Checking In

Checking In

The building that is now the Hotel Marcel has been a monumental vision to New Haven passersby since it was erected in 1969. It first housed the local Armstrong Rubber Company, then Armstrong’s international acquirer, the Pirelli tire corporation. Since the 1990s, when it stopped housing anything, the building has seemed all the more like a monument. Its windows—segments in a grid of recessed, beveled concrete, 36 across by 6 down on the long side, with a two-story break towards the bottom—are remarkable for their crisp regularity and sunken yet uplifted profile.

From inside, they’re something else to behold: grand and perfect rectangles like panels of a triptych, the marquee feature in every room. “What I like about it is they’re unobstructed,” says Susan Norz, one of the hotel’s directors. “So you get a lot of natural light. I mean, I’m originally from New York. You can have windows floor-to-ceiling, but then there’s another building a foot away from you.” The windows are how the Marcel’s guest rooms are classified. I spent one night in a 3-bay, much of it in close inspection of the three bays. Just outside, the shapes of small stones in the surrounding concrete conjure a hand-planed quality, while the side interior panels of walnut-stained hardwood perfectly mirror the concrete in both angle and depth, making each window less picture than shadowbox.

Marcel Breuer, the hotel’s namesake and—with partner Robert Gatje—the building’s architect, had designed it that way, according to its later submission to the National Register of Historic Buildings. He was thinking of light, but also of shadow and shade, visible from the outside and palpable inside. “What’s interesting about the original design,” says Alice Tai, one of the Becker + Becker architects involved in the hotel’s renovation, “is that the deep facade actually creates passive solar shading benefits. So you don’t get as much direct sun on the interior.”

Making the building cooler in this way anticipated the far more ambitious quest of new owner (and Becker + Becker partner) Bruce Becker to convert it into the country’s first net zero energy hotel, producing enough energy to power itself as well as offset what little it might here and there need to draw from the grid. “Of course there’s no gas the building,” Tai notes, “so everything’s electric—the kitchen, the laundry, et cetera. That was a huge goal from the outset: to retrofit the building not just to have it inhabited again, but to actually move forward in terms of creating a building that doesn’t contribute to climate change.”

Tai points out that retrofitting a building of this size instead of constructing a new one is already a huge benefit to the environment. “Just the embodied carbon alone. The concrete that makes up this building.” They’ve now sealed the building with three kinds of insulation and triple-glazed windows, so conditioned air stays inside. “The only points of exchange are the ones we designed into it, which are the energy recovery ventilator,” Tai explains. “It’s basically a giant box on the 9th floor… It’s got a giant duct feeding air from the outside and a giant duct exhausting air to the outside… so that you’re basically pre-cooling air… with old air from the building that’s already at the temperature that you want.” Natural light is also drawn from the top of the building, through five-story light wells that relay it to interior-facing rooms.

Energy for the air conditioning and heating as well as the electric lighting comes from solar panels, enough to cover most of the building’s roof and an adjacent parking canopy. “It’s kind of neat to see the solar canopies and then see where the energy goes into,” Norz says as she guides me into one of the battery rooms—two big closets humming with floor-to-ceiling battery cabinets and electrical transmitters, which store whatever electricity isn’t used during the day and distribute it at night. The transmitters connect to the lights and ventilation systems in the rooms, with Ethernet cables that convey both power and data, the latter inputted by guests on a friendly, streamlined touchpad next to their door. The agent at the front desk later gave me a tailored spiel about this, with a winking warning that the martini glass icon on the touchpad doesn’t alert the bartender to send a drink to your room but instead activates the lights and window shades for socializing. (Then you can presumably phone the bar for a drink.)

While checking in, I mused aloud about trying out the fitness room, and the agent said, and he seemed to mean it literally, that I would be the eighth guest to do so. The hotel has been opening softly since May, often hosting what might be called a boutique guest list, including the family of the late Robert Gatje. Such guests have been coming to stay in the literal sense, their waking hours spent in communion with the building. Other, more typical guests with business elsewhere will soon be able to leave their luggage and take the hotel’s planned electric shuttle into town. Says Norz, “We really wanted to open because we had Yale commencement and reunions, and we wanted to be a good neighbor… And I’m glad we did. But there are always hiccups here and there, big ones and small ones.” The big one was a mishap in the plumbing that flooded 10 rooms one day, but most of the hiccups were of the sort guests would welcome in the spirit of giddy experimentation.

The lighting system in my room, for example, proved to be an almost sentient symphony of coordination and economy, but it was still being perfected. “There’s been a huge amount of troubleshooting to get all of that to work seamlessly…,” Tai says. “Basically we’re on the bleeding edge of it, means that you need IT professionals to make your lights work… It’s another instance of the building as a sort of case study in use of more energy-efficient technologies. It’s not there yet, but it will be.”

Indeed, that night, when I pressed the Night button on my bedside console, all the lights faded in unison—except my reading sconce, which stayed on. Amused, I got up and turned it off using the touchpad by the door. A motion-sensing light then blinked on from the bathroom, guiding me back to bed.

Hotel Marcel
500 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
(203) 780-7800

Written by David Zukowski. Images photographed by Seamus Payne and provided courtesy of the Hotel Marcel.

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