The Lowell Hotel in New York’s Upper East Side has undergone a series of stylish changes in recent times, while very much retaining its understated, old-fashioned charm in the process, writes Andrew Harris
One of the apparent inspirations for Michael S Smith’s redesigning of the 17-storey Lowell Hotel in Manhattan’s East 63rd Street was the 1932 film Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo. Her famous yearning ‘to be alone’ would have found instant gratification in this opulent yet ultra-discreet eyrie of elegance perched between Park and Madison Avenues. When Madonna wanted to be alone away from Sean Penn, she holed up in the Lowell for nine months, demanding that her suite be turned into a gym in the process. It was.
Smith, who remodelled the White House for the Obamas, breathes alchemical transformations of modern understated chic into classical spaces, and has excelled himself at the Lowell, whose low-key urban cool was already under the cognoscenti’s radar. Ushered by the liveried doorman into the watchful but respectful confines of the small, stylish lobby, it’s difficult not to feel like a publicity-averse A-lister, even when you aren’t one!
The Lowell is a rare and highly covetable beast, purring contentedly among the big cats of Manhattan’s high-end hospitality. With just 74 rooms, most of them suites with working fireplaces, the overall atmosphere is of an exclusive apartment block. There’s nothing as nouveau as key cards; the doors all have illuminated push-button bells with keys big enough to open a vault or administer immediate concussion to intruders. This isn’t an independent hotel yanked along by a chain. It really is independent, owned by the same hands-on family since 1982.
It’s tempting to conclude that the marble tiling in the spacious bathrooms is all original, it sits so well in its own veiny skin, but that’s just Smith’s skill on display. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Whether he was aiming at 1920 or 2020, his understated statement of style on steroids is just something that you want to be enveloped by. The beds are among the most comfortable I have slept in, while the polished woods and restrained interior design of the perfectly proportioned suites, some of which have balconies, merely inculcate an irrepressible desire simply never to leave.
Indeed, long-term guests aren’t unusual, with one currently in permanent residence, even though she has an apartment around the corner on Park Avenue. Perhaps the risk of gastronomic overload at the new restaurant, Majorelle, is too great, and the lift is as far as she’s prepared to countenance.
Majorelle was named after Yves Saint Laurent’s garden in Marrakech, by green-fingered veteran restaurateur Charles Masson, whose French parents founded the Manhattan institution La Grenouille in 1962. The irrepressibly charmant Charles ran front-of-house there for decades, his famous floral arrangements (he is still a familiar face at the 28th Street flower market) blossoming along with his client list. As he works the gorgeous new dining room at Majorelle, he seems on first-name terms with everyone. The trend for high-end dining in New York may be veering towards laid-back, but the smart set at the Lowell still seem to favour a little formality with their foie gras. It’s old style in new shoes, the service faultless but not fawning. (The executive chef overseeing the kitchen is Christian Delouvrier, multiple-Michelin-starred in the past and one of those French chefs who have found fame in the US.)
Masson’s new venture is only months old but already garnering plaudits, which, based on my own memorable encounter with the lobster risotto and braised ox tail, is unsurprising. Reservations are difficult to secure, with Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger recently spotted in there dining separately on the same evening. I suppose Mick probably counts as old money now, anyway! The adjacent new Club Room is a Smith-designed space for pre-/post-dinner drinks and daytime rendezvous. Big enough for the Lowell to spread itself out a little. Small enough to spot the celeb spotters.
From material girl to uptown girl Christie Brinkley, and many Lowell devotees in between, the hotel manages to generate repeat business of around 80 per cent. Proof (as if any of its clients cared!) that Old World charm is alive and well in the New World. If you know where to look.
Room rate: from $960 per night