By Terry Trucco
Roger Williams always seemed an oddball name for a New York City hotel, especially one with a breezy, modern air. We’re not in Rhode Island, after all. And just when I finally discover what’s behind the name, they go and change it.
As I learned this week, the Roger Williams was built atop a plot of land leased from the 150-year-old Madison Avenue Baptist church next door. Its flinty name was a wink at the 17th-century Rhode Island theologian and abolitionist who started the first Baptist church in America (and probably never stayed at a hotel in his life).
All that became history earlier this month when the hotel emerged from a six-month
top-to-toe renovation with a new look and a slimmed down name.
Dubbed the “son” of the Roger Williams, the reinvented Roger New York is a spiffier, trendier and more urbane version of its predecessor (the California colors and patchwork quilts went out the door with Williams).
Unlike some hotels, the Roger Williams wasn’t in dire shape prior to its redo. Still, its once-stodgy neighborhood is changing fast, flirting with hipness. And as part of a cluster of smart new hotels — the Ace, NoMad, Carlton, Eventi and King & Grove New York are nearby — RW didn’t want to get left in the dust.
No worries there. The sleeked down Roger, dressed in natty navy blue and white, boasts new everything — lobby, restaurant, bar and guest rooms with brand-new bathrooms. A new logo, too: a pert polka dot bow tie that’s everywhere. I’m not sure Roger needs to be personified – the refurbished hotel has plenty of personality (the lobby’s reclaimed wood floor is gorgeous). But perhaps its re-inventors, who include hotel and nightlife guru Steven Kamali, decided even 21st century boutique hotels still need themes.
Roger’s new look, an improbable but appealing mash-up of Hollywood, SoHo and Park Avenue, starts outdoors with zippy black and white stripe awnings and migrates into the lobby, stripped of its former wood paneling to reveal brick walls painted white.
The furniture is an amusing mix — tufted turquoise velvet sofas, round side chairs upholstered in houndstooth and a butler’s table and drinks trolley doubling as side tables. A rustic flatweave rug that matches the bright green boxwood visible through the windows hugs the magnificent wood floor.
Two big changes if you’ve been here before: the plushy pasha’s den with big overstuffed sofas under the staircase is gone (sniff), replaced by a large wood table that’s undeniably practical (guests with laptops occupied it during my visit). And a sleekly curved bar is installed in a corner of the lobby (mixologist Johnny Swet dreamed up the cocktails). In short, the lobby feels more like a lounge than in the past, but you can still hang out with an iPad or a pal without being prodded into buying a drink.
The staircase still leads to the restaurant, but the fare has been upgraded to American classics (I remember eating micro-waved ravioli there a while back).
The smartest detail is the transformation of the immense lobby columns supporting the
ceiling. Designer Anna Busta, who specializes in restaurants and party spaces, turned them into an asset, outfitting them with squared edges and shelves holding framed photos of rock stars (picture exhibitions will change periodically).
Upstairs the 194 rooms are the same size as ever, ie they range from really small to plenty big for two people. The refurbished penthouse room I saw was just large enough to contain a king-size bed with a navy suede headboard flanked by a desk and a bedside table. A velvet club chair commanded a corner, and a clean-lined dresser hiding a mini bar faced the bed (a flatpanel TV hung on the wall above it).
The result was airy, stylish and soothing, thanks to New York designer Annette Jaffe’s confident use of color (she also did the rooms and lobby for the Roger Williams). The showpiece was an enormous iconic photo of a Central Park fountain mounted on canvas and framed in molding above the bed.
For additional proof that this is New York, the room opened onto a terrace outfitted with two chaises and a superb view of the Empire State Building looming in the distance.
In short, Roger seems like a good guy, bow-tie and all.
The Roger Hotel, 131 Madison Avenue and East 31st Street, New York 10016; 212 448 7000.