Bed Check: Distrikt Hotel's neighborhood-themed floors get at the Big Apple's core

Decor in the Distrikt Hotel evokes places or things in New York.
Decor in the Distrikt Hotel evokes places or things in New York. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

At the Distrikt Hotel, a new boutique property in Manhattan, guests roam the city by elevator.

Take, for instance, my abridged tour de Gotham: To reach my room on the 13th floor, I had to walk by "Central Park," a patch of living greenery on the lobby wall, and ascend through floors labeled "Financial District," "Lower East Side" and "Tribeca." I detoured into "Midtown East" because of a panel misfire before returning south. According to my key card, I would be holed up in Distrikt, SoHo; Address, 1301. Please inform my family and my mailman.

Open since Feb. 1, the hotel in Midtown West (floors 23-26 in Distriktland) fashions itself after its home town, creating a microcosmic Small Apple. For its theme, the 155-room property forgoes the easy route -- campy, with Statue of Liberty torch lamps, or obvious, with black-and-white photos of odd architectural angles -- for a more subtle, abstract approach.

"We wanted to be a New York hotel about New York. It's about the neighborhoods and the contrast of the grid versus nature," said general manager Jennifer Rota. "It's not in your face. You might not even get it until you talk to the front desk."

To be sure, many of the references were in the air space over my head. In the lobby, the teardrop light fixtures hung at varying heights replicate the skyline, Rota explained like a docent, and the white wall tiles echo the ones in Grand Central Station. The flower designed in lighter brick on the exterior facade and illuminated at night is the althea, which grew wild during the time of the New Amsterdam settlement; the (mis)spelling of the hotel's moniker claims Dutch origins. Behind the check-in desk, a display of dark wood blocks resembles an avant-garde Lego assemblage but is actually a to-scale map of the city, with the hotel's location resting just above the head of an employee named Lauren. Dancing on that fine line between ingenious and OCD is the attire of the men working reservations: a button-down shirt with a square pattern (grid) paired with a green tie (nature).

The 31 floors are named after 10 neighborhoods, one per three floors except for "Midtown West," which accounts for four. (It was a math issue.) When the elevator door slides open, guests are greeted by an original collage of photographs, a dizzying compilation of scenes from that particular 'hood. The artworks feature recognizable icons such as the Guggenheim building ("Central Park") and the Apollo Theater sign ("Harlem") as well as more prosaic images: an outdoor jewelry vendor ("SoHo"), a graffiti-painted truck ("the Village"), sneakers dangling from a telephone wire ("Lower East Side").

"The first time I saw the murals, I thought, 'These are interesting and very smart,' " said Allison Leake, a Toronto visitor who was sleeping in "the Village" during a girlfriends' getaway. "Most people staying here are tourists, and this reminds them about what's on every avenue or every area."

Due to security, guests can only access their own floor, plus the two above and below. But if you want a tour of the collages, ask an employee or ride the elevator a lot, catching snatches as people load and unload.

For personal viewing, each room features a framed detail of the artwork, a postcard of it and, during turndown, a chocolate wrapped in the print that, by this time, you can now re-create yourself and sell in SoHo.

Despite its homage to Manhattan, Distrikt skips some common New Yorkisms: The guestrooms are not claustrophobic (198 to 243 square feet), noisy with street clatter (the windows are covered in glass that airports use to mute plane engines) or stratospherically priced (from $199, though with a green promotion, I paid $139).

"This feels exclusive," said Liz Blake, one of the Canadians. "We're just wondering when they are going to jack the price up."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company