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May 9th, 2007 Mike Thelin | Featured Stories
 

Ace's high

What does “the country’s most original new hotel” say about its host city?

     
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The intentions for the Ace Hotel were clear. “We wanted a place where you wake up and say, 'I’m in Portland fucking Oregon,’” says Ace “sales liaison” Natasha Figueroa. Pretty Portland indeed: Minimally adorned spaces pull off a vintage feel. Bikes are available to hotel guests—so are guitar picks. Vending machines with guitar strings are in the works. Bedside turntables are almost standard. There’s even an idea for detachable stripper poles for honeymoon suites. If the design of the Ace Hotel—which opened in February—is an accurate reflection, then Portland’s cultural terroir is fertile.
At the front desk of the original Ace Hotel in Seattle is a copy of the March New York Times article that proclaimed the Portland outpost “the country’s most original new hotel.” Business has since surged by about 60 percent in Portland.
But for those who already live in Portland, why care about the Ace? Other than philandering spouses and politicos, the last people in a city to “get a room” are those already paying rent—right?
Hotels act as an escape, but the Ace is also a pastiche of ideas that aims to reflect Portland’s eclectic culture. Its design, a collaboration of local artisans, seems to want to tell the world that this city is a crafty, hip place that’s not interested in what’s been done before.
The Seattle Ace is smaller (but the prices are similar—$85-$250 in PDX). It favors Scandinavian minimalism—white walls and stainless-steel fixtures. Seattle, with its monorail, Space Needle and Dutch-designed futuristic central library, tilts toward the refined, and the hotel reflects the city’s bolder and more technologically driven culture. In other words, it wouldn’t fit in in Portland at all.
“Portland is creative and affordable—it reminds me a lot of Seattle 15 years ago,” says hotel co-owner Alex Calderwood, who moved here for the project. “People live their passions.”
The Ace embodies those passions. Formerly the dumpy Clyde Hotel, the building has housed hotel guests since 1912. From smallish rooms with shared bathrooms to bunk-bedded quarters intended for touring bands to spacious suites, each of the 79 rooms is unlike any other. The Ace retains the nostalgia of an old building with its refurbished fir floors and exposed brick and wood.
Every room has original art by mostly local artists—the majority in the form of mural and collage incorporating scrap and saved objects: felt, string, book pages and wood. Couches and beds were designed, refurbished or built by the staff. Playful details reflect Portland quirk. Maps of fire-escape routes are hand-stitched zigzags of red yarn on white felt. The Ace designers seem to have nailed it, “it” being a culture shaped by (until recently) cheap real estate, an ethic to recycle and reuse everything and low budgets, which meant extravagant design had to come on a shoestring. The Seattle Ace re-created in Portland it’s not.
“Hotels should be a catalyst for cultural exchange between locals and out-of-town guests,” says Calderwood. “We’re really selling is a cultural experience...[that] reflects Portland.” This, he says, is why Stumptown Coffee was asked to open a shop in the hotel, and the old Peacock Cleaners space will be used as a local venue for exhibitions.
It all seems to be working thus far. The lobby has a constant flow of locals mixing with guests, sipping coffee and working. About 30 percent of hotel guests have been Portland residents.
Other local overnighters, like the Jupiter Hotel and the recently rebranded Hotel Monaco, also reflect Portland, but the end result isn’t quite the same. The Jupiter (rates $95-$250), which features murals in its rooms, as well as doors covered in chalkboard paint for drunken scribbling and an outpost of Spartacus Leathers, is teeming with locals, but rarely during the day. The top-shelf Monaco (formerly Fifth Avenue Suites, rates $169-$329) incorporates a Rose Garden theme, and its headboards are styled after benches from the South Park Blocks. In the words of Assistant GM Melinda MacFarlane, “It’s absolutely an oasis.”
Portland won’t be the last city with an Ace. San Francisco and Minneapolis are also on the radar, according to Calderwood. “We’re interested in creating unique projects in places that are culturally relevant,” he says.
OK, so now that Portland’s “culturally relevant,” what’s next? Is the Ace’s high too much to live up to? (The standoffish attitude of a few staff members on a recent visit is nothing to live up to.) According to Calderwood, as many as 10 national magazines are preparing their own coverage of the hotel, and of Portland. Everyone loves recognition—especially when people on the other coast are saying we’re cool. The story sounds reminiscent of another Northwest city with some artists and few good bands generated a buzz about 15 years ago—but we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves.

Ace Hotel, 1022 SW Stark St., 228-2277, acehotel.com.

Ed. note: In the print version of this story, we quoted the New York Times as calling the Ace the "country’s most original hotel," unwittingly omitting the word "new" from the quote. WW regrets the error.

 
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