Up in the Old New Mercer Hotel: Sneak Preview of Balazs’ Palace

There it is, at the corner of Mercer and Prince streets, the Mercer Hotel. It was supposed to open in 1992, but there were snags and delays and more snags until it became just another one of those never-ending construction projects that New Yorkers learn to ignore.

Brown plastic covers the windows. A sign says, “opening soonish,” a claim that has been an industry joke for years. But right now, inside the unmarked building, there are … guests. Leonardo DiCaprio has slept here. So have Sofia Coppola and other assorted rich hipsters.

André Balazs, the hotel’s owner, has been allowing people to try the place out for around $250 a night. So far, a select few have slept in the 38 available rooms (out of an eventual 75), giving Mr. Balazs and his staff a chance to do a little trouble-shooting before the formal opening in late April (too late for the next fashion week, alas). Mr. Balazs’ “soft opening” also helps to generate a precious commodity: buzz. And Mr. Balazs, who also owns the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and the Sunset Beach Hotel on Shelter Island, is going to need all the good word-of-mouth he can get. He’ll be competing not only with the Paramount and Royalton hotels-Ian Schrager’s midtown hot spots of the early 90’s-but also the nearby SoHo Grand, which beat Mr. Balazs to the neighborhood when it opened in 1996.

On Feb. 25, at 10 P.M., an architect was getting ready for bed in his room on the fifth floor. Looking at ease in his terry-cloth bathrobe, which was open at the chest, he was happy to give an early review. “If you want something that’s younger and cleaner and a little bit more visually pleasing, why not?” said the man, who did not want his name used. “And they’ve got great cleaning staff. I’ve never seen middle-aged Asian men as a cleaning staff. They’re doing a good job. There’s nothing bad to say about it. It’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, but New York has nothing else like it, and that’s why it’s packed. There are all these people who want to say they’re in the hot, hip new place-‘It’s not open yet, but I’m there, ha ha!'”

With former partner Campion Platt, Mr. Balazs purchased the landmark neo-Romanesque building, erected in 1888 by John Jacob Astor III, for $8.2 million in 1989. It was first set to open by late spring and then June of 1992. The opening was stretched to late summer 1992, then the fall, and so on. By the end of 1993, the hotel had run up costs of a reported $26 million, after legal, zoning and engineering problems, some neighborhood opposition, numerous consultants, the backing-out of a Japanese investment company, the murder of a construction manager and other setbacks. Work on the hotel ceased in 1993 and remained on hiatus until 1995 while Mr. Balazs did some refinancing. Construction resumed in February 1996.

The lobby is still a work in progress. Thick wires hang down from the ceiling. But it has oversized sofas, shelves filled with books ( Erotic Art, Beefcake ) bought in bulk from the Strand and a front desk made of African wenge wood. The woman tapping away at a laptop behind the desk, wearing all black and a pair of funky spectacles, did not look much like a clerk. There was one vacancy, at a bargain price of $250 a night (when the hotel opens, room rates will range from $285 for a single to approximately $1,500 for a loft suite).

A delivery guy showed up and was directed to the elevator. “Let me just call them so they know their food’s coming up,” the woman said. (A basement restaurant, a bar and room service are coming soonish, too). Onto the elevator, a stainless steel chamber out of an early James Bond film. The halls are bare and dim.

The rooms, by French interior design wizard Christian Liaigre, are serene. They seem perfectly square, with high ceilings, two simple armoires, a bed with crisp sheets and a plain couch. There’s a Sony TV-cum-VCR (Web TV is on the way) and sisal rugs, the kind that crush when stepped on. The mini bar was full of soda, Kit-Kats, Cracker Jack, Toblerone and Dean & Deluca espresso beans covered in chocolate. The colors-browns and beiges and creams and whites-give a good feeling to the rooms and allow the morning light to come in unbroken through the windowed floor-to-ceiling French doors, which open out onto little wrought-iron Juliet balconies.

The Mercer is simple without being cold; if this is minimalism, it is a homey minimalism. A nice antidote to the stress of dealing with New York. And the bathrooms are big.

The architect on the fifth floor was happy overall, but like a lot of the seen-it-all types who will stay here, he had his little gripes. “Visually, there’s nothing else like it in New York,” he said. “It’s not a bunch of tired old chintz and it’s not like a glitz palace, like the St. Regis, or like the Four Seasons, with the glitzeroo hookers. It’s a good location. There’s nothing else downtown, other than the SoHo Grand, which has minuscule rooms. Not that this is the greatest thing on earth, but it’s nice.

“It’s nice not having framed prints by the yard on the wall. It’s nice not having chintz. It’s plain, it’s calm, it’s pleasant. Why would you want to stay at some glitz palace in midtown full of tourists wearing badges when what you really want is a big huge bathroom and nice sheets? The greatest thing about the room is everything’s on a dimmer-it’s all about comfort, good lighting and sex.”

He eyed the light fixture above. “It’s two light bulbs with a paper shade around them hanging from the ceiling with hardware store equipment, but it looks great.” He fixed his gaze on the bathroom. “White tile, milk glass fixtures, very good use of the Italian marble. The nicest-done sinks. Open shower and a big ol’ tub, a three-way mirror facing the tub. I think that would count as a king-sized tub. Big.”

What about the bedside tables? “They’re lovely, but you can only fit a slip of paper in them. And no phone books.”

He looked up again. “It’s a very chic-looking ceiling fan, not like one you’d see in a singles’ bar on the East 70’s. There’s nothing else like it-that’s the key. There’s nothing else like this except the Ian Schragers with the minuscule rooms. Yeah, this is a perfectly nice place. It’s a shame the room service isn’t here yet. That would be nice. You know, ‘soonish’-what is soonish? How about nowish? But I think they’ve thought through a sexy, young hotel. That’s good. I hope they keep the sandblasted glass on the windows downstairs. It would be a shame if everyone could see in.”

Up on the sixth floor, two women in their 20’s, who described themselves as “two lovely British lasses” and “London girls,” had just returned from dinner and smokes at Jerry’s around the corner.

“There’s no room service, but it doesn’t really matter,” said one. “I think it’s really-I like it. The people are really friendly, really cool, the rooms are really nice, the baths are really big, and it’s cool.”

“I don’t really like the hallway,” said the other one. “You know what it reminds me of? The Paramount. It’s very L.A. cocktail lounge 80’s. But I don’t like it. And it’s all dark, I find it dark here.”

“I think it’s mellow,” said the first one.

In a big room on the fourth floor, Tyler Brûlé, the Canadian editor of Wallpaper , a London-based home and style magazine, was sprawled across his bed dressed in head-to-toe Prada. Three friends were visiting Mr. Brûlé, lounging on the bed with him, watching basic cable and looking at photographs of models.

“This is my third time staying here already, so obviously I like it,” Mr. Brûlé said. “There’s something very residential about this hotel, in the Wallpaper sense, anyway. It doesn’t seem very hotel-y to me. Does it feel hotel-y to you, Scott?”

“Oh, slightly,” said Scott.

Mr. Brûlé said he normally stays uptown in the Four Seasons. “At the Four Seasons, I can get my shirts back in two hours,” he said. “I can’t here. In fact, last time I was here, the shirts didn’t get back at all-they had to get sent to London! I wouldn’t put up with that shit normally, but I did that time.”

Anything else, pal?

“I think the location is fantastic and obviously it’s probably the world’s most anticipated hotel. It took so fucking long for it to open.”

One of Mr. Brûlé’s friends had another grievance: “How could they not have MTV here?”

“I made a request,” Mr. Brûlé said. “They’ve got to get MTV, it’s ridiculous. I mean, like, come on.”

A woman who works in cancer treatment was staying on the fifth floor. She was here on business, doing work in the daytime at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center.

She told of her impressions of the Mercer in a phone interview while she watched Late Show With David Letterman . “They’ve made a couple of mistakes, so they need to be really careful,” she said, mentioning something about a fax of hers that was somehow sent to a competitor. “But they were really nice about it and they apologized. I think their staff is young, but when you call things to their attention, they’re willing to correct it. They’re friendly, they’re prompt, so I think they’ll get all the glitches ironed out. It’s also pretty unpretentious and I hope that they keep it that way, because that’s the cool thing about SoHo-it’s pretty real.”

She said she comes to New York every few weeks and plans to return to the hotel. “It’s better than staying at a big, impersonal hotel and it’s such a great location, and I like places that seem clean-the linens are washed all the time and it’s not like you feel like you’re sleeping in a bed that 500 other people have slept in.

“If I had known that they didn’t have a restaurant and they didn’t have a bar-and tomorrow I need to Fed Ex a bunch of stuff, which could potentially be a problem-I probably wouldn’t have stayed here. I don’t know if I agree with soft openings. People like me really need services. When I wake up in the morning, I start e-mailing Turkey, and I need a cup of coffee and I want it delivered to my room. But it’s been O.K. I’m not sorry I stayed here. But I’m here by accident. If I had known it literally just opened, I would have stayed at the SoHo Grand and tried it out on my next visit.

“But it’s good. The bathrooms are great. The fact that they give you big things of shampoo is good. They’ve got to get their liquor license. But by then, it’s going to be a big fashion hotel, and then I’m never going to be able to get in here.”