Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2003
By James Verini
Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode, the New York slash L.A. restaurateurs slash club owners and now slash hoteliers collectively responsible for L.A. perennials such as Bar Marmont and Jones and New York’s Bowery Bar and the Park, are not terribly concerned that a visitor is poking around their not-yet-open hotel when the place is still, to put it mildly, a shambles.
Immune to the drill bursts and cement dust, they hop over a plank of wood to point out the exact future position of a magnolia tree they have on order. MacPherson, 38, and Goode, 45, are blithely confident that this still very much in-progress “project,” as they call it, a $33-million-plus boutique hotel on Manhattan’s lower West Side would open its doors in a mere three months — and in the midst of one of the worst hotel markets in New York’s history. They know exactly how they want the Maritime Hotel to look when it is done. They know they’ll get it done and that it will be The Next Scene. Devil take the rest.
“We’re not as obsessed about the cost as we are about believing it will work,” MacPherson says. Pause. “This is our first hotel, so maybe it will prove to be a judgment error.”
His tone implies that although he doesn’t believe that could ever happen, he would be content either way. This is how these partners talk.
“What separates us from other hoteliers is that we’ve done this place like it’s our house,” MacPherson says. “We literally are the designers and contractors.”
Obsessive attention to detail
MacPherson and Goode are sitting in one of the finished rooms — in the end there will be 120 of them, identical, plus four penthouse suites on the eighth floor. The room, which will go for about $200 a night, has a Queen-Mary-meets-the-Orient-Express feel, with dark teak paneling and shiny metal appointments.
“We did everything,” MacPherson says. “There isn’t anything on the property that we didn’t consider. ”
As anyone who knows MacPherson and Goode knows, this is their hallmark. Obsessive attention to design and detail has made both their careers.
Goode opened the epochal New York club Area 20 years ago. An heir to Studio 54, it was a second studio for the likes of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (who lived with Goode’s sister). MacPherson, who got his start at the L.A. rock club Power Tools in the late 1980s, has become the arbiter nonpareil of West Coast lounge chic, with places such as Bar Marmont, Jones, El Carmen and Baby’s in Las Vegas.
The Maritime occupies a 12-story, 80,000-square-foot building that has been a famous curio on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue since 1968. Originally a a boardinghouse for people in the maritime trade, its architect, Albert Ledner, was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. It clearly draws from Wright’s ’50s sci-fi phase. In a 25-foot-wide sliver with an exterior of 1-inch white tiles (“A lot,” says MacPherson, when asked for a tile count), the Maritime’s rooms all face west, overlooking the Hudson River through 5-foot porthole windows.
The building was converted into a rehabilitation clinic for Covenant House in the 1980s. It was then sold to the Chinese government. But the last few years have seen this beleaguered stretch of land, which straddles the Meatpacking District to the south and Chelsea to the north, turn into the neighborhood of the moment in Lower Manhattan. It began with the exodus of Soho’s gallery scene; now not a month goes by, it seems, that a new brasserie or lounge doesn’t open on a converted factory floor.
MacPherson and Goode bought the property in April 2001, for about $19 million. At a cost of $5 million, they rebuilt the outdoor plaza to make room for two 120-seat restaurants — one Japanese, one Italian — and an elevated courtyard garden.
The locale’s combination of unripe Warhol seediness and will-I-get-mugged? suspense — a stretch of housing projects looms not two blocks away — is just right for the partners.
“Yeah, it’s an interesting area,” Goode says.
He would know. He and MacPherson were among the first restaurateurs to venture into it, in early 2001, when they opened the bar-restaurant the Park, their first joint venture. They bought that property — which consisted of three adjoining taxi garages — because it was cheap and because they knew, in an area such as this, they could get the needed licenses from the city without much trouble.
They also knew they wanted to introduce massive L.A. lounge-style outdoor dining to New York (the restaurant seats up to 500 in the summer, virtually unheard-of capacity in Manhattan), and that they would do it with the same studied early-1960s West Coast nostalgia flair — rosewood-veneer walls, Naugahyde banquettes, a 30-foot dracaena tree — that MacPherson had perfected at his L.A. spots. What they didn’t know was whether people would really venture to the banks of the Hudson River not to dance — there were plenty of sweaty dance clubs around — but just to eat and drink.
People would, it turned out.
“We had no idea how successful it would be,” MacPherson says. Although not too convincingly. Both men have a preternatural knack for knowing where to open their establishments and when. Who knew, for instance, that people with day jobs wanted to rediscover Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip? MacPherson did, when he opened Bar Marmont in 1996. Who knew that the CBGB-flophouse corridor of New York’s Bowery was due for a revival? Goode did, when he opened Bowery Bar in 1994. And say what you will about the declining quality of the crowd there, Bowery Bar has outlived its flashier mid-’90s boom compatriots — places such as Moomba and Life — and even outlasted New York Daily News columnist A.J. Benza, who proclaimed it dead eight years ago, shortly before people stopped reading his column.
Unlike Benza and the supermodels they are occasionally linked with, MacPherson and Goode know how to stick around.
All of which will seem strange to anyone who meets them. They are, as people in their profession go, unassuming. They have none of the Rande Gerber or Ian Schrager black-on-black swagger. MacPherson grew up in Malibu and assorted ski-resort towns and looks like a better-fed David Bowie. But at well over 6 feet, he makes it a point not to tower over a conversation. He has a languid, patient voice. Goode grew up in the Bay Area. His default facial expression is a befuddled smile, calling to mind a more relaxed John McEnroe. Their party attire is the same as their construction site attire: jeans and sneakers. They both subscribe to that Steven Spielberg-Steven Bing, comfortable-enough-with-my-power-to-not-have-to-wear-a-suit school of dress.
Not that they finish each other’s sentences. Although quieter, Goode is, he admits, the mercurial one. A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, he has directed Nine Inch Nails videos, and lives in a Manhattan loft packed with taxidermied animals and Le Corbusier couches. He has always been, he says, more interested in the “theatricality” of the nightlife business. MacPherson holds a business degree from USC and says that “in all of my projects, I’ve tried to do something that would last.” He is the materials buff; Goode is the one who wants to see diners’ reactions when they find they’ve been seated next to a 30-foot dracaena tree.
Goode plans for obsolescence, he says. Area was open for only four years, and his Club MK less than that. His one large L.A. venture, the club b.c., , was the place to be seen — for the six months it was open. “When I did Area, I meant it to be ephemeral,” Goode says. “It was meant to be theater. But this is different.”
By contrast, of the 11 restaurants and bars MacPherson has opened himself or with other partners, eight are still in business.
“He understands the aesthetics and the day-to-day,” said Jon Sidel, MacPherson’s former partner in the Olive, Good Luck Bar and Jones, among others. “At Jones, we developed a very complicated system to run the numbers. It was very laborious. I didn’t want to hassle some guy about how many potatoes were in the kitchen. But Sean made people do it. To be successful in this business you have to nag, and he can nag.”
The nightlife path
For all their anti-scene humility, MacPherson and Goode are well-known men of the evening. MacPherson, who has never been married and has no children, used to live with actress-model Gina Gershon. Goode, who’s been married once (to get his wife a green card, he says), used to date model Rachel Williams.
They are beating a well-worn, if logical, path into the night. Their two most prominent predecessors are Schrager, once upon a time of Studio 54 and now of myriad hotels, including the Mondrian, and Andre Balazs, owner of the Standard hotels (he started out as a minority partner in one of Goode’s clubs in New York). The path is strewn with casualties. But boutique hotels have come to replace mega-clubs in the hierarchy of nightlife; it is now hotels, and not restaurants or bars, that represent the high-water mark of entrepreneurial success in the nightlife industry.
MacPherson has had hotel ambitions since a decade ago, when he and Sidel attempted to buy the Farmers Daughter motel on Fairfax Avenue. That was in 1993 — when he was 28. When the Park opened, the New York press noted that it felt like the ground floor of a boutique hotel, without the rooms upstairs.
But as they sit in their self-designed, self-furnished hotel, MacPherson and Goode are, they insist, a breed apart. “We’ve been immersed in this project in the way that most owners would probably be too smart to,” MacPherson says. “We’ve done the most unglamorous things you can imagine — flying to tile conventions in Florida.”
“We’ve both put up our life savings for it,” Goode says, in a rare moment of drama. “Our necks are out.”
From their office atop the Park, the partners could throw a tennis ball at the doors of the Maritime (MacPherson can also see it from the bathroom of his nearby apartment). While they were building the restaurant, three years ago, they frequently noticed Ledner’s building.
At some point — they don’t remember just when — they decided they had to have it and proceeded to butter up the Chinese government lawyers and local community board. Schrager was also looking at the property, and Balazs wanted it. But MacPherson and Goode beat out the competition, including their soon-to-be partners, Richard Born and Ira Drukier, the developers behind the recently opened boutique hotels the Chambers and Balazs’ only New York property, the Mercer. They had been trying to land the Maritime building for the better part of a decade.
“Eric called me about an hour after they signed the contract,” Born says. “They needed help.” Born put up part of the financing and brought his development expertise. “The vision I left to them.”
“We changed our minds month to month in the design,” MacPherson says. “They’ve been very patient.”
Their vision, it turned out, would be a kind of anti-vision. “We’ve done a lot to make it look like we didn’t do anything,” MacPherson says. “The entire design is done to make it look like it’s always been there.”
They’ve outdone themselves. On walking into the lobby, one notices the glazed blue tile on the south wall and marvels at how 30-years-ago it looks.
“We did that,” MacPherson says.
From the tile to the terrazzo floors with metal inlay to the Gropius-style block-and-pylon courtyard to the wood-slat ceilings and globular chandeliers in the ballroom — the whole place looks like it was designed in 1968. Not even. 1961. The Japanese restaurant planned for the ground floor has a Tokyo-by-way-of-Ian-Fleming feel. “We tried to veer away from the pop look of the exterior in the rooms,” Goode says. “We looked at Airstream trailers, boats and trains for inspiration. But we didn’t want too much of a theme. We didn’t want to have, like, anchored towel racks and stuff like that.”
“All the detail involved was staggering,” says MacPherson, who has written articles for the New York Times on the finer points of John Elgin Woolf, the architect of his home in the Hollywood Hills, and on the gardening secrets of California eccentric Ganna Walska.
Despite their worrying over the rooms, the partners know that the name of the hotel game these days is public, not private. To attract customers to the Maritime, they will have to make it a destination, and to do this it must be, for a time at least, the Next Scene. So while the rooms represent about 50,000 square feet, the lobby, restaurants, ballroom, private party rooms and courtyard make up not much less — 30,000. However, eschewing the trend, there will not be a large bar space (much less three large bar spaces, as in Schrager’s Hudson Hotel 30 blocks north) or a club.
“We’ve had club people approach us and offer us a lot of money,” Goode says, although they won’t say whom. “We turned them down. We want the whole place to feel somehow timeless.”