The Algonquin Hotel had an unusual request. The lobby of the historic building, the oldest continuously operating hotel in New York City, needed a refresh—and the new space had to accommodate a cat.
“No one’s ever said to me, ‘Can you design for a cat?'” says Sara Duffy, a principal at the architecture and interior design firm Stonehill Taylor, which took on this unconventional design challenge. “At first it was like, ‘Really? Are you serious?’ And they said, ‘We’re very serious.'”
The cat in question is Hamlet VIII—the latest resident cat in a line of Algonquin Hotel cats who date back to the 1920s. The first Hamlet, named so by actor John Barrymore after his title role on Broadway, was a street cat who wandered into the place and never left. The owner took a shine. Over the decades, the original Hamlet has been succeeded by seven others (as well as a handful of Matildas, when gender norms dictated). A quirk dating back to a much different time, the Algonquin Hotel cat is now an institution.
“The cat’s become a real thing. People come to the hotel just for the cat,” says Duffy, a New Yorker who remembers visiting the hotel as a kid and looking for the cat.
Aside from the hotel’s famous resident cat, the Algonquin also has a deep human history, as the haunt of such 1920s writers as Dorothy Parker and The New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. “It ended up being this total hotbed of amazing writers, artists, playwrights, you name it. They all hung out there,” Duffy says. “So we worked off that and made sure we were honoring that history but also bringing a totally new take to it.”
The hotel’s redesign had to ensure that the space could not only accommodate guests, bar patrons, and the other comers and goers of Manhattan’s Theater District, but also the iconic feline.
Stonehill Taylor reconfigured the layout of the lobby and its public spaces, moving the reception desk from a place where it hindered access to the elevators, and moving the bar to an entirely different part of the space. The biggest design move was ditching the lobby’s historically dimly lit wooden interior for white walls and uplit cornices and molding.
A library-like lounge nods to this literary history, and the blue lighting around the bar is a modern reinterpretation of the blue-tinted lamps Barrymore insisted made actors look better. Duffy says these historical callbacks were important to include in a space that’s been operating for 120 years.
And then, there’s the cat. The lounge space is outfitted with a specially milled bookshelf that doubles as a climbing gym for the cat, with nooks and ladders that allow Hamlet to roam around and keep an eye on guests. Duffy says consultations with the hotel’s so-called chief cat officer helped guide these design interventions. “He likes to be up high and look down, to observe but not be pet all the time. But sometimes he likes to come down and participate,” Duffy says. Another preferred activity: sitting in the sun. A daybed was placed right in a window.
Cats aren’t known for their extroverted social skills, and Hamlet VIII is hardly a ham. The designers hoped to encourage some moderate cat-guest interaction by placing a small house for the cat at the reception desk. “The idea is, hopefully, he likes it in there so the guests can see him when they first walk in, but he also feels safe,” Duffy says.
Designing for a cat required a few other unexpected tasks, including making sure the materials selected for furnishings were resistant to cat claws. Duffy says that involved sitting at her desk with a key scratching away at sample swatches. “It wasn’t very technical,” Duffy says of her cat-mimicking tests. “There’s not a protocol set up yet.”
For all the unique design attention the cat required, Duffy says she was cautious about giving him too much attention. “We wanted to design for Hamlet but we also didn’t want it to feel like a pet store,” she says. “I was just constantly worried that it would be more about the cat than the guests, which I think would be a mistake.”
The end result, she says, tries to strike a balance, where the space is just as comfortable for checking into a room or ordering a cocktail at the bar as it is for perching in a bookshelf and looking down on the curious activities of humans. “We had to be careful that the cat was happy, but so were we,” Duffy says.