Stallings says. But he’s proud of his avant-garde accomplishment, including the egg entryway. “I had some scary moments, for both Rena and myself. We’d look at it and say, ‘Oh, my God, where are we going with this?’ ” Even now, “people are going to react—like, ‘What’s this doing in this neighborhood?’ But I sort of invite that.”

The Rivington Saga