When it comes to strange bedfellows of design, combining the cutting-edge aesthetic of Morgans Hotel Group and the historic architecture of Boston is like imagining Snoop Dogg at the bar with Abigail Adams. It’s easy to look ridiculous, tough to get right.
To start, the site of the new hotel was the historic Ames Building, an imposing 13-story Romanesque pile that was the first skyscraper in Boston, and once the tallest masonry building in America. Designed by the august firm of Shepley Rutan & Coolidge in 1889, it had been the headquarters for Ames Plow, the agricultural tool business that the wealthy Ames family had launched in the 1770s. It’s a landmarked building, so futzing with the bones was verboten.
The company was sold in the 1950s, and the building was briefly the site of some dotcom businesses during the boom, but it had recently fallen on hard times, and the design looked it. “The interiors were completely destroyed,” says Mari Balestrazzi, design director of the hotel group, which operates the Delano in Miami and the Mondrian in L.A.. Imagine tacky dropped ceilings, gutted detailing. Only the vault and the imposing staircase remained.
When MHG came on board, the property had already bounced around a bit among developers. “We had the juxtaposition of a massive building and a fashion forward design hotel group,” says Gregory Stanford, the lead Rockwell Group designer on the project. “We didn’t want to alienate Bostonians, but we wanted to satisfy a crowd that was attracted to the Morgans brand.”
Their solution? Play off the friction between the two. “Ben Franklin meets supermodels,” a tagline suggested by David Rockwell, became the design mantra.
First task: creating a restaurant where a hip colonial might toss back a hot toddy with his wench. Besides being a Morganesque notion, the idea of a modern tavern, Woodward had the merit of being true to the Ames’s pedigree: Grampa Ames had run a pub called The Woodward Tavern in Easton, Mass., south of Boston.
Chief among the restaurant’s design challenges was the fact that it was a two-story space. “It was important to have a transitional space that was interesting enough that guests would want to experience it,” says Balestrazzi. “We didn’t want one floor to be hot and the other to be Siberia.”
Stanford’s team figured a cool staircase could become a functional element of the design, linking the downstairs tavern with the upstairs dining area.
In a mash-up of historical references, they made the leap to a sort of modern day Victoriana, conceiving a Miesian version of a Cabinet of Curiosities that would link the two floors, framing the staircase and providing a focal points for the upstairs dining room. Local artist Sally Brooks Moore made the cut as cabinet curator when she told David Rockwell she had the dangerous habit of abruptly pulling off the road–sometimes at high speeds–if she spotted intriguing fodder for her “boxes of wonder.”
The team spent months combing flea markets, antique shops and eBay for raw material. “We went to this crazy store in upstate New York that had six floors of salvage goods–bits of doll furniture, a child’s hoop skirt, various architectural elements,” says Balestrazzi. “We tried to steer clear of taxidermy and other things that were too creepy to eat next to.”
Moore then assembled the bits and bobs into weird little tableaus. One, for example, features a bed, with its sheets falling off, in the jaws of some ice prongs. “If you break it down, you’re staying at a luxury hotel and looking at a nightmare,” Stanford says. “You could totally freak out, even if you’re sober.”
Bostonians, Balestrazzi says, have embraced the place as a slightly surreal hang-out. “They think we did our homework,” she says. “It feels modern and chic like Morgans, but not like some alien has landed.”
“We found out that people want a lot of money for their junk,” says Stanford, of the oddities that fill the Cabinet of Curiosities. The high-backed chairs are inspired by traditional Windsors, but painted in MGH’s signature high gloss white.
One table is filled with clay pipes, which colonial smokers used to throw out the window when broken.