In 2004, Mr. Balazs shifted his gaze from trendy Soho to the emerging meatpacking district, purchasing the lot at 848 Washington Street from the Nebraska Meat Corp. for $18 million. It was a site that other developers had shunned, considering the elevated CSX train tracks running smack through the middle of the property, which many viewed as an impediment to construction and thus hoped to demolish.
Mr. Balazs instead saw opportunity. “The minute we saw the site, I was trying to figure out how to do it,” he said. “It was clear that the only way to bring the building to an acceptable height would be to build over the High Line.”
In fact, Mr. Balazs was so far out ahead of the effort to preserve and convert the elevated track into a public park that rules for adjacent development had yet to even be established. The hotel developer had to move forward quickly, he said, in order to avoid any strict new guidelines that might rein in his ambitious plan.
“Basically, all of the real practical issues that we faced were sort of dealt with by the city as the first time ever thinking about it,” Mr. Balazs said. “How close can you be? How do you interact with it? The city maintenance of the structural integrity of the High Line—these are all things that were literally being vetted as we raised the issue. No one had thought about them before. In fact, there wasn’t really even a department responsible for responding to it. One of the benefits of having been there at that moment in time is the fact that I don’t think anyone else will build over the High Line again unless the city makes a special exception.”
“The High Line was actually reacting to us, as we moved forward,” concurred Standard architect Todd Schliemann, whom Mr. Balazs selected for the complicated project based on his nonuniform sensibilities and technical prowess. “So, we had to negotiate very carefully and make sure we weren’t going to disturb anything that the High Line was doing. … It’s kind of like building a bridge from two sides and meeting in the middle, which was tricky. Once we got going in the middle floors it was much, much easier.
Mr. Schliemann worked closely with the developer on creating the distinctive look of the place. “André’s very sensitive, very hands-on,” Mr. Schliemann said. “He’s never built a new building before. But he understands space and materials. And he has a style. Actually, he has an anti-style, in a way. André doesn’t follow trends and he doesn’t expect people to follow his trend. He’s looking for something original.”
The pair took inspiration from the eclectic stylings of international architects Oscar Niemeyer and Eero Saarinen.
“It was a lot of fun to watch it go up because it intrigued so many people,” Mr. Schliemann said. “They didn’t know what was going on. That’s always fun, as an architect, since you know what it’s going to look like—and we never told anybody.”
Mr. Balazs is quick to point out the various attributes that make the hotel stand out. “It’s a very unusually thin building,” he said, peering at the side of the slender structure from across Washington Street. “Other than the United Nations building, there’s no other building this thin. And that’s a function of what’s inside. Mainly, it’s just hotel rooms on both sides of the corridor.”
While many modernist structures feature floor-to-ceiling windows, he pointed out, few are so clearly transparent. “Almost all buildings this size have typically a tinted green or blue or silverish glass,” he noted. “And this is a very special low-ion glass which makes it almost crystal clear. … What that does is, it pushes you out onto the city, the separation between the inside and outside is minimized therefore making the inside seem more spacious.”
Not to mention voyeuristic. “About three weeks ago, I was walking up Washington Street,” said the architect, Mr. Schliemann. “In one of the windows, the shades were pulled back. I could see the bed because the bed is very, very close to the glass. The bed was messed up, you know, it was just dueling white sheets. And the curtains were wide open. I noticed there was this little maid in the room. And, you know, André’s got the maids dressed up in little maid skirts that are very, very short and have some very nice stockings. So the maid gets between the bed and the glass and bends over—bends over!—then basically puts her behind right on the glass as she’s making the bed because she had to. And I thought, ‘Fabulous! There it is! That’s it!’
“It’s an experience to be able to look into this building. You can actually see inside it and see quite closely all the different lives of whomever chooses to leave their curtains open.”
He added, “I think the paparazzi are going to set up in the buildings just south of there. They probably bought some condominiums so they can have a permanent station.”
FOR ALL HIS obvious pride in the project’s artistry, Mr. Balazs seemed fully aware how lucky he was with the timing. “It’s unlikely that there will be anything quite as ambitious as this built in the next few years in New York,” he said, noting that several of his own subsequent projects have been thrust to the back burner amid the ongoing financial crisis. “There’s going to be a real serious hiatus. And I think when [the economy] comes back, it’s going to come back gradually and it’ll be much more conservative, if you will.”
The current economic situation also poses serious challenges to the new hotel’s sustainability.