Relevance Revolution

Miami gallery owner and hotelier Diana Lowenstein was surprised when, in early 1998, she heard the news: The venerable Ritz-Carlton chain wanted to turn the DiLido Hotel, which she and her family had owned since 1973, into one of its properties. Lowenstein knew that changes would be on the way for the 11-story hotel, a 1953 Art Moderne/Miami Modern (MiMo) structure designed by famed architect Morris Lapidus. She assumed that the Ritz, which planned to manage and brand the property while Lowenstein retained ownership, would put its formal, traditional imprint on the distinct (and somewhat dated) DiLido. Instead, thanks to an emerging trend in hotel development—and a stubborn local historical society—she encountered a partner that was passionate about preserving the character of the aging Lapidus landmark.

The city of Miami Beach takes its design history seriously; in South Beach’s Art Deco district, a simple swimming pool addition requires an approval from the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board. That the city would be protective of the architect who designed the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc, and who transformed Lincoln Road into a pedestrian mall, is to be expected: To many, Morris Lapidus is Miami Beach. And while Lowenstein insists that decision makers at the Ritz-Carlton “understood and respected the era of the early ’50s,” the company required some coaxing to comply with the city’s stringent standards.

“They fought it out with the Miami historical society,” recalls Zeke Fernandez, one of the hotel’s principal designers. Fernandez says that the Ritz-Carlton proposed changes that would have sacrificed some of the hotel’s signature Art Moderne elements, including a plan to marble over the black terrazzo lobby floor and to remove Lapidus’ signature curved walls.


Thomas Mooney, design and preservation manager for the city of Miami Beach, remembers that the chain’s first proposal called for a more traditional style than the “postwar, modern hotel” he and other officials had in mind. The purists at the preservation board, however, refused to budge, a stance even Lowenstein found perplexing. “In the beginning, we were a little annoyed by the preservation committee,” she concedes. “I thought, ‘Oh come on, we’re going to be keeping these things from an old hotel for a Ritz-Carlton?’ ”

As the project progressed, however, the champions of Miami Beach heritage made believers out of Lowenstein and her partners. “In the end, the city of Miami won, and now the Ritz is so excited,” says Fernandez. Lowenstein calls the resort “a beautiful architectural renovation,” and Mooney, who approves of the final product, bestows upon the property a preservationist’s ultimate compliment: “It fits with its environment.”

The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, which opened in December, upends the expectations of those familiar with the hotel chain. It is void of antique china cabinets and heavy, fringed draperies. Instead, swirled cutouts grace the ceilings, and a casual beach bar beckons with hammocks and daybeds. “For the Ritz,” says Fernandez, “that’s really pushing it.”

The resort features materials never before seen in a Ritz-Carlton, including compressed bamboo flooring and Venetian stucco. Chartreuse, mango, and canary yellow colors, inspired by tropical fruits, are present throughout the hotel, mingling with the chain’s signature cobalt blue. A vast cherry wood wall, original to the DiLido and inset with 40 chrome sconces, curves through the lobby, and an oval rug, with a pattern inspired by 1940s Parisian metal designer Gilbert Poillerat, covers the adjacent floor. A Joan Miró etching hangs in the lower lobby, and original pieces from Latin American and European artists, commissioned by Lowenstein, offer contemporary interpretations of Art Moderne works. The sensually curved walls in the resort’s main bar, the aptly named Lapidus Lounge, pay homage to the building’s creator, who died in 2001 at age 98.

By heeding local style and tradition—and staying true to the original architect’s vision—the new Ritz typifies a growing movement in hotel development. Increasingly, major hotel chains and independents alike are building resorts that reflect, rather than ignore, their unique locations. The Ritz calls the concept “relevant luxury”; others in the industry refer to it as “sense of place.”

“We thought guests wanted a totally consistent experience chain-wide,” says Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Vivian Deuschl. “But now we’re evolving hotels from the typical and the formal to hotels that make more sense.”

While a major departure for the company, the South Beach Ritz is not the chain’s first foray into adaptive design. The resort builds on the success of Ritz properties in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco, and Bachelor Gulch in Colorado. The Half Moon Bay Ritz is the company’s most transporting experience: Set atop a jagged bluff, the stunning hotel evokes both the golf resorts of the British Isles and the shingle-style seaside lodges that were popular in turn-of-the-century Newport, R.I. “There’s not a whole lot of landscaping,” says John Hill, who, with his partner, Bob Glazier, designed the California and Colorado resorts. “The fairways come right up to the buildings; we wanted to take advantage of the location on the promontory and the view.”

“Some sites are so beautiful, you don’t want to create something jarring,” adds Glazier, who points out that the building’s wood shingles perform well in the type of moist environment for which the Bay Area is known. “The historical architectural tradition usually has a functional purpose.”

With the Ritz-Carlton in Bachelor Gulch, Hill and Glazier set out to develop a ski resort reminiscent of the great lodges found in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, in a style fondly known as “parkitecture”: “All buildings had to be made of materials found in national parks—no synthetic materials,” Hill explains. The result is that the distinction between indoors and outdoors is deliberately blurred. “We used 36-inch-wide logs inside and out,” says Glazier. “They come right into the main lobby.”

Hill and Glazier are at the forefront of a select group of architects specializing in site-sensitive hotel design. In addition to the Ritz-Carlton hotels, the pair designed the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, Calif., a project that required adapting the California Craftsman style, intended for modest but beautifully crafted bungalows, to a 262-room luxury property spread out over 30 acres. The designers gave the Montage varied rooflines and setbacks to create the impression that the hotel is a collection of smaller buildings. “The entrance is small-scale, one story,” Hill explains. “What you don’t realize is that you’re several stories in the air.” The floors descend down the bluff to gardens, pools, a fire pit, a cliff-top public park, and a restaurant housed in its own Craftsman structure.

If the Montage adapted the Craftsman style, the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., replicated it religiously. Based on the work of Charles and Henry Greene, who designed the Blacker House (1907) and the Gamble House (1908), both in Pasadena, and other California Craftsman masterworks, the resort is located adjacent to the Torrey Pines nature reserve, on a cliff above Black’s Beach. “If you decide to build in a place like Torrey Pines, the style and architecture should be seamless with the landscape,” says Steve Pelzer, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the resort’s parent company, Evans Hotels. “When you can’t tell the picture from the frame, you’ve accomplished something.”

According to Pelzer, travelers began demanding a more authentic experience from hotels in the mid-1990s. “Big hotels were building a shell on a computer, and only the skin would change,” he recalls. “You didn’t know if you were waking up in Miami or Milan.” In contrast, the Lodge at Torrey Pines celebrates early-20th-century California with meticulous attention to period detail—from the Art Nouveau stained-glass front door to the Stickley furniture and Tiffany lamps. The resort’s acclaimed A.R. Valentien restaurant, named after the early-1900s California artist, continues the Craftsman look with a timbered-beam, post-and-strap structure and stained-glass lanterns. “There was a California before Baywatch,” remarks Pelzer.

What the Lodge at Torrey Pines is to the achievements of Charles and Henry Greene, Canoe Bay is to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Dan Dobrowolski, co-owner of the 20-unit Relais & Chateaux property in Chetek, Wis., says that providing travelers with an authentic experience takes considerable commitment. “Being true to an architectural style is a very intricate thing, and it’s not economical,” he notes. “It’s much easier to build a lightly adorned concrete box.” But, Dobrowolski adds, when the vision is achieved, the payoff can be enormous: “Wright was right—the whole concept of organic architecture, buildings working in harmony with place, not being inflicted on a particular site. We have a beautiful natural environment. Our whole purpose is not to screw it up.”

All of the architecturally relevant resorts—from the stylish South Beach Ritz to the Craftsman tributes on the Pacific—owe a debt to the legendary Boulders. As its name suggests, the 20-year-old, Carefree, Ariz., resort wears its sense-of-place credentials on its sleeve. The adobe-structured property, now owned by Wyndham, is camouflaged within the stark beauty of the 12-million-year-old granite formations that surround it in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert. “It’s perfectly blended,” says Dobrowolski, who hired the Boulders’ architect, John Rattenbury, to design Canoe Bay.

Bob Zimmer, whose interior design firm oversaw the 2001 renovation of the Boulders, says that he uses the term “sense of place” so often that “people are sick of me saying it.” He believes that authentic flavor can be achieved only through attention to detail and also through restraint, what he calls “the presence of absence.”

The latest addition to the sense-of-place landscape, the raucous new Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, may not be a model of restraint. But Zimmer, for one, admires what the chain is doing with its new properties. “Before,” he opines, “they had a tendency to make every hotel look like Boston.”

Sense-of-place considerations at the new Ritz influenced more than its architecture, design, and artwork. Acknowledging its South Beach surroundings, the resort’s spa offers nightlife treatments for pre-party preparation and detox treatments for the morning-after blues. In between, guests can grab a beer at the beachside bar or sip cocktails at the lounge that bears the original architect’s name. Either way—whether reclined in a hammock or gazing at the glamorous patrons gliding past Lapidus’ curved walls—all guests at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, will know that they are a long way from Boston. 

Breaking the Chain

After taking over management of the DiLido Hotel in Miami Beach, the Ritz-Carlton initiated a $200 million renovation and expansion of the 1950s-era, Morris Lapidus–designed property. The result—the just-opened, 375-room, Art Moderne–style Ritz-Carlton, South Beach (800.241.3333, 786.276.4000, www.ritzcarlton.com; from $299)—is a significant departure for the hotel chain. But it is not the first time the Ritz has ventured beyond brocade carpeting and crystal chandeliers. Northern California’s Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (650.712.7000; from $245), was inspired by points east—Newport, R.I., and the British Isles—but it still knows how to honor local traditions. Its restaurant, Navio (Portuguese for ship), evokes the Portuguese shipbuilders who settled the area, and the spa offers facials and peels made from pumpkin, the area’s signature crop. The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch (970.748.6200; from $325), near Vail at the base of Beaver Creek Mountain, was built exclusively with materials native to national parks. The resort has a wildlife concierge who leads snowshoe tours and assures guests that the antlers used in the decor did not require cruelty to animals. (Elk and deer shed their headgear annually.) The Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown (202.912.4100; from $330) in Washington, D.C., pays tribute to the building’s original tenant—the historic Georgetown Incinerator—by employing a fire theme throughout the common areas. The Maison Orleans (504.670.2900; from $355), a boutique hotel within the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, is housed in the landmark Maison Blanche building. Southern decadence reigns supreme, with the guestrooms’ fringed curtains and demi-canopy beds creating an upscale bordello effect.

Going Greene

Steve Pelzer, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Evans Hotels, parent company of the Lodge at Torrey Pines (858.453.4420, www.lodgetorreypines.com; from $325) in La Jolla, Calif., had the words “sense of place” pinned up on his office door during the resort’s construction. His commitment—one shared by lodge owner Bill Evans—paid off: The 175-room, California Craftsman–style lodge, which opened in 2002, is elegantly in touch with its coastal-bluff surroundings (which include the world-renowned Torrey Pines nature reserve and golf courses). The lodge’s specialty rooms and suites—Blacker, Thorsen, and Gamble—are named after famous homes designed by Greene & Greene, whose early-20th-century work inspired the resort’s distinctive look. A reaction against industrialization, Craftsman architecture and design extolled the handmade over the machine-made, and the Lodge at Torrey Pines celebrates mistakes and asymmetry, such as the flawed “clinker” bricks used in an undulating, whimsical outdoor staircase. Even the spa has a pedigree: With its white leather lounges and Arts and Crafts accents, it is a tribute to another early 20th-century designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The Wright Touch

Frank lloyd wright’s Prairie style sets the tone at Canoe Bay (715.924.4594, www.canoebay.com; from $300), a 280-acre rustic retreat located on a glacier-created lake two hours from Minneapolis and three hours from the architect’s home, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis. John Rattenbury, who designed two of the resort’s signature cottages (the Rattenbury and the Edgewood, the newest addition), is one of the few living architects to have worked with the master. All of Canoe Bay’s accommodations feature stone fireplaces, hot tubs, and Wright-inspired touches, such as stained-glass lamps depicting prairie scenes and flowers. There are two dining options: a lakeside, candlelit restaurant and an all-cedar dining room outfitted with Charles Rennie Mackintosh–style chairs.

California Classic

Owner alan fuerstman developed the 262-room Montage Resort & Spa (949.715.6000, www.montagelagunabeach.com; from $475) to reflect the history and artistic appeal of Laguna Beach, Calif. The resort is a classic example—on a grand scale—of California Craftsman architecture, a style that Fuerstman claims “melded nature into design.” Views of the Pacific fill nearly every window, and a public park meanders between the ocean and the resort’s compound of light-colored, residential-style cottages. The interiors, by Wilson & Associates (which also designed the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch), continue the Craftsman theme with rich, dark wainscoting. The Montage’s fine art collection includes vintage photographs, and California plein air oil paintings by Jean Mannheim,  William Wendt, and Edgar Payne. 

Boulder Statement

The boulders (480.488.9009, www.wyndham.com; from $475) in Carefree, Ariz., has been a model of site-sensitive hotel design since its construction in the mid-1980s. Nestled in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert, a starkly beautiful spot dotted with the 12-million-year-old granite formations that inspired the resort’s name, the 215-room Boulders befits its Southwestern setting: Adobe-style structures blend into the surrounding slabs of rock, and a Native American aesthetic pervades the hotel’s interiors. In the 33,000-square-foot Golden Door spa, the shower floors feature ancient Anasazi spiral designs; in the hotel corridors, the concrete contains embedded symbols of indigenous tribes.

Capital Creation

Washington, D.C.’s Hotel Monaco (202.628.7177, www.monaco-dc.com; from $349) is the rare new urban hotel that provides visitors with a profound sense of history and place. The white marble building, originally completed in 1839 by Washington Monument creator Robert Mills, first served as the general post office. When the Tariff Commission occupied the site in 1921, the neoclassical building became known as the Tariff; in 1971, it earned a National Historic Landmark designation. Thirty years later, the Kimpton Group rehabilitated the Tariff (with the help of federal tax credits) under the exacting guidelines of the Department of the Interior. Doric columns in the public spaces complement the Corinthian columns on the hotel’s exterior. The interiors mix classic modern furnishings, some by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, with boldly colored contemporary pieces. The 184 guestrooms feature the original 15-foot vaulted ceilings.

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