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Feature: Gold Standards

Jack Smith

Economics aside, the $50 million Ty Warner Penthouse at the Four Seasons Hotel New York is not for everyone. Some visitors—after stepping out of the suite’s private elevator and catching sight of the steepled vistas surrounding them on the 52nd floor—might experience a frisson of vertigo. Their anxiety would mount as they came closer to the windows that stretch uninterrupted 25 feet from floor to ceiling. Should these visitors venture out onto the windswept balconies that crown the hotel’s summit, some 700 feet above Manhattan’s canyon floor, their hearts would begin to pound and their breathing would become shallow until they fled, panic-ridden, back to the lift to jab frantically at the down button.

And yet, for a privileged few, this space is a portal to a "thrill of the senses," as the hotel’s owner—and the suite’s most frequent occupant—Ty Warner, has dubbed it, an urban Olympus set amid the soaring towers and turrets of Gotham. The penthouse’s interior is no less stunning than the views. A collaboration between architect I.M. Pei (who also designed the hotel itself) and architect/ designer Peter Marino, the suite features walls inlaid with mother-of-pearl, floors of belle-terre limestone, waterfalls cascading from the ceiling, and a powder room seemingly carved from tigereye stone. It is the most dazzling and, at $30,000 per night, most expensive hotel suite since well, since three years ago, when Pei and Marino built the Four Seasons’ two Presidential Suites on the 51st floor, each of which rents for $15,000 a night.

This is not to suggest that the Four Seasons holds a monopoly on lavish hotel suites in Manhattan. At the Waldorf-Astoria, where $10,000 buys you a night in the Presidential or Royal suite, guests can select from no fewer than 331 suites. "We can accommodate 20 heads of state at one time," says the hotel’s manager, Mark Lauer.

The New York Palace Hotel has offered four three-story suites since the property opened in 1980. "We used to charge $10,000 a night until recently, when we were sold out and we heard a guest who had wanted a triplex complain that he gladly would’ve paid $15,000 a night," says director of communications Pete Holmberg. "We heard that and thought, ‘Hmmm’."

In 2002, the Palace built its Royal Suite, a 3,500-square-foot residence in which the rooms replicate the styles of classical French eras from Louis XV to Napoléon. According to a show running on the Travel Channel, you have to prove royal descent or be a head of state to book the room, but this, stresses Holmberg, is a base canard. "You can’t shut somebody out just because they’re not royalty," he says. "This is America."

Indeed, few institutions are so quintessentially American, so reflective of dreams and aspirations, as the hotel suite. In 1861, British journalist George Augustus Sala told the Daily Telegraph’s readers that "the American hotel is to an English hotel what an elephant is to a periwinkle. It is as roomy as Buckingham Palace and is not much inferior to a palace in its internal fittings. It has ranges of drawing rooms, suites of private rooms, vast staircases, and interminable layers of bedchambers."

When New York’s St. Nicholas Hotel opened in 1853, it featured chambers designed for flights of romantic fantasy: suites lined and ornamented in white satin, with canopies falling over beds of lace and surrounded by cushions of satin, gold leaf, and silver brocade. In his book Palaces of the People, historian Arthur White says these suites did a thriving business—and why not? "Americans wanted a taste of luxury, along with romance," he writes. "The wife of an immigrant from the slums of Europe could dream of the day when her daughter would marry and honeymoon in such luxury. There were none of the class barriers of Europe. There was nothing to stop him or her from going into one of these great luxury hotels so long as they had the money. Building such a hotel was an act of faith, of confidence in the future; it was the same spirit that drove medieval Europeans to create cathedrals."

Like a cathedral, a suite represents something beyond its greater physical dimensions. A guest room is shelter, an inert box with a bed, window, and door. A suite, on the other hand, raises expectations, like a giant gift box filled with surprises to delight its occupants. There will be spectacular views and a big telescope by the window; chocolates, strawberries, and marzipans laid out in welcome; an open bar with Champagne on ice. No less than a home, a suite should be a setting for entertaining friends, a place that reflects your tastes, that soothes and even inspires.

According to Ward Morehouse III—author of The Waldorf-Astoria: America’s Gilded Dream; Life at the Top: Inside New York’s Grand Hotels; and Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel—the fundamental premise of the suite has changed over the years. "Through the 1950s and 1960s, suites were largely interconnecting rooms; they were mostly a matter of size," says Morehouse, who spent much of his youth as a resident at the Plaza. "Nowadays hotel suites are more about style and fashion. They reflect the ascendancy of interior design and heightened sophistication."

Any lack of sophistication at the Plaza did not appear to bother John F. Kennedy, whose tryst in one of the hotel’s suites would later be recalled in Judith Exner’s autobiography My Story. "Jack was impressed with the size of the suite," writes Exner. "‘I could hide in it for a week,’ [he said]. He toured the whole place, inspected the kitchen, bounced on the bed, stretched out on the living room sofa, and nibbled on hors d’oeuvres."

It is quite possible, of course, that Kennedy was merely being polite, given that he had his own suite at the Carlyle, and he had not come for the hors d’oeuvres.

Today, with hotels emphasizing style as much as size, some are doing so more effectively than others. "Too often, when a hotel wants to do a suite, it will just call in a designer and tell him to do something over-the-top," says Ian Schrager, whose Studio 54 earned him first fame and then a jail sentence for tax evasion in the 1970s and early ’80s. By the mid-1980s and early ’90s, Schrager had emerged as Hotelier to the Hip, with sleek boutique properties such as the Delano in South Beach and Morgans and the Royalton in Manhattan. More recently, he acquired New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel and re-created the property without so much as a single designer-conceived swag or jabot.

"A suite should carry the hotel’s DNA," he says. "It should be a vision within a vision, with the same sense of delightful anarchy and chaos as the lobby and bars. The point is to give people something they haven’t had before. It’s not about the color of the walls; it’s about how it makes you feel. It’s about capturing the spirit of the times."

Chekitan Dev, an associate professor of marketing and tourism at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, believes that modern times call for extravagant measures. "Luxury sells," Dev says. "Everyone aspires to some aspect of luxury; upscale has become the new normal. As a result, if you have a hotel with 100 rooms and 20 suites, the suites will sell out first."

In such a climate, notes Christoph Schmidinger, general manager at the Four Seasons Hotel New York, it does not hurt to be known for having one of the world’s most expensive suites. "It creates a worldwide buzz," he says. "We’re not just competing with hotels in New York; we’re competing with the Four Seasons and the Ritz in Paris, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Burj al Arab in Dubai. It clearly supports our image; whenever you think of these hotels, you will think of us, too."

The Four Seasons’ penthouse is one of several recent additions, redesigns, and refurbishments at Manhattan’s most exclusive properties, a boom unparalleled since the Golden Age of Hotels at the turn of the last century. During the Golden Age, affluent society traveled in style, overnighting and entertaining in such fabled New York hotels as the St. Regis, the Plaza, and the original Waldorf-Astoria. There, hotel-goers first experienced some of the conveniences and luxuries we now take for granted. In 1893, for instance, the Waldorf was equipped with electric lights at a time when the new technology was amazing visitors at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At John Jacob Astor’s St. Regis Hotel, guests enjoyed an air-cooling and filtration system long before they had air-conditioning in their homes.

For most of the last century, says associate professor Dev, hotels continued to offer amenities and services rarely seen in private homes. But then came the 1980s, the decade of cocooning, when wealthy baby boomers transformed their homes into suburban Xanadus replete with private screening rooms, walls upholstered in silk, game rooms, spas, wine cellars, designer gazebos, walk-in closets the size of amphitheaters, beds swathed in Frette linens, and private heliports. Today, even the most resplendent hotels struggle to offer accommodations on par with their guests’ homes. Their efforts to do so, however, have produced a new era in hospitality. "One hundred years after the first Golden Age," says Dev, "we’ve entered the Second Golden Age of Hotels."

Evidence of Dev’s assertion can be found at the Carlyle, where the imperative to create increasingly impressive settings has prompted the hotel to acquire apartments from the property’s permanent residents and convert them into suites. "This is a residential-style hotel in a residential neighborhood," says managing director Jim McBride. "Our competition isn’t so much the other hotels as it is our guests’ own homes."

At the Old World-y Lowell hotel, where the Penthouse Suite costs $7,500 a night, what were novelties and luxuries a few years ago have become de rigueur. "Nobody wants to touch a stereo anymore," says Dina Chartouni, who, with her husband, Fouad, and brother-in-law, Nabil, owns the Upper East Side hotel. "Today you have to offer iPod docking."

The Lowell claims to be the only luxury hotel in Manhattan with wood-burning fireplaces; a menu allows guests to select from fuel including bergamot, eucalyptus, geranium, lavender, rosemary, and orange. "It creates a more residential feel," says Chartouni, who adds that her guests use the fireplaces even in summer, while they sit outside on their balconies.

Of course, what is outside a suite may be a greater selling point than what is inside. "When you come right down to it, anything we can offer guests in a suite they can have at home," says Dan Flannery, vice president and general manager of the Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park. "The one thing they can’t have at home is New York itself. They want the views, the color, Central Park, the horses and wagons, the famous people moving in and out. This is what New York is all about."

A different definition of New York prevails at Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel, a temple of high Bohemia where acid rock meets Renaissance and the Penthouse Suite costs $5,000 per night. Schrager conceived the redesign of Gramercy Park in tandem with artist Julian Schnabel, but the hotelier denies he was attempting to create an "art hotel." Rather, his property is intended to evoke the way an artist lives and works. As a hotel brochure explains, "Entering is like stumbling inside an artist’s studio or home."

If you ever have stumbled into an artist’s studio or home, you may agree with Schrager’s assessment. In the lobby, you move past pillars of distressed wood with club chairs upholstered in leather and velvet. Elsewhere, antiques intermingle with works by Schnabel, Warhol, Basquiat, and Damien Hirst in spaces lit by seemingly ritualistic arrays of burning candles.

Schrager’s signature touch, however, can be found in your suite, where a blue velvet throw lies on the bed, as if you just tossed it there. "We had to show the maids how to do it," says Schrager. "They didn’t get it. They kept hanging it up."

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