The construction of the SoHo Grand Hotel may have been met with a bit of vocal resistance by some of its longtime neighbors, but its owner, Hartz Mountain Industries, stood its ground and staked a claim in the former industrial area in downtown Manhattan known as Soho. Many of the buildings in the area have already been commandeered over the past 20 years or so by artists, upscale boutiques, and chic restaurants that lure tourist traffic and the culturally inclined to the neighborhood, so the addition of a swank hotel to the environs seems to make considerable commercial sense.
Certainly its design, by architect David Helpern and interior designer William Sofield of Studio Sofield, gives the SoHo the profile of a considerate, if adamant, newcomer. Built from the ground up on a vacant lot on Thompson Street, the new 16-story hotel, while much taller than any of the buildings around it, adapts to its surroundings with an understated yet hard-to-miss blend of local materials and architectural references to the area's past, from the 1870s to the 1970s. And as might be expected of any resourceful downtown artist, the architect and interior designer have made the most of a tight budget by creating a mix of stimulating, spare, custom-wrought elements that give the hotel its Victorian-cum-20th-century-industrial character.
Among the more notable of the custom features are interior lighting elements created by New York-based lighting designers Johnson Schwinghammer in collaboration with Sofield. Elements of the interior designer's palette of materials--granite, masonry, wire glass, copper, and bronze, used throughout the hotel and first witnessed at street level--extend to several fixtures the lighting designers created to complement the space. Other lighting features were more subtly integrated into the architecture or major design elements, including the grand central staircase leading from the ground level to the parlor floor above.
"Since the ground level is zoned for light manufacturing and is technically situated in a flood plain," notes associate lighting designer Terry Nelson, "all hotel functions including the reception area had to be the located on the parlor floor above." To allow guests to immediately connect with the hotel, despite its separation from the street level, Sofield devised a grand floating central staircase, made of cast iron and punctuated with luminous glowing glass pucks, which creates a theatrical passage for promenading and draws the attention of guests upward. It also contains the strongest design references to the neighborhood's past.
To create the glow through the glass disks mounted in each of the treads, the lighting designers recessed MR-16s within the stringers on either side of the stair to throw light toward the middle of each tread and uplight the frosted glass pucks, while reflective housing prevents glare from below. Though the wiring for the fixtures is routed along the stringers, the transformers could not be integrated into the stairs and were positioned in pockets in the floor below instead.
One of the ways in which the owner managed to tie the hotel to the present flavor of the neighborhood was to enlist local artists to lend their influence to the interiors. An oversize Stashkevetch triptych in the stairwell is among the more prominent one-of-a-kind pieces gracing the hotel's walls, and Johnson Schwinghammer integrated a series of recessed three-lamp MR-16 ceiling fixtures positioned about 4' (1.2m) from the wall to illuminate the artwork. "To prevent a shadow line from being cast on the art by a large ceiling beam," says Nelson, "we also created a cove containing recessed staggered fluorescents along the top of the piece."
Decorative sconces, introduced in the lobby and used throughout, contribute to the design idiom and offer additional ambient illumination. Though contemporary in design, the materials of the sconces recall the past: They are made of a bronze housing, with an exposed finish that will age with time, and shades of mica, a material frequently used in the Victorian era. Fitted with clear incandescent candelabra-based B lamps, the sconces emit a sparkling glow warmed by the amber color of the mica. Positioned at a midway point on the 20'-high (6m) columns, they bring the scale of the lobby down to a more human level and allow the ceiling plane to remain free of downlights, which the interior designer desired in this minimalist, matter-of-fact space.
The sconces were also used in an adjacent lounge extending along one side of the lobby. Besides the sconces, custom floor and table lamps were employed to modulate the oversize scale of the architecture as well as provide focused illumination at tables throughout this space in the evening (large windows provide ample natural light during the day). Custom-designed by Johnson Schwinghammer with Sofield and equipped with 30"-square (195 sq. cm) paper shades with Plexiglas diffusers, the tripod bases of the 8'-high (2m) floor lamps were also designed to subtly recall industrial equipment of the past. "They're reminiscent of old surveyor's stands," says Nelson. Two sources are used in the lamps: an incandescent T-lamp for general illumination, and a T-3 halogen positioned in a metal bowl at the top for uplighting.
The floor lamps alternate with "Bookcloth" table lamps designed by Aero Studios, the firm Sofield ran with his partner Thomas O'Brien before establishing his own firm near the completion of the construction of this hotel. Again the idea was to keep the highly reflective ceiling as clean as possible.
At the north end of the lounge is a bar and at the south is a restaurant where the play of three types of custom fixtures adds substantially to the decorative quality of the space. To leave two of the walls in the room free, the lighting designers developed simple suspended bronze ceiling fixtures fitted with six 40W T-10 incandescent lamps to bring down the height of the ceiling. These are complemented by wall-mounted bronze picture sconces each fitted with a single T-10 lamp to illuminate the small paintings along another wall. In addition, the ceiling contains a field of clear resin rosettes with groupings of three exposed carbon filament incandescents, also an echo of the past. The round rosettes, which were designed to relate to a detail in the chair rail molding, help reflect the light, and because the lamps were exposed in a dining area, code dictated that each have a Tuffskin shatterproof coating.
Since the limited budget was such a strong influence on the design (the client opted not to include a dimming system for cost reasons, though the lighting designers note that dimmers may be added to switches throughout at a later date), Johnson Schwinghammer's approach to illuminating the hotel was to use as many standard parts as possible and modify them into custom assemblies, including step lights along the corridors leading to guestrooms and dual-purpose general light fixtures equipped with elliptical reflectors and compact fluorescents over full-length mirrors in the guestrooms themselves. Principal Clark Johnson attributes the ability to follow through with this approach to the open-mindedness of the clients, the Stern family, and Studio Sofield: "They trusted our design, concept direction, and process to meet the challenge of creating a magical lighted environment for the hotel through atypical fixture usage and light levels."
OWNER Emanuel Stern, Hartz Mountain Industries
ARCHITECT David Helpern, Helpern Architects
INTERIOR DESIGNER Studio Sofield William Sofield, principal Stacey Greenwald, project designer
LIGHTING DESIGN Johnson Schwinghammer Clark Johnson, principal Terry Nelson, project designer Minako Koyama, project assistant
CONTRACTOR Dolner Construction
EQUIPMENT Artemus Lighting custom fixture package Aamsco carbon filament lamps Bulbrite Industries Inc. small incandescent lamps Big Gems Studio 3D mica A&L Lighting fluorescents Starfire low-voltage striplights at registration desk and bar Modular 3-lamp art accent lights Rambusch wall washers BK Lighting stair stringer lamps Lumiere floor lamps Lutron local dimmers and switches GE lamps, other than special lamps