Glamming It Up

From trendy resort to urban luxury, Deborah Berke’s projects for the James Hotels give birth to a boutique brand.

Having just completed the first iteration of the James Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, you might think architect Deborah Berke would have had a clear road map for a second James property in Chicago. The structures, after all, had something in common. “They were really old hotels that we turned into something glamorous,” Berke says. But the pop Southwestern palette she fashioned for the Arizona sunshine resort—a party destination for people in their twenties and thirties—didn’t lend itself to the busy streets of the Windy City. “Chicago has a fabulous architectural history, and we tried to be a part of it,” Berke says of the more upscale hotel, which opened this spring. The solution for the James Chicago—a home-away-from-home for luxury travelers—became the foundation for an emerging boutique hotel brand that will move to New York, Los Angeles, and Miami in the next two years.

Getting from the scheme for Scottsdale to one for Chicago was less a deliberate plan than a process of circumstance and discovery. The former property, an architecturally mediocre erstwhile Holiday Inn saddled with parking lots, needed a real design infusion to feel like a resort. Berke transformed the interiors with bold Luis Barragán−inspired colors and sleek lines, and worked with local landscape architect Christie Ten Eyck to turn the paved grounds into a leisure campus of gardens and swimming pools. It was a kind of test run, according to James Hotel partner Brad Wilson. “The founding partners chose Scottsdale because they wanted to learn the hotel business in a market that wasn’t quite the huge investment of a major city. After Scottsdale we were in a better place to do an urban luxury project.”

At the Chicago site—located on tony Ontario Street—there was no room for public spaces outside the 1920s U-shaped building, so Berke crafted a kind of urban living room inside. “The main lobby was a nasty square little space that was originally entered off a side street,” Berke says. “That just made no sense. Hotel lobbies are really part of urban life. Not only did we want it on the major street, but we wanted to lend a certain drama to its proportions.” By relocating the entrance to the building’s north side, she was able to create the illusion of expansiveness—and play up a subtle connection to the city.

Since structural work on the lobby and infill for a second-floor ballroom consumed a lion’s share of the budget, Berke largely kept the footprint of the original rooms on the upper floors. She removed interior walls to create serene loftlike spaces and took advantage of the alcoves left behind to make numerous multipurpose areas for eating, watching television, and especially working. “When I go to a hotel room I am most miserable when I am perched on the bed tapping away at my laptop with the wire draped across the floor,” she says.

In essence Berke helped the brand grow up. The James Scottsdale was sold to the Morgans Hotel Group in January for a huge profit: reports of the trendy Paris Hilton tempest, which hit Scottsdale in full tabloid force soon after its opening, attested to its faddishness. On the other hand, the James Chicago—more mise-en-scène than social scene—is firmly entrenched on the city’s north side. Now that the partners have found their hospitality niche, they’ve tapped red-hot architect Enrique Norten to design buildings in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami from the ground up.

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