Mondrian Hotel, Miami, USA. Brief History of Boutique Hotels and That Time We Saw Drew Barrymore in the Lobby.

Brief History of Boutique Hotels and The Time We Saw Drew Barrymore in the Lobby

The brief history of boutique hotels is fascinating if you’re a boutique hotel obsessive, beginning in London in 1978 with Anouska Hempel’s Blakes Hotel and taken to giddy heights in New York City by Studio 54’s Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with the Paramount Hotel.

I have to confess to having been a budding boutique hotel junkie when Terence and I first began travelling overseas in the 1990s. I was an aspiring young filmmaker in Sydney who read (and wrote for) film magazines – which explains the thrill of spotting the legendary John Barrymore‘s granddaughter Drew Barrymore in the Paramount hotel lobby on our first night in New York City during an arctic winter in January 1994.

If travel magazines existed in Australia at the time, they weren’t on my horizon. My main source of travel inspiration was my slightly older, better-travelled friends who worked in film and television, and a fellow Sydney harbour ferry commuter, an English designer, who seemed to flit around the world at every opportunity.

So on our first trip to the USA, I had taken the advice of my fellow ferry commuter and a dear film friend who had both recently stayed at Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s Paramount, one of New York City’s first boutique hotels. I booked it for the first couple of nights, before we moved across to Williamsburg to stay with a music producer friend.

It was while planning that US trip that one morning on my commute across Sydney harbour, my designer friend gushed about his recent stay at Blakes – an intimate hotel with an idiosyncratic sense of style, flamboyantly decorated with exotic treasures from its interior designer owner Anouska Hempel’s travels from Cambodia to China – and inadvertently introduced me to the concept of boutique hotels.

A door to a whole new world opened for a young Australian whose hotel experience had been limited to boring business hotels, highway motels, country pubs, and functional holiday apartments. Accommodation in Australia at that time seriously lacked personality. We had to stay at the Paramount, I decided, and I had to learn more about these boutique hotels.

Brief History of Boutique Hotels and That Time We Saw Drew Barrymore in the Lobby

Blakes, the world’s first boutique hotel, was still fabulously chic in the Nineties despite having opened in London in 1978. In fact, Blakes celebrated its 40th birthday early this year after a sale to new owners and 18 months of nips and tucks supervised by Blakes creator and boutique hotel pioneer, Anouska Hempel, a New Zealand-born designer of Russian heritage who grew up in Sydney.

Hempel’s background intrigued me when I first began researching boutique hotels all those years ago. It was as ‘exotic’ as her hotel designs. She had been conceived on a yacht between Papua New Guinea and New Zealand and would go on to play ‘The Australian Girl’ alongside Australian-born George Lazenby’s James Bond in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Joanna Lumley played ‘The English Girl’ while Diana Rigg was the female star, a countess who captured Bond’s heart.

After Blakes, Hempel designed more boutique hotels, as well as luxury yachts, exclusive fashion boutiques and rich friends’ homes. She would also inspire a few American hoteliers who would go on to launch North America’s first boutique hotels. Investment banker Bill Kimpton started his boutique hotel company with the opening of the Clarion Bedford in San Francisco in 1981, and Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell of Studio 54 fame, opened Morgans in New York City in 1984.

The Paramount, which my friend recommended (“don’t even think about staying anywhere else” was what she’d actually said) was Schrager and Rubell’s second boutique hotel, when they opened it on 235 West 46th Street, Broadway, just two minutes from Times Square, in late 1990, and – like Blakes – was still considered to be one of the hottest hotels in New York when we stayed in early 1994.

Equally as enticing as staying in a hotel owned by the legendary Studio 54 duo – which for my 20-something self meant a few degrees separation from the likes of David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol, and Bianca Jagger – was checking into a hip new boutique hotel fitted out by French designer Philippe Starck.

Philippe Starck was already a household name with the design-savvy in Australia in the Nineties. He was best known for his Alessi products that had become the cool gifts you’d give to your cool friends that you’d wished you’d kept for yourself – such as his futuristic stove-top Hot Bertaa kettle and iconic Juicy Salif citrus squeezer.

Schrager’s Paramount brief to Starck had been to design a US$100-a-night hotel room in the heart of New York City. That must have been the rate for entry level rooms at the Paramount or prices had risen with the hotel’s reputation by the time we stayed, as we recall paying US$170 for a whitewashed shoebox with barely enough room to move around the petite double bed and, on a bitterly cold night in early January, not being able to close a window that had jammed.

I don’t recall minding the cramped space and cold draft as much as I would these days. Perhaps it was because checking in gave us access to one of the most happening bars in New York City, where we ended up spent much of that first evening, after a failed attempt to head out for a quick stroll to Times Square. That was our first experience of sub-zero temperatures and was the night we learnt about wind chill factors. We didn’t get far. It was bitterly cold. The next day we’d learn that homeless people had been dying on New York’s streets that freezing winter.

Instead we retreated to the Paramount’s bar, the Whiskey, which goes down in our brief boutique hotel history as the first cool hotel bar. Designed by Philippe Starck and David Rockwell, Schrager had asked Scott Gerber, who would go on to create the W Hotel bars and night spots, and brother Rande Gerber, who, among other things, married supermodel Cindy Crawford and founded Casamigos Tequila with George Clooney, to take the bar on. Actor Matt Dillon was also an investor.

Dimly lit, music blaring, and with few places to sit, it was heaving with people. The crush of the crowd soon warmed us up. Unable to hear each other speak, we took in the vibe until we got hungry. Unable to go outside, we did something we’d rarely do these days and decided to dine in the hotel restaurant. As we headed upstairs, we spotted actress Drew Barrymore crossing the Paramount’s glam lobby. She was making a beeline for the bar.

Brief History of Boutique Hotels – The Boutique Hotels That Made History

Here’s a brief history of boutique hotels, which I’ve been documenting since that first trip to New York city in the Nineties, hotel by hotel – from the birth of the concept of boutique hotels with Blakes through to the most pioneering boutique hotel openings in the USA.

Blakes Hotel, London

Most of the lodgings in this brief history of boutique hotels are in the USA, however, it was bohemian Blakes in upmarket Kensington, London, that marked the birth of boutique hotels when the intimate and exclusive property with its exuberant décor opened in 1978. It was like no accommodation seen before with flamboyant, individually decorated rooms set across a row of dramatic, black-painted mews houses. The plush rooms were considered exotic and rather bohemian for the time, decorated with handcrafted Syrian mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden furniture, antique Chinese lacquer-ware, billowing curtains, Oriental carpets, Murano chandeliers, gilt edged mirrors, and four-poster beds with crushed red velvet bedspreads. Under Hempel’s supervision, a recent revamp has modernised the hotel while retaining the original atmosphere and style.

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Kimpton Hotel Vintage, Portland

Across the pond, our brief history of boutique hotels begins in 1981 in San Francisco, where the USA’s first boutique hotel was trailblazing former banker Bill Kimpton’s Clarion Bedford Hotel. Kimpton’s inspiration had been the small, welcoming European hotels he loved that made guests feel at home, where you might even enjoy a glass of wine with the owner. Kimpton wanted his hotels to be a home away from home, with lobbies that felt more like living rooms, with a crackling fireplace and bar that provided a gathering place for guests to relax at the end of a day out. To create a sense of community and inclusion, the Clarion Bedford hosted nightly wine hours, something that continues at Kimpton hotels to this day, and to make guests feel even more at home, they put drinks and snacks in mini-fridges in rooms, inventing the mini-bar as we know it today. Sadly, that hotel is no longer, but you can check into Kimpton’s first boutique hotel outside San Francisco, the Vintage Plaza in Portland Oregon, now the Kimpton Hotel Vintage Portland. Evening tastings of local wines from the nearby Willamette Valley, often poured by the wine-maker, are held in the Bacchus lobby bar, which features graffiti-inspired cork art. Each of the 117 rooms is dedicated to a local winery with a mini bar stocked with their wines. There’s also a games lounge for adults with a chandelier made from recycled wine bottles above the pool table.

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Paramount, New York City

Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell’s first hotel, Morgans, which they opened in New York City in 1984, was the USA’s second boutique hotel. Schrager credits Rubell with coining the term ‘boutique hotel’ to describe their smaller, more idiosyncratic hotels which he likened to fashion boutiques, in contrast to the big cookie cutter chains which were like department stores. As you’d expect from the former Studio 54 duo, Schrager and Rubell brought a clubby vibe to their hotels, helped along by the Gerber brothers Whiskey bars, the first of which was in the Paramount hotel, and which were responsible for the resurgence of New York’s hotel lobby bar scene in the Nineties. Each property had its own distinctive style (Morgans was by French interior designer Andrée Putman) but shared a similar attitude. Like Kimpton’s Clarion Bedford, Morgans has long gone. But you can check into their second boutique hotel in New York, the Paramount, where we stayed on our first trip to the city. A grand old hotel built in 1928, the Paramount was dramatically remodelled by designers Philippe Starck and David Rockwell after its 1990 purchase by Schrager. No longer owned by Schrager (and partner Rubell passed away in 1989), it’s recently been given a facelift by its new owners. You’ll still find traces of the first hotel in its still glam lobby and snug rooms, and these days the hotel builds upon its celebrity beginnings and Theatre District location, as the official Tony Awards hotel – which means even more opportunities for star spotting.

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Phoenix Hotel, San Francisco

Over on the west coast in San Francisco, the opening of Chip Conley’s Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin in 1987 was another significant moment in our brief history of boutique hotels in the USA. The Phoenix Hotel couldn’t have been more different to the Paramount. This rock’n’roll hotel started life in 1956 as the Caravan Motor Lodge. Residents had apparently included Neil Young, who recorded Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s album Déjà Vu there. The two-storey motel was in poor shape when 25 year-old Chip Conley, who’d been working in real estate, bought the property, however, there was a car park large enough for tour buses and a number of iconic live music venues in the neighbourhood. Conley envisaged his first boutique hotel as a rest stop for travelling bands and his inspiration was Rolling Stone magazine. Guests over the years included everyone from John F Kennedy Jnr. and Debby Harry – who were accidentally checked into the same room – and Kurt Cobain, who had a note written on Phoenix hotel stationery in his pocket when he died. With the Phoenix, Conley established Joie de Vivre Hospitality, opening 50 boutique hotels over 24 years. Thirty years later and the 44-room Phoenix Hotel still feels like a vintage motel. The retro rooms are decorated in bold primary colours: cobalt blue bed-heads, orange fluoro lights, red vintage telephones, and round yellow pleated cushions on the tanned leather sofas. There’s a sunny courtyard with swimming pool and the hotel restaurant, Chambers, hosts a vast record collection and is helmed by chef Nick Andoe, who offers a seasonal menu.

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Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles

Still on the west coast, hotelier André Balazs assured his place in our brief history of boutique hotels when he kicked off his boutique hotel career with the purchase and restoration of Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles in 1990. The historic hotel had been built as an apartment block in 1929 and was first converted to a hotel of suites with kitchens and living rooms in 1931. The hotel’s famous residents and guests included Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, Nicholas Ray, Nathalie Wood, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, Jim Morrison and Helmut Newton while F. Scott Fitzgerald, Billy Wilder, Dorothy Parker, Hunter S. Thompson, Bruce Weber, Oliver Stone, Tim Burton, and Sofia Coppola were just some of the writers, poets, filmmakers, musicians, and photographers who got creative there. The hotel featured in films such as The DoorsThe Big Nowhere and La La Land, and songs by the Grateful Dead (West LA Fadeaway), Lily Allen (Trigger Bang), Lana Del Rey (Off to the Races), and Angus and Julie Stone (‘Chateau’). Lindsay Lohan was banned from the hotel in 2012, and tragically, actor John Belushi died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont in 1982. Although the hotel had lost some of its charm when Balazs took it on, it still had ardent fans who didn’t want to see it transformed dramatically in the way that, say, Schrager remodelled the Paramount. Balazs therefore gave it a sensitive upgrade that retained its retro style, history and character, giving it a new lease of life.

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Delano Hotel South Beach, Miami

When Ian Schrager opened the Delano Hotel in 1994 in Miami, he assured his spot in this brief history of boutique hotels. Slap-bang on South Beach, in the centre of the action on Collins Avenue and 16th Street, the Delano was the boutique hotelier’s first property outside New York City and it changed South Beach forever – and for the better. Just as he’d done in New York, with the help of designer Philippe Starck, Schrager rejuvenated an historic Art Deco property. This time it was a former hotel that had started out as military housing, built in 1947 by Rob and Rose Schwartz, and named after US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The hotel’s spare, all-white, minimalist sense of style set it apart from the pastels and gelato colours of Miami in the Eighties. (Remember Miami Vice?) Still, it wasn’t all sleek, clean lines and could never be with Starck at the helm of the hotel’s design that exhibited his signature playful and theatrical touches in the oversized pink padded seats; the brass Salvador Dalí Leda chair; and the translucent piano, a present from Lenny Kravitz. Twenty-four years later and the Delano Hotel South Beach is as stunning as ever, with its soaring ceilings, and striking beachfront swimming pool and cabanas with billowing curtains, set amidst palm shaded gardens. Book one of the bungalows for the ultimate Delano experience and don’t miss sipping a cocktail at the Rose bar, still a spot to see and be seen.

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Mondrian Hotel, Los Angeles

Ian Schrager made boutique hotel history yet again in 1996, not long after Balazs re-launched Chateau Marmont, when he acquired the nine-storey Le Mondrian, a late Fifties apartment building on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, which had been transformed into a hotel in 1985. This time he recruited designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz to remodel the property and Scott Gerber to work his magic with the hotel bar. The Mondrian would become famous for its panoramic rooftop bar, which was the first hotel bar to wrap around an outdoor swimming pool, drawing guests to the hotel specifically so they could get into the drinking spot. Another allure was the local crowd that frequented the Mondrian’s Sky Bar. Most hotel bars only appealed to hotel guests at the time, so tourists would find themselves sipping with other tourists. The Mondrian’s watering hole was so cool it attracted hip locals, offering a reason to check in other than the rooms and location. Like the Chateau Marmont, the Mondrian Los Angeles would play a key role in the city’s pop culture. The Britney Spears documentary Britney: For the Record was filmed at the hotel, as were several episodes of the series Entourage, while 50 Cent refers to the hotel in his song Places to Go: “Matter of fact you gotta send it to Sunset Boulevard up in the Mondrian”.

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Mondrian South Beach Hotel, Miami

It would be another 12 years before Ian Schrager’s Morgans Hotel Group opened a Mondrian in Miami (pictured above) on the still waterfront of Biscayne Bay, rather than the ocean side of South Beach. Designed by avant garde Dutch designer, Marcel Wanders, the hotel nevertheless has touches of Starck’s theatrics and whimsicality and his sleek sense of style, clean lines, and white interiors. There’s also the familiar soaring lobby of the first property and an alluring swimming pool surrounded by white sun-beds and cabanas with billowing curtains. The hotel doesn’t break new ground in the way that Schrager’s earlier hotels have, nor has it done for Miami what the Delano did. Rather, it punctuates a period of boutique hotel history and carefully melds two formerly distinct styles of accommodation, the hotel and the serviced apartment. It’s also a lot larger than the early boutique hotels with its 335 rooms, studios, one and two-bedroom apartments, and penthouses. The Mondrian South Beach still has the sexiness of Schrager’s first hotels and the buzzy-ness of the Paramount, yet that’s combined with the practical conveniences and comforts of home, from well-equipped kitchenettes for hip families who want to cook and eat in, to work stations created with the guests that still need to work on holidays. There’s still a stunning café, bar and restaurant, but there are also the watersports we expect these days, from kayaks to stand-up paddle boards, and you can hire an Audi Silvercar or a private yacht depending on your mood.

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Image courtesy of Luxury Escapes.

This brief history of boutique hotels was a very personal and highly selective boutique hotel history based purely on the properties that have attracted this hotel junkie over the years. I’d love to hear from you if you have boutique hotel favourites that have captured your imagination, whether they’re hotels you’ve stayed in or properties you’ve just read about. Feel free to leave comments below. 


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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

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