The Makeover Artist: Glen Coben, The Man Behind The New-Look Adelphi Hotel

As a hoary old reporter who’s found himself on the road a fair amount, I’ve come to despise hotels. Like traveling by rail or attending a mediocre Broadway show, checking in for a few days’ stay someplace has become a largely lugubrious experience, rather than the luxurious treat it used to be. But, on occasion, I find myself utterly delighted by those lodgings that take you back to a time when style, service, attention to detail and design, and respect for history still mattered.

The Art Deco marvel that is Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, CA, is one such spot: Where else is one greeted in one’s room, upon a return stay, by a dessert in the shape of the hotel’s façade, served on a plate with a personalized message scrawled in chocolate, in a glamorously revamped high-rise where Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe and Bugsy Siegel once had pieds-à-terre? The stately Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires, which opened in 1932, is another. It still hosts a formal tea every afternoon in the hotel’s garden, where guests favor chic suits and hats over jeans and sneakers, a setting deserving of Evita herself. Sigh, I just wasn’t born for these times.

Saratoga Springs is also a place of great beauty and renown—and, as a venerable Upstate New York destination, home to lots and lots of hotels. I’ve long been fascinated by stories of the city’s magnificent landmarks from back in the day, such as the Grand Union Hotel, largely relegated to memory now. Like most locals, including myself, you were no doubt overjoyed last October when the Adelphi, the imposing, long-shuttered Victorian colossus that first threw open its doors back in 1877, finally started welcoming guests again. After more than five years of loving restoration, one of the last surviving hotels of Saratoga’s Golden Age has quickly emerged as the crown jewel of Broadway, a stylish, sparkling haven for locals and visitors alike. You’ve no doubt sneaked a peek at the lobby—or perhaps have enjoyed Sunday brunch amid the fashionable swarms at The Blue Hen restaurant or indulged in a Sazerac at Morrissey’s, the inviting, dark-paneled watering hole off the lobby, named for John Morrissey, the rascally Irish boxer and, later, New York politician instrumental in bringing horse racing to Saratoga.

I caught up with Manhattan-based architect Glen Coben, of Glen & Co., who designed the interiors of the Adelphi—following the property’s exacting renovation by Schenectady-based architect Dominick Ranieri—to learn what inspired his re-imagining of this magnificent hotel. The Brooklyn-born Coben, who has designed numerous hotels, restaurants and retail establishments from Midtown to Montauk, relates that the Adelphi was a labor of love for all involved. The place “needed a whole lot more than just a little TLC,” he says. “The front porch columns were completely rotted out. The building was falling down.” Rigorous research of the Victorian aesthetic, the history of the Adelphi and the city informed the makeover. Says Coben: “We brought back its glamour, the hospitality—an Adelphi state of mind.”

The hotel was, in fact, designed to be not only a place to lay one’s head, but also a space for people to gather, laugh, live and love. Coben points out that while there are only 32 guest rooms, the facility as a whole provides seating for some 200. Fluorography—or images of plants and flowers—played a major part in the design as well. Coben worked with the Portland, ME, firm Might & Main to create the distinctive floral patterns seen throughout, which reflect the theme of hospitality as well as the hotel’s bucolic setting and its culinary bona fides. (And look for the little bumblebees imbedded into the light fixtures: “The bumblebee nods to the humble nature of a bee making honey from flowers, so it ties back to fluorography, but it also points to the fact that New York bees make great honey,” says Coben.)

Other unique design elements include the hand-painted ceilings, an imposing glass wall behind the registration desk that incorporates found antique plates made of crystal, and—as this is Saratoga—the whimsical horse heads curiously poking out from behind the bourbon and gin bottles at Morrissey’s. “These are all the little touches that we as designers love—weaving little bits of stories into the bigger story,” Coben says. “That, in a nutshell, is the inspiration of Victorian design—so rich with detail. We’ve taken that detail and made it specific to this special place.”

Milton Glaser, the graphic artist best known for creating the iconic “I ♥ New York” logo in the ’70s, once suggested that any piece of design elicits one of three responses: “Yes, no and WOW!” Just six months into its unveiling, the Adelphi continues to wow our town. And I’m all in.

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