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Developer Recaptures a Maritime Motif

Developer Recaptures a Maritime Motif

The Wall Street Journal 11/01/2010


Frank Fusaro, of Handel Architects, embarked on a historical reclamation mission of sorts when he took on the job of designing the new Dream Downtown hotel now taking shape in Chelsea with its distinctive punched-out porthole windows.

The story dates to the 1960s, when New Orleans architect Albert Ledner designed three buildings for the National Maritime Union, all of which shared the distinctly maritime porthole motif: the union headquarters on Seventh Avenue and 12th Street, now known as the O’Toole Building; the annex, at 346 W. 17th St., and the union dormitory next door. In 1987, the seamen sold the two adjacent Chelsea properties to the Covenant House, which covered the annex with faux townhouse facades and pink stucco.

Now the developer Sant Singh Chatwal is converting the annex into a $230 million, 316-room hotel scheduled to open this spring. One of the first steps in the design was to recapture the original maritime aesthetic, says Mr. Fusaro who worked on the project with Handel’s Elga Killinger.

“I think everyone hated them,” says Mr. Fusaro, speaking of the faux townhouse facades. “All the windows were bricked in.”

After Mr. Chatwal’s Hampshire Hotels & Resorts bought the annex for $70 million in late 2007, Mr. Fusaro designed the plan to pry off the faux townhouse facades and pink stucco, and cover the building in stainless steel tiles fabricated in Kansas City with a special-made coating dubbed the Dream Finish: it’s polished enough to reflect the blues and whites from the sky overhead, but not so reflective as to mirror passersby.

On the sloping 17th Street side, Mr. Fusaro kept the original portholes, and then complemented them with additional porthole-shaped windows of variegated size.

The 16th Street side’s facade is fashioned from two scrimlike sheets of stainless steel, its top scrim’s fishnet holes a precise replication of the 17th Street punched-window design writ small and replicated many times over. Mr. Fusaro punctured the scrims with porthole-shaped Juliet balconies.

In between the 16th and 17th Street sides, he carved out a four-floor-courtyard space to allow for light and more windowed hotel rooms. Dream Downtown is the Chatwal’s 11th hotel in New York City. Mr. Fusaro also designed 40 Bond in conjunction with Herzog & de Meuron; 505 Greenwich and 255 Hudson.

He discussed the project with Mr. Ledner, the original architect of the three buildings for the National Maritime Union last year.

“He didn’t throw me out of the room, so I guess he thought it was OK,” Mr. Fusaro says.

As the design has emerged in Chelsea, local residents have begun to call it “The Cheesegrater” because that’s what it resembles. That’s fine with Mr. Fusaro.

“I think cheese graters are beautiful,” he says. “I love kitchen appliances.”