Checking It Out

Checking It Out

When I woke up at the Hotel Marcel and pressed the Morning button on the bedside console, the blackout shade rolled steadily up to reveal the downtown New Haven skyline. Between the hotel and the skyline’s southernmost peak, the Knights of Columbus building, is a half-mile plain of low industrial buildings, back lots, parking lots and expressway frontage that dramatizes the government’s urban renewal efforts in the 1960s. One of them was the Long Wharf Redevelopment project, pursued under Mayor Richard C. Lee to attract industry to the area. The Marcel building itself emblemizes this by having until now been known for the industrial ventures it housed: Armstrong Rubber and, after acquiring Armstrong, the Italian tire maker Pirelli.

Armstrong purchased one of the last parcels offered by the city and, according to the building’s submission to the National Register of Historic Places, hired architect Marcel Breuer to design two buildings for them: a two- or three-story corporate office and a separate one-or-two story workshop in the back. But it was Mayor Lee who insisted on a grand and certainly taller architectural statement to occupy the site, one that would act as a gateway for traffic entering New Haven from I-95.

The building Breuer came up with, featuring a two-story tail that’s since been demolished and, more to the point, a 17-foot gap where any other building’s third and fourth floors would be, is a remarkable sight. But it was also a brilliant compromise, simultaneously providing the city with its one big building and the customer with its two smaller buildings, just stacked. The gap was useful to Armstrong insofar as it separated the offices from the noise and the smell of the factory. It also framed a view of the city’s skyline from the highway.

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To Alice Tai, one of the Becker + Becker architects who converted the building into a hotel, I gleefully suggested that the gap—or what the hotel staff calls “The Void”—would be a great place to experience both the scale and the spatial uniqueness of Breuer’s achievement while enjoying cocktails. “Everybody asks about that,” Tai said with a smile, a tad incredulous. “But it’s like, if you go out there, it’s not very pleasant… because it’s A) a giant wind tunnel and B) it’s very loud from the highway.”

Unlike the strict yet crafty geometrical grid of windows above and below, The Void isn’t experienced from inside the hotel except by implication. The elevators dutifully display their progress from the second floor to the fifth, but they don’t actually stop in between, and there are no buttons for floors 3 and 4. But if you exit onto the fifth floor, you can thrill to the fact that there’s open air beneath the ground you’re standing on.

After Tai suggested that the stairwells bookending The Void offer a better representation of Breuer’s architectural style, I decided to do most of my inter-floor traveling that way. The stark craft of the stairs is indeed visible, particularly after dark, when they’re lit up by discs mounted at each landing. The steps are perfectly trapezoidal stone slabs, topped with cast terrazzo containing black and white chips of granite. Brutalist concrete walls curve around them, bearing the woodgrain imprints of their plank forms.

Bruce Becker, the owner and developer of the building and one of the partners at Becker + Becker, was keen to preserve what traces of Breuer remained from its half-century corporate and post-corporate life. The granite floor tiles and wall tiles in the reception area are original, as are the steps leading from there to the hotel proper. (The original reception desk, made of polished granite, was carefully transferred to the vestibule outside one of the hotel’s event spaces.) Elsewhere in the lobby, the architects took advantage of what was once conduit space beneath a bank of mainframe computers to create a sunken lounge. The lounge, which is laterally opposite BLDG, the hotel bar and restaurant, is cleverly separated from the outer edge of the lobby by a table-slash-counter, with shorter stools opposite taller ones to account for the elevation change.

On the upper floors, such transformations are still taking place. Susan Norz, one of the hotel directors, removed a piece of electrical tape from the 9 button on the elevator panel to take me up there. What used to be wall-to-wall housing for mechanicals is being turned into a function space with a cavernous lobby and several breakout rooms. Some of the massive vertical and angled trusses that hold up the building greeted us like an art installation when we emerged. “We’re creating sort of an industrial feel here. These are just so beautiful. It’s a great sense of place I think.”

On the eighth floor, Norz showed me the guest suites, which had once been executive offices and board rooms. The chairman of Armstrong Rubber presumably thought about tires while looking down at the interstate from his corner office, where we were now standing. “What I find most compelling is how quiet the traffic is,” Norz said, drawing attention to the triple noise-canceling panes in the windows. “It’s a little eerie.” The effect of light coming in from all those corner windows is also mitigated by dark hardwood paneling, which looks new but isn’t. “What a labor of love!” Norz continued. “Because literally, so much of was destroyed. Water damage. Holes. We restored it, patched it . This is all where it was.”

In all the rooms are furnishings and artwork that reflect the geometry of the architecture—what Tai characterizes as “a unity between interior and exterior.” Terra cotta wall tiles in the lobby bear reliefs like the massive cast panels on the side of the building, albeit in warmer tones. In my room, gray circles on the quilted tapestry rhymed with the gray circle of the bedside table. There are no overstuffed recliners, but every room has a Cesca chair, a Breuer design that appears to kneel on a single chrome tube. Its cantilevered seat, sitting on air, recalls the upper floors of the building hovering over the lower. Design decisions for fixtures as well as furnishings were made in concert by Kraemer Sims Becker, Bruce’s partner at Becker + Becker, as well as the executive staff and an interior design firm in Brooklyn. “I mean,” Norz says with some reverence, “we picked out trash cans together.”

All the attention paid to aesthetic and historical details as well as the environmental and technological innovations highlighted yesterday gives a stay at the Hotel Marcel the immersiveness of a destination itself, an important quality for a hotel situated away from the major cultural concentrations of the city. Breuer designed the building in part to be a gateway to New Haven’s ever-shifting present. His successors have created a gateway to both its past and its future.

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

Written by David Zukowski. Images 1, 3, 5 and 7 photographed by Seamus Payne. Images 2, 4 and 6 photographed by David Zukowski.

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