In Palm Springs and New York, a fun and funky vibe is Ace hotels' calling card

By Ned Martel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; F01

The winter of my discontent pushed me out West. There was the blown furnace in my New York walk-up, the toppled relationship, and oh yeah, the closing of a magazine I'd helped open -- all that sent me packing. Along with a similarly disemployed friend, Jay Carroll, I went to California with a couple of freelance assignments, bought a Swedish girl's white BMW ("It's very cheerleader," she warned) and rode out the downturn in the high desert.

We tried a few crash pads but didn't want to overstay our welcome, even in someone else's guest space. We were priced out of Los Angeles hotels and game for the skeevy motel route when a friend told us that the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, though still under construction, was open for business, if you knew whom to ring. I had been to the Ace in Portland, Ore. -- a fabled haven of design eclecticism that mixed junk-shop antlers, Pendleton blankets, sylvan murals and Paul Bunyan historicity. Fashion designers flocked there to essentially slum it: It's comfortable, not fancy, but finely conceived. Outdoorsy pastiche meets top-tier panache.

Palm Springs opened slowly -- no big shebang in an era of economic hurt, when hype can just feel wrong. It was the softest of soft launches. All the better, though, for a relaxing but engaging sojourn. The bad news: The gym was a huge pit where plumbers labored, the reverse beeping of trucks pierced the morning calm, and the staff-to-guest ratio was very low. The good news: The sun was blazing, the pool was full, and the staff-to-guest ratio was very low.

My friend and I felt as though we had the run of the white-walled, cinder-blocked, succulent-dotted place and a new hold on a fertile world of possibility. Jay had been furloughed from a scruffy, culty menswear-design collective, which I had helped along. A straight kid inching toward 30 and a gay man inching past 40 saw the oasis in the arid landscape from different perspectives. Maybe he, having been sprung from the tundras of Maine, was having Vitamin-D-related brain bursts; maybe I, having been sprung from the do's and don'ts of Conde Nast, was finally sleeping off all the espresso and Ambien.

We both saw things we had never seen before, heady heaps of originality that defy the usual elements of decor: an imaginative array of signage that looks like a KOA campground and a blocky family of typefaces on everything from cafe menus to maid-tip envelopes.

There were not just mini-patios for lower-level rooms, but gas fireplaces to keep visitors outdoors when the nightly chill descends on the desert floor. The place has a communal vibe -- in fact, the large rentable party space is called the Commune, and the Los Angeles design team that cooked up the campsite idea is called Commune, too.

But beyond that, the hotel grid pushes people together: There are outdoor sofas, upholstered in green waxed canvas, surrounding larger fireplaces anchored by earthy, two-story-high murals. The same cushions dot the edges of the two pools, inviting conversations between the margarita sippers and the water treaders. A network of pathways leads to the wellness yurt and the dog run, and the crunch of gravel underfoot keeps the arid landscape on the premises, so it's not all paved paradise as in the rest of the resort town.

It was hard to leave, but when New York was semi-thawed, a new Ace was coming together not far from my Lower Manhattan neighborhood. I was preparing to leave my own push-people-together grid, which I had navigated for 13 years, and designers -- fashion, graphics, interior -- were jabbering about Ace coming to town. It was deemed "important," but modestly so. Word had gone out, just as it had in Palm Springs, that the team assembling the new hotel wanted features that reflected the world they were entering. Design would spring from connections to local artisans and iconography; it would not be imposed by some conventions of Art Basel avant-garde-ness or neo-modernist magazines.

Again, I stayed in the New York version, just down from Herald Square. Amid the hubbub of off-brand discount jeans and wig shops, this little hipster beacon was being lit, and when I got there, the coffee shop lacked shellac, the restaurant was still a raw space, and the remaining public-subsidy tenants of the Breslin -- the early-20th-century jewel that had fallen on harder times -- were still moving through the unfinished lobby like ghosts.

And yet the Ace, while looking nothing like the Palm Springs version, or like anyplace else I'd stayed, had the potential to be my new home. The rooms have Jay-approved orange turntables and a random selection of vinyls (he has passable DJ skills and a new job at Levi's in San Francisco), not to mention a black acoustic guitar for serenading in the larger suites. The staff was friendly and often represented some tonsorial edge -- think of Daniel Day-Lewis and Confederate reenactors and you have a sense of the bellhops, who were handy enough to reconstruct the cheerleader car's mangled windshield wiper in a rainstorm.

By year's end, I was in a different geographical and mental space -- at Aughts' and wits' end after a relocation and an adjustment to daily newspapering. Jay had been staying at the Ace on his return trips back East, and he had connected the hotel to Swedish fashion folk who designed a backpack for the gift shop. All the Ace hotels introduce guests to little accouterments of retro coolness: Smeg refrigerators, Rudy's Barbershop toiletries, marbleized hand soaps and the caffeinated manna of the indie foodie gods, Stumptown coffee.

I cultivate no wish to live like a rock star, and I fear those who do -- the full-time full-of-themselves seekers of coolness for coolness's sake. It is a mark of any good thing that eventually, too many people find out about it, and in my winter returns to both Palm Springs and New York, they were all there in the Ace lobbies. They were in buffalo plaid and circulatory-system-challenging jeans. They made it difficult to get from entry to elevator in New York, or to grab a Tecate at the Amigo Room bar in Palm Springs, my favorite space, which was kept almost as it had been when the desert-dwelling day laborers used to quench their thirst there.

Ace hotels will last, even if the throngs won't. It has already gotten too overwhelming to send my friend's artistic but elderly mom there. She glowered at the groovers and couldn't wait to get back to Montecito.

But I had a pair of great times at the pair of Aces -- a cozy stay in the blizzard-locked Manhattan of December, during which I'd had visitors in my room for "Stairway to Heaven" strumming and lamb burgers in a booth at the haute-rustic new gastropub, the Breslin. And in Palm Springs, I'd brought three generations of my family to King's Highway -- once a Denny's, now a gourmand-blessed diner -- where Linda Girard, a copper-topped, large-eyeglassed hostess, turned down the Supergrass-Grizzly Bear playlist on the speakers so she could belt out Judy Garland standards while spinning among the tables. Zing went the strings of her heart, and for my nomadic year, I felt as though I'd found something close to a home wherever the Ace folks had created one.

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