New York hotel and nightlife ringmasters Sean McPherson and Eric Goode opened the Bowery Hotel (335 Bowery) in 2007, having built it from the ground up to resemble a looming 19th-century factory. Dripping with freshly recreated and often wittily re-purposed period details, and with a lobby bar draped in tapestries and sporting a manorial fireplace, it’s not just hotel décor, but a fully fledged trend. Old New York, with its brawling bar rooms, smoke stacks and fervent hopes for a better life, has become the next big thing.
Around the corner on E 4th St, Bowery Hotel offshoot Lafayette House (38 E 4th St) riffs along a similar theme. Set in a creaking old town house, the 15 rooms possess the original 19th-century bones to offset their Rose Bowl-sourced and individually furnished interiors, a cosy of velvet settees, fringed lamps and sepia-toned writing paper. It's Victorian parlour melodrama to its big sibling’s Five Points swagger (but the working fireplaces, huge baths and windows that can be flung open temper the need for smelling salts).
Also from the duo is The Jane (113 Jane St), set in the former sailor’s hotel that housed the survivors of the Titanic and more recently was a rooming house. It may be their budget offering (apart from a few river-facing rooms, it has shared bathrooms), but the art direction is no less obsessive, down to the potted palms in the lobby and a clanky old lift. The bigger rooms, excellent bedding and iPod docks aside, have the air of a Broadway chorus girl’s bedsit, while the cabins are the very essence of steamers past.
Freeman’s (Freeman Alley, off Rivington St), a perennially popular Lower East Side restaurant, and Brooklyn’s pioneering Moto (394 Broadway, Williamsburg), were early adopters of the Old New York look, and the designers of each have kept up their patina-led practice. Taavo Somer morphed his hipster Kunstkammer aesthetic at Freeman’s into the Bowery Hotel’s bucolic Gemma, while Johnny and Kevin McCormick’s longshoreman whimsy at Moto goes full-throttle steampunk at Smith & Mills (71 N Moore St). This tiny Tribeca bar stages a Eugene O’Neill-worthy homage to the world of manual labour, with boiler room blueprints on the walls, carefully cultivated rust and Dark and Stormys on the drink card.
Over in Williamsburg, deli-saloon Marlow & Sons (81 Broadway, Williamsburg) doesn’t just look the part with its rough-hewn benches and stain-addled mirrors; their whole operation is defiantly old-fashioned, with a dedication to sustainable local produce serious enough to see them slaughter their own cows (and sell satchels produced from the by-product hides).
In Specimen Days, the novelist Michael Cunningham conjured up poet Walt Whitman along with a triptych of disjunctive New Yorks: the beauty and the horror of the city’s 19th-century industrial heyday, the teeth-grinding anxiety of the post 9/11 years, and a future where the city has become an android- and alien-staffed theme park – of itself. It’s all three of Cunningham’s New Yorks that spring to mind when looking out over lower Manhattan from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Bowery Hotel.
The urban landscape is, of course, much changed from the era the hotel so tenderly evokes, and ever transformed by the jolting absence of the Twin Towers. The extreme craft ethos and lush materials that the hotel and many of its rewinding counterparts employ lends a solidity and authenticity to the enterprises, even with the fabrications, the troubled starlets throwing tantrums at the bar and the many contemporary comforts. It’s another kind of comfort that all this nostalgic yearning offers, too - that and a communal affection for America’s grandest, story-filled city.