Lobbyists

It is perhaps appropriate that the mastermind behind this place, Alex Calderwood, hails not from Los Angeles but from grungy, relaxed Seattle. A few days earlier, Mr. Calderwood, co-owner of the Ace Hotel Group, strolled through the lobby, past a glass case brimming with dead birds and into the hotel’s first-floor restaurant, the Breslin. He settled into a booth and ordered an iced tea. His shoulder-length, curly dark hair was tucked inside a black cap that looked like something a newspaper boy would have worn in the ’30s. “We tend to get lumped in with the hip motels,” said Mr. Calderwood, who was headed to a Pearl Jam concert that night. “I understand why that is. But I think it’s a misnomer. Our goal is to create instant classics.”

By design, the Ace is meant to feel like a well-preserved piece of vintage Manhattan. But in fact, it’s just one year old. Mr. Calderwood and his partners, who are based in Oregon and operate hotels in Seattle, Portland and Palm Springs, celebrated with a party. They wheeled in kegs of beer from the Brooklyn Brewery. A Mister Softee served free ice cream on the sidewalk outside. All of it was chronicled on the hotel’s Tumblr, which is titled “Everything Will Be Okay.”

The first year in New York had not been without its growing pains. Renovating the 1904 apartment building, originally known as the Breslin, was tricky for Mr. Calderwood and his partners, Andrew Zobler and Allen Gross. Some of the residents, living in rent-controlled single-occupancy rooms, had refused to take buyouts, and a handful of ground-floor retail vendors were reluctant to vacate. When the Ace eventually debuted its new restaurant, run by Ken Friedman, the co-proprietor of the Spotted Pig, there were protests from the mosque across the street.

These proved mere hiccups. Now, in the mornings, the line at Stumptown snakes out the door. At night, revelers pack into the subterranean basement, which was once a boxing ring. Tables at the Breslin are filled at breakfast, lunch and dinner. A steady stream of guests trickle into the lobby from the 250 or so rooms upstairs (turntables; hoodie-bathrobe hybrids cut from high-grade organic Canadian cotton; a general air of theatrical, retro American masculinity), which go for about $400 per night.

Mr. Calderwood said he wasn’t exactly sure how the lobby laptop-athon got rolling. He credited the strong coffee from Stumptown; the hotel’s designers, Roman & Williams; and his staff, who effectively manage it in a West Coast-style, laissez-faire manner.

“When you’re in the lobby, there’s a story behind every single object there,” said Mr. Calderwood. “Part of the appeal is the object itself. But it’s also the path and history of how it got there and why. There’s an unspoken narrative.”

The coffee-nursing, couch-hogging, narrative-appreciating creative strivers may not make the Ace much money, but Mr. Calderwood insists they are not only welcome but good for business-as important to the overall aesthetic as the bespoke furniture and the stuffed badgers. “Obviously, our first priority is our guests who are staying here,” said Mr. Calderwood. “But if that was just an empty lobby and it were limited to just the guests, it would be kind of dead. I think the guests actually like the interaction with the locals.”

Indeed, the combination of dead animals and live New Yorkers is a welcomed antidote to the sleek modernity and antiseptic coolness of such corporate “boutique” hotels as the W.

In 1999, Mr. Calderwood and his partners opened their first hotel in a refurbished halfway house in Seattle. Roughly a decade later, they arrived in New York. The Ace now sits in the midst of a scruffy patch of Manhattan that stretches from the top of Madison Park to the bottom of Herald Square. It seems like an odd point of entry. But Mr. Calderwood said that from the get-go, the location was crucial. What better place to create a destination hotel than in a neighborhood with few destinations?

“As an emerging brand coming from the West Coast into New York, people probably expected us to go into the Lower East Side or someplace downtown,” said Mr. Calderwood. “We created more impact, more waves, by coming here.”

Moreover, the area is full of relatively cheap office space that is home to a large population of tech start-ups, film companies and fashion businesses, hungry for a gathering place where their pace of production-24-7, but somehow leisurely, by virtue of its focus on pleasure-is legitimized,

Melissa Flashman, a literary agent with Trident Media Group, whose clients include the professor Stanley Fish and the blogger-memoirist Emily Gould, has worked in the area for years, and now regularly pops into the Ace for coffee, food and liquor. Lauren LeBlanc, a 31-year-old senior editor at Atlas & Co., a boutique publishing house a few blocks away, goes there to edit manuscripts.

And back in November, Charlie O’Donnell, the influential Silicon Alley venture capitalist, wrote a post about the wonders of the Ace’s lobby on his blog, This is Going to be BIG. Since then, the denizens of the myriad start-up tech companies that line Broadway from 29th all the way down to Union Square have flocked to the Ace.

“You can go in at any time without a reservation and get a relatively large group of people to sit down and network and they won’t bother you,” said Jason Schwartz, a Silicon Alley tech entrepreneur. “It’s not stuffy. It’s not trying to be too chic. It’s inviting. … Anytime I have a meeting, I suggest it there first.”

Back in the lobby, Sal Del Giudice, a goateed guy in a black T-shirt, was huddled up with three employees from his boutique production company, Tangerine Films. Mr. Del Giudice explained that their offices, which were around the corner, shared their conference room with another business. Today the room got double-booked, so they came to the Ace, where they were now feverishly planning a car commercial, involving a racetrack and multiple cameras.

Meanwhile, an editor named Elizabeth Houston was supervising a photo shoot for a new biannual arts magazine called DDD (Dirty Durty Diary), the first issue of which will debut at Fashion Week in September. They were shooting Jules Kim, a statuesque jewelry designer who has worked with the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani.

Alessandro Simonetti, an Italian photographer, wandered over to The Observer and flipped open a contact-lens kit, revealing a gold contact lens designed by Ms. Kim. She also made exquisite gold nipple caps, he shared.

On the red couch a few feet away, in the same room, but in a different universe, Mr. Smith, the Park Slope filmmaker, was still working on his screenplay-undisturbed by the photo shoot, the gold nipple caps, the commercial brainstorming, the iPad fiddling, the yoga studying and the nonprofit strategizing that was going on all around him. The various snapping and popping of synapses blended into the greater vortex.

“For me, there’s a harmony of aural and visual qualities here,” said Mr. Smith. “It’s the right amount of light and sound. And there’s really good coffee.”

fgillette@observer.com

 

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