The Presidential Tour

Charged with rebranding, renovating and redesigning the flagship Best Western President Hotel in New York City, Stonehill & Taylor Architects created a design narrative inspired by the American presidency, bipartisan politics and the energy of Times Square.

by Carol Tisch


Everyone knows the neon lights are always bright on Broadway, and as the 1960s hit tune proclaims, there's always magic in the air. Magical too are the out-of-the-box design concepts New York City's theater district has spawned, particularly for the hospitality industry. From controversial but compelling stage sets (Spider-Man, anyone?) to computer-animated billboards and avant-garde lighting effects, the sparks of design ideas for themed hotels permeate Times Square.

But the demand for themes is waning, according to branding experts, and a more sophisticated, experience-driven offshoot, storytelling, is on the rise. Indeed, the concept is spreading at a rapid-fire pace, with applications ranging from hospitality design and the advertising world to virtually every major player in corporate America. It's no wonder, then, that the $15 million renovation of the 334-room Best Western President Hotel in the heart of Times Square is a must-see example of storytelling crafted seamlessly into a richly-layered guest experience.

"I call it narrative design," says Mike Suomi, principal and head of the interiors division at Stonehill & Taylor Architects, the firm commissioned by Hampshire Hotels & Resorts to transform the venerable but somewhat tired-looking property into a dazzling new Best Western flagship. Amazingly, Suomi's storyline grounded the design on Broadway, as well as in the history of the American presidency and our two-party system. By design, an intangible name—the President Hotel—became a tangible expression of an engaging visitor experience, effectively creating a memorable brand with a one-off personality.

The Great White Way in Stonehill & Taylor's iteration is purple, for example. The neon lights are always bright, but they're energy-efficient LEDs. Lincoln and Jefferson (who never met) have imaginary confabs in allegorical paintings and vignettes. The theming that left us breathless a decade or two ago now pales in comparison. The lobby and guest rooms are curated, rich with antiques, historical memorabilia, intriguing custom details and immersive user experiences.

"The way I design is I have to write my own story. It could be linear; it could be non-linear as it was for the President Hotel. There were a lot of ideas here that we kept expanding, starting with our two-party political system—where that came from, who the founders were," Suomi explains. He also wanted the design to make a statement in a fun, slightly irreverent way that might heal some of the ideological polarity currently plaguing American politics. "We wanted the design to be extremely memorable for the guests, so that when they walked in they would be surprised, and get a sense that there were layers and layers of content to explore. And if they didn't see all of it in one visit, they would be interested enough to come back."

The design team initially focused on color. "Times Square is a cacophony of patterns and colors, motion and sound, so we wanted a really strong, clean palette for the interior décor in addition to powerful graphics. That's how we arrived at the two-color purple and white scheme used throughout the hotel. It's Times Square purple—but it's actually meant to represent the American flag and politics," Suomi says. The purple is intended to be a "centrist blend" of Republican red and Democratic blue, representing a balanced approach to our two-party system.

Stonehill & Taylor choreographed and scripted the key design elements to explore, poke fun at and celebrate both parties throughout the 15-story project, which encompassed a new façade, lobby lounge (aptly called Primary) and all guest accommodations, including corridors, guest rooms, 44 suites (one for each president) and two premier level penthouse suites (Liberty and Independence). The architects also built a second lobby floor with a fitness center, business rooms and a conference center in basement space previously used exclusively for storage.

Suomi chose Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, the first presidents to represent each party, as recurring motifs throughout the lobby lounge and the guest suites. In the Primary lounge, the designers deconstruct the American flag in the décor as a striking white lacquer wall with slats that stand for the flag's stripes—which in the "presidential seating area" are interrupted by inset vitrines displaying museum-quality replicas of Jefferson's signature powdered wig (made by a historical wigmaker) and Lincoln's trademark top hat. Thirteen iron stars stud the wall, representing the original colonies, and a majestic, glittering mosaic eagle adorns a convex bull's-eye mirror from the late 1700s measuring 10 feet in diameter.

While luxurious suites each celebrate a specific president and his mystique—guests may book the Reagan, Kennedy, Obama and Nixon suites, to name a few—every room reflects the design concept established in the lobby lounge. Silhouettes of Jefferson and Lincoln, the hotel's icons, are embroidered on throw pillows. The story of the presidents unfolds in guest rooms with images of our nation's leaders and a few notable first ladies printed in purple onto Perspex. Classic busts of George Washington are actually custom desk lamps by Mario Contract Lighting.

Throughout, Stonehill & Taylor juxtapose rustic "Lincolnesque" wormy chestnut with refined "Jeffersonian" furnishings, including a dining table and giant lamp bases inspired by the turned legs of the third President's own furniture designs.

"Those large white lamps marching through the space in various locations are actually seven structural columns in varying sizes that could not be removed, so we decided to turn them into lamps that represent Jefferson," Suomi says. "The turned legs became the base of the lamps and the shades were painted with patterning taken from an 18th century English strapwork wallpaper pattern that was actually in Thomas Jefferson's parents' home."

Lincoln's log cabin upbringing, evocative of rough-hewn planks and hand-scraped logs, was in perfect sync visually with Stonehill & Taylor's green objectives for the renovation. Because of the speed of the project (which had to be completed top-to-bottom in six months), the architects and clients decided not to pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. "But we did make a very strong commitment to using LEED criteria in our design, with a strong emphasis on recycled and salvaged content," Suomi explains.

Fallen wormy chestnut timber harvested by Vermont Wildwoods is a recurring leitmotif referencing Lincoln's childhood, and is used for millwork on the lobby's ceilings, walls and casework, as well as on guest room corridor walls. For guest room casegoods, which at first glance appear to be zebrawood, reconstituted veneers were specified. Lobby floors are existing limestone salvaged from the property and the original vaulted ceiling was repaired for adaptive reuse.

Stonehill & Taylor specified rapidly-renewable materials wherever possible, including wool Axminster carpeting rather than nylon, and bed and bath linens of Tencel Plus Lyocell from Eucalyptus trees. The design team eschewed vinyl wall coverings except in a few key areas, opting instead for Benjamin Moore Eco Spec low VOC paint.

For all its Broadway-inspired theatrics, lobby lighting is 95 percent LED, including the "button tufts" in the white upholstered seating. To meet LEED petroleum use reduction criteria, the designers chose most vendors from within the five boroughs of New York, and everything specified for purchase or fabrication was within a two-hour truck ride from New York.

"It's always gratifying to use design to comment in both profound and lighthearted ways on real-world issues," Suomi concludes. With a commitment to green design, its celebration of American history and some masterful riffs on politics, the President Hotel is an example of epic storytelling.


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acrylic sheets
Perspex Acrylic | 9

art, antiques & memorabilia
Andrew Martin

Lori Ferber Presidential Memorabilia

Museum Editions
(212) 431-1913

Silver Hill Atelier

Soho Myriad

Koni Corporation
(877) 702-5664

ABC Carpet & Home

Ulster Carpet Mills | 11

case goods
Thatos Associates
(917) 553-9767

custom millwork & screen walls
C&A Seneca Construction
(212) 268-5016

drapery fabricator
J. Edlin Interiors Ltd.
(212) 243-2111

Designtex | 1
(800) 221-1540

Valley Forge Fabrics, Inc.
(954) 971-1776

faux leather
(800) 645-9068

Tiger Imports/Appian | 7
(336) 275-2520

furniture & upholstered furniture
American Atelier
(610) 439-4040

Andrew Martin | 5, 8

Fivestar Furniture | 1, 6
(718) 522-5042

Horchow | 3

Artemide | 10
(877) 278-9111

The LED Company LLC
(714) 862-2920

Mario Contract Lighting | 12
(540) 342-1111

Phillips Color Kinetics | 7

RSA lighting

Se'Lux US

Garrett Leather | 6
(800) 342-7738

mosaic tile
Mixed-Up Mosaics | 2
(212) 643-2426

Benjamin Moore Eco Spec

wall covering
(972) 484-8120

Vermont Wildwoods
(802) 426-3449  

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Best Western President Hotel
234 W 48th St.
New York, NY 10036
(212) 246-8800

Hampshire Hotels & Resorts, LLC
1251 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
(212) 474-9800



Stonehill & Taylor Architects, PC
31 West 27th St.
New York, NY 10001
(212) 226-8898

Mike Suomi, principal, director of design

Laura Plasberg, senior interior designer

Steve Chew, project architect

Noah Alder, architect




C & A Seneca Construction

Alpha General Contractors of New York

lighting consultant
Robert Singer & Associates, Inc

electrical contractor
Sigma Electric, Inc.

video consultants
SJ Lighting, Inc.
V Squared Labs, Inc.

Gregory Goode
Peter Pierce