How $180 million transformed the InterContinental New York Barclay

(InterContinental New York Barclay)

More than 35 years after the InterContinental New York Barclay opened on Lexington Avenue and 48th Street in New York City, the historic property was in need of a renovation. Not just a softgoods refresh, but a deep, tear-down-the-walls kind of renovation—a renovation that would require shutting down the hotel for the better part of two years. In the fall of 2014, the Barclay checked out its last guest and closed its doors to begin a massive transformation.

After 20 months and $180 million, the doors officially reopened in April to reveal a completely reimagined hotel, courtesy of IHG Design Studio, architects Stonehill + Taylor, interior design firm HOK (formerly BBGM) and Shawmut Construction. “We totally ripped apart the whole hotel,” said GM Hervé Houdré, who has been at the hotel since 2009. “It was really, totally gutted.” In total, more than 420,000 square feet of interior space was redesigned. 

Evoking the original Barclay hotel’s opening year of 1926, the reimagined hotel includes classic touches like a Carrara marble grand staircase in the lobby and eagle medallion door plates for each guestroom—a feature that was preserved from the original Barclay.

One of the biggest changes was consolidating the function spaces that were scattered over three floors, according to Houdré. The new Barclay has two large event spaces on one floor—“which makes it [more] efficient, operationally,” he said. The building is shaped like an H, and the empty spaces had “technical terraces, platforms with nothing,” Houdré said. “Then we just covered them. We ended up having the main ballroom above the lobby of the hotel, where before there was nothing above.” The new Empire Ballroom, meanwhile, is located where technical equipment was kept. 

But by bringing these event spaces together on one floor, the hotel lost some guestrooms. To compensate, Houdré said, the team decreased the number of suites in the hotel from 80 to 26. “We had a lot of one-bedroom suites, too many for this area and for this time,” he said. “Maybe in the 1960s it was good to have a lot of suites. Nowadays, people just come and go. They don’t reside as long, so we needed more rooms than suites.” By cutting down the number of suites, he said, the hotel increased its total room count, going from 685 to 704. “So that’s a better opportunity for a higher return on investment for the ownership as well,” he said. 

Rooms also received a makeover to bring them in line with modern tastes. Bathrooms were enlarged and tubs were replaced with extra-large walk-in showers. Soundproofing between rooms was also updated—“That was one of the main reasons to redo the rooms,” Houdré said. 
The hotel’s dining space was also reimagined, with the former bar and restaurant areas reversed and reconceived. 

“Now, it’s more of a bar that serves food rather than a restaurant that serves drinks,” Houdré said of the new Gin Parlour, which was inspired by Dutch and English gin bars of the 1920s. “It’s a lounge concept, and yet because it’s a hotel, our customers are able to have a full-fledged meal.” A Club InterContinental lounge was also added, offering a more exclusive space in the hotel for private meetings and quieter meals away from the energy of the main lobby. “It’s not a mandatory standard of InterContinental Hotels, but it’s really, definitely a plus,” Houdré said. “It’s highly recommended to have one. As well, it does increase the average rate of the rooms.”

Of course, any renovation presents its share of challenges, and the InterContinental was no different. “When you go through a renovation, you cannot reopen the hotel without what is called a temporary certificate of occupancy,” Houdré said. “In order to get the TCO, you have to work with all of the various administrative divisions of the city government, from the fire department to plumbing issues, electricity issues and assembly permits, as well. Then a person came for the plumbing issue and decided that even though we had done everything as per the requirements of NYC law, the person determined that it was not satisfactory, so we had to redo it as per that person’s own requirements. We decided not to challenge the person by arguing that we had followed the law, but decided to go through their personal requirements and eventually got the permit and eventually got the TCO. 

“We lost almost three weeks and, of course, potential revenue, but that happens in every city in the world.”