Densely populated by corporate high-rises and sub-par salad bars, Midtown Manhattan is not typically considered a hub for creative types. Tourists touch down on iconic landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building and New York Library, then flee to hipper ’hoods to seek out contemporary art galleries, good food and drink, and a fashionable place to stay. But there’s a renaissance afoot in Midtown and, at its heart, is a quaint brick building on East 40th Street. Formerly the living and working space of such prominent literary figures as John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Mann, the Renwick Hotel has reignited the neighbourhood’s creative spirit.
Built in 1928 as a small-scale residential complex, the Renwick sits between Park and Lexington Avenues, lost in a sea of towering skyscrapers. The elegant exterior stone and brickwork is eye-catching, but you’ll likely miss the tiny signs that indicate you’ve arrived at 118 E. 40th St. Guests are in the thick of the Midtown action: Grand Central Station, Bryant Park and the Morgan Library and Museum are a few blocks away. You can hoof it to the theatre district and Times Square in about 20 minutes; Rockefeller Center, MoMa and the swank shops of Fifth Avenue are within 30 minutes on foot.
New York-based architects Stonehill & Taylor (the firm behind the Refinery Hotel, the Ace, and the Paramount’s Diamond Horseshoe) worked with the building’s homey bones and the creative vibes of its former residents to create a space that feels more like an apartment block than a hotel. Unlike many new urban retreats that show off buzzing lobby bars, high-tech gadgetry and minimalist design, the Renwick has kept things relatively old school.
The living-room-like lobby has a small sitting area and a shelf laden with books dedicated to fine art and literature. An edgy sculpture hangs from the ceiling practically to the floor and, in the corner of the room, there’s a small reception area made from repurposed wood and lit by industrial pendant lamps. Across from the vintage elevators and 1920s-era U.S. Postal Service mail slot, an entire wall bears a graffiti-style mural by Brooklyn-born artist Gregory Siff. The graffiti-style work includes inspiring quotes by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck and caricatures of the literary luminaries who once lived here.
Guest rooms are loft-like, accented by high ceilings and picture windows that are covered with blinds bearing a modern depiction of the Manhattan skyline (every room, therefore, has a guaranteed view). Custom furniture pays homage to the artists’ studios that once occupied the space: Television stands look like easels, desks are reminiscent of an artist’s work bench, and patterned carpets simulate paint-splattered concrete. A paintbrush doubles as a do not disturb sign and, beside the hand-sculpted ceramic pencil holder adorning the desk, there are instructions how to make an Origami pigeon.
After long days of sightseeing and pounding pavement, my absolute favourite thing was to come back to a sparkling, spacious (by New York standards) bathroom with a walk-in shower that has the kind of water pressure that’s often lacking in a big city boutique hotel. Shampoos and lotions are made exclusively for the hotel by Brooklyn-based Apotheke and the tiled ceiling calls to mind the work of Swiss painter Paul Klee.
Eat in or eat out?
Since the hotel restaurant – chef John Delucie’s Bedford & Co – is not open yet, check with the staff, who couldn’t have been more informative about where to grab a bite nearby on my visit.
Le Pain Quotidien, Maison Kayser and Lady M were favourite stops for breakfast, lunch or an afternoon pit stop.
There are some options for dinner within walking distance, but true gastronomes will want to go downtown or to Brooklyn for a more trendy dining scene.
If I could change one thing?
Although the beds are incredibly comfortable, the room’s industrial-style doors are not soundproof.
My room was close to the elevator and the combination of its loud ding and the banging doors of nearby rooms was enough to keep me awake for a few hours. Light sleepers will need ear plugs.
The Renwick, 118 East 40th St., therenwickhotelnewyork.com.173 rooms from $459 (U.S.).
The writer was a guest of the hotel.
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