Oldies but Goodies: Grand Dame Hotels

Breakers Lobby

Originally built by Standard Oil Company magnate Henry Flagler, The Breakers in Palm Beach has undergone myriad incarnations. Ravaged by two fires, one in 1903 and another in 1925, the property has an impressive history littered with aristocracy and glamour.

Flager’s first property was The Royal Poinciana Hotel, which was followed two years later by The Palm Beach Inn on the beachfront of the Royal Poinciana. Rumor has it the elite clientele soon requested rooms ”over by the breakers.”

When Flagler redoubled the Palm Beach Inn’s size, the iconic property was reborn with its new name, The Breakers.

The latest manifestation of the renowned beachfront resort called for an $80 million budget that revamped the 65 rooms and suites of the North oceanfront tower.

Paul Leone, president of the Breakers Palm Beach and Flagler System Inc, the privately owned company that has operated the Breakers consistently since 1896, was heavily involved in the re-envisioned guest rooms, which drew inspiration from a comprehensive brand study beginning in 2007.

The result of the survey was highlighting the resort’s tropical oceanfront location as a primary thrust of the design brief, creating an aesthetic ”that would bring the outside in,” says Leone. ”We looked for a sensual blend of The Breakers’ Mediterranean-inspired architectural heritage with a few elements of great modern design.” Leone says that the brand study truly crystallized the Breakers’ desired demographic, catering to discerning leisure travelers as opposed to urban businessmen, stripping away any distracting or superfluous details.

”The color palette of our guest room interiors takes inspiration from our tropical oceanfront location,” he says. ”It references the sea in simple, unexpected ways, such as light blue and light green color schemes, while losing the standard sea foam and coral motifs. It is expressed with beautiful simplicity and clean-cut patterns.”

Leone also explains that because of the hotel’s historic architecture, the guest rooms are not identical in size and thus space planning became a critical element with special attention paid to furnishings.

”We replaced bulky armoires with credenzas that combined aesthetic appeal and functionality and mounted TVs on the walls in order to define the space in the most spacious way possible,” says Leone. The resort replaced heavy bedspreads with white linens and comforters and utilized simplistic, clean-cut patterns for curtains and wallpapers. ”All of these elements contribute to a light and airy atmosphere,” Leone says. ”We were looking to define a signature style that exudes serenity—the naturally elegant and residential quality of these rooms will befit the expectations of our discerning guests from around the globe.”

Greenbrier Indoor Pool

Almost Heaven
Another American classic is The Greenbrier in West Virginia, which was purchased—some would say saved—in 2009 by entrepreneur Jim Justice.

The resort, which has hosted presidents and movie stars alike, has since undergone a $250 million restoration helmed by Carleton Varney and Brinsley Matthews, president and senior vice president of Dorothy Draper, Inc., respectively. (It was design icon Dorothy Draper who was responsible for the hotel’s 1940s and 1950s interiors).

”Mrs. Draper was Carleton Varney’s mentor and he continues the legacy,” says Matthews. Justice reached out to Varney and even made him the curator of the property as well as its designer.

”It was Mr. Justice who decided it was best not to interrupt the external design and proportions of the property and therefore [had such spaces] as the casino underground,” Matthews says.

The Casino Club was developed to significantly bolster the guests’ choices for entertainment, which in turn is supported by the launch of several new restaurants infused by Asian and African cultures alike.

Included in the new offerings are a Pacific Rim space called In-Fusion, a casual 23-hour restaurant called Drapers, The Twelve Oaks bar lounge, the Greenbrier Royal and Café Carleton.

”The Twelve Oaks has an old-school racing library feel while the Greenbrier Royal is a place dedicated to high rollers,” says Matthews. ”It has an Out of Africa feel, with fruit wood-paneled walls with tiger print panels. Café Carleton’ has an operatic feel, with its black and red lush elegance and wall murals depicting operatic scenes.”

Echoing the yesteryear glamour and history of The Greenbrier, the main Casino floor has a to-scale springhouse (a small building used for refrigeration before the advent of electric refrigeration) in the center of the floor, which first wooed guests to the resort when it was founded in 1774.

”All the carpets and furnishings were custom designed by our firm and all the accessories were sourced by Dorothy Draper from around the world to add a patina to the new amenity,” says Matthews. ”After the backgrounds in each space were developed, collectively the furniture and artworks spelled out the theme of each space giving it personality and surprise.”

Ocean House guest room

Rhode Island Renewal
From the back roads to the beach, Ocean House in Watch Hill, RI, is one of those stately hotels, the kind that leaves an indelible imprint and beckons families back summer after summer. What’s notable about Ocean House, beyond its Victorian façade, manicured grounds and oceanfront landscape, is that, if not for a tragedy, the grandeur it exudes today may never have been.

In 2003, a fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, RI, claimed the lives of 100 people. As a result, fire codes were revisited and enforced more rigorously. Ocean House, which was originally built in 1868, had over time fallen into disrepair and was found to be non-compliant with the building codes. New owners acquired the structure in 2003 and did the unthinkable: they demolished it. 

But, they had a plan, and it all came to fruition when Ocean House reopened its doors last year. The new owner, mutual fund manager Charles Royce, made sure that more than half of the new iteration replicated the original building (around 5,000 salvageable artifacts from the original were included) and the new Ocean House is arguably better than the original, poised and pristine along a sweeping stretch of private beach.

The new structure, which meticulously emulates the original Victorian hotel with its yellow façade and red-cedar shingled roofs, reopened last June after a $140 million rebuild and renovation helmed by Centerbrook Architects of Centerbrook, CT. The design made sure to highlight the resort’s history and put a premium on using sustainable and energy-efficient materials. 

Salvaged architectural details include an oak-paneled elevator, a well-worn reservation desk, fanlight windows and doors, railings, mantels, moldings, columns and chandeliers. The fireplace was also carefully recreated within the new building, as well as the signature mansard roof with a widow’s walk, which was restored to the central tower and rests atop the four-story Tower Suite.

The interiors, designed by Boston-based Niemitz Design Group, showcase a decidedly British Colonial influence highlighting sun-soaked hues of yellow, turquoise and cream. The spaces also feature master craftsmanship boasting imported hardwood floors, mullioned windows, decorative copper trim and other period architectural detailing. 

Each guest room differs from the next in décor, but each includes private terraces and working fireplaces in addition to stately bathrooms dressed in marble with custom vanities and deep soaking tubs. Celebrating eclecticism, everything from Chippendale satin-upholstered headboards and painted wicker benches to Asian side tables find their way into the property.   


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