Bed Check: New York's serene Desmond Tutu Center

By Zofia Smardz
Friday, November 12, 2010; 5:09 PM

Here's a hotel with the perfect name: the Desmond Tutu Center.

Come again, you ask? What's so perfect about that?

Well, South African bishop Desmond Tutu is all about peace (Nobel Peace Prize winner, you'll recall). And so is the New York hotel and conference center that bears his name.

Of course, in the hotel's case, I don't mean peace as in the absence of hostilities and war. I mean peace as in serenity and stillness and a respite from the clamor and chaos that New York is all about. Peace is the last thing you expect to find in the city that never sleeps.

Yet here on the grounds of the General Theological Seminary, an 1817 Episcopal divinity school of gorgeous neo-Gothic brownstones on the edge of Chelsea (across the street from the High Line! a block from Chelsea Market!), it's all safe and restful peace, peace, peace.

From the moment you step off 10th Avenue into the minuscule but pristine lobby of the 60-room hotel, in a building on the western end of the block-long campus, a hushed cocoon of quietude enfolds you. Must be those thick old walls, or the power of a place devoted to prayer and reflection, but the noises of Gotham cease at the threshold and hardly disturb you again - even in our ground-floor room (how often does that happen in New York?).

Said room was the Class of 1954 Room (a gift from the Rt. Rev. G.P. Mellick Belshaw and his classmates, according to a plaque on the door, making me wonder: Was it once the right reverend's dorm room?). It was a complimentary upgrade that put me in a good mood with the hotel right from the start.

Huge, especially by New York hotel standards, at 275 square feet, it was dressed in the decor du jour for hip upscale properties in the Big Apple and elsewhere: sleek, modern black furniture and all-white, all-cotton bedding capped by a fluffy duvet. I searched in vain for the "African accents" described on the Web site (that red throw pillow on the brown easy chair, perhaps?). But the medieval accents - an arrow-slit window with stained glass detail beside an arched Gothic window with rosette - were on inescapable display in the spacious, light-filled and lovely white-tiled bathroom, which also sported beautiful porcelain fixtures. Way to make a 100-plus-year-old space look modern and up-to-the-minute.

Up-to-the-minuteness, it seems, was much on the hoteliers' minds. Besides free (strong!) WiFi and the requisite flat-screen TV, we were also equipped with a new-fangled double-spouted coffeemaker (it taxed our brains a bit in the morning, till we read the instructions, duh), energy-efficient bulbs and vegetable-based, "cruelty-free" soaps and toiletries in biodegradable containers. I was especially taken with the "waste-reducing" bath soap, which my friend Emily dubbed "soap with a doughnut hole." An oval missing its middle, it was "designed to eliminate the unused center of traditional soap bars," according to the box. "I don't know," said Emily doubtfully. "I use my soap till it's a tiny sliver that floats down the drain."

Ditto. But efficient design is the rage, after all. The hotel also boasts about heating and cooling the 260,000-square-foot building with a geothermal system that reduces its carbon footprint by 1,400 tons a year. Wow. So virtuous. So green.

But the greenness I most cared about was outdoors, in the seminary's tree-shaded courtyard. Before heading out to dinner (no food at the hotel, alas, but you're in Chelsea, so no prob), we stepped out for a quick amble around the grounds, which cover a city block. The late-afternoon sun dappled the walks and lawns with coins of light as we looked for the chapel that the desk clerk had said we could pop into. After a couple of false tries, we stuck our heads into what appeared to be the seminary library and asked a young man at the desk where to go.

He hopped up from his chair and led us a short way down the quad. "I'd say look for the building that looks like a church," he said, smiling, "but they all look like churches here."

So true. I gazed around the leafy grounds, surrounded by the imposing but graceful brown edifices with their mullioned windows and arching entryways. It looked like something on an Oxbridge postcard. Nothing modern or up-to-the-minute about it. And hardly a scene you'd expect to find in the middle of New York. So quiet. So still.

So peaceful.

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