NYC’s Life Hotel answers growing demand for lifestyle properties

This spring brought New York City yet another boutique lifestyle hotel. The 98-room Beaux Arts building sits in trendy NoMad, the Manhattan neighborhood “north of Madison Park” and up until April, had operated as the rather nondescript Herald Square Hotel since 1970. But after 45 years of owning and operating the hotel, Abraham Puchall and his family sold the property to Mitchell Holdings for a reported $38.5 million in 2015. For developer David Mitchell, that was just the beginning of his firm’s investment in the property. He has since renovated the 1894 building, restoring many of the original design features that architectural firm Carrere, Hastings and Martin realized for Life Magazine’s first offices.

“The owner’s vision was to bring back the co-working culture that, today, is defined by WeWork, and to make the hotel a smart working environment as well as somewhere you love to sleep,” said Fatena Williams, managing director.

Something Old, Something New

When Life Magazine’s staff of cartoonists, illustrators, editors and writers –including Norman Rockwell—moved into the building in 1895, they worked in offices on the lower levels of the building and resided on the upper levels. The original façade remains with its signature angel statue and the name “Life” on the masonry above the entrance, but inside Mitchell stripped away years of alterations to reveal floor-to-ceiling columns in the lobby that were previously shrouded in sheetrock and guestrooms’ original hardwood and concrete floors, dating back more than a century. The hotel’s French birdcage elevator—the second in the city after the Guggenheim—is also being restored to include brass elements as it once did. The metal was predominant in the building’s original inception and so it is again being incorporated into design elements, such as the brass guestroom beds. Interior designer Tara Oxley digitally copied the crown molding that crests the lobby columns and used the pattern to craft the one-of-a-kind wallpaper that covers guestroom walls. She also commissioned local artists to create almost 200 pieces of unique art for guestrooms, where 60-inch flat-screen TVs are now equipped with Google ChromeCast’s Evolve streaming functionality. Montroy DeMarco Architecture worked as the architect alongside Oxley.

“For the guestroom design, we wanted to take a clean look into consideration and make sure there’s no clutter,” Williams said. “We’re a lifestyle hotel, but what sets us apart is the mix of traditional and modern design.”

Dining for a New Demographic

The hotel’s new speakeasy and restaurant will also reflect that same design aesthetic. The 60-seat Life Restaurant will be restauranteur Stephen Hanson’s first major endeavor since selling his stake in B.R. Guest—the restaurant group that he founded in 1987—to Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group in 2014. Hanson is a partner in the hotel as is the three-meal restaurant’s chef Michael Vignola, who previously served as corporate executive chef at B.R. Guest’s Strip House restaurants as well as Michael Jordan’s The Steak House N.Y.C. Now equipped with a rooftop garden, Vignola’s newest menu will focus on seasonally driven vegetables and seafood. Along with the lobby bar, the new speakeasy will boast historic elements of the building: The original coal room door found during renovations now serves as the speakeasy’s entrance while empty c. 1930 liquor bottles discovered in the coal room will be displayed in the 60-seat bar.

“We kept finding great gems and we would change the design accordingly because we did anticipate that there would be added costs as new details were unveiled, but we wanted to stay with the design and with the culture of the building,” Williams said. “So, the cost will definitely be worth it in the long run because the [return on investment] will be that these things make Life Hotel different from every other property in New York.”

An increase in average daily rate should help too; nightly rates at Life Hotel range from $250 to $500 whereas they averaged $150 to $200 as the Herald Square Hotel. Plus, the addition of the food-and-beverage venues also creates new revenue streams that didn’t exist in the hotel previously. But then Williams also pointed out that the environment and the clientele have also changed. In terms of demographics, Williams said Life Hotel caters to millennials through baby boomers. “Our guests could be anyone from the explorer and adventurer to someone who’s looking for a quiet getaway with a glass of wine in their room at night and the hotel caters to this mix of traditional and modern guest,” she added. “Our guests are looking for great service and an experience where they can sit in the lobby and get on Snapchat or just enjoy the historic architecture.” To keep those guests coming, the hotel has also added sales-and-marketing staff as well as a social media manager.