The Warwick Hotel on West 54th Street in Manhattan is a place of legend. Commissioned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, it opened in 1926 and soon became a magnet for Hollywood celebrities and jetsetters from around the world. James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley were among its regulars. Hearst’s wife-to-be, actress Marion Davies, had her own specially designed floor. Though the luxurious allure of the Warwick remains, much has changed in the years since.
Richard Chiu, an entrepreneur originally from Hong Kong, purchased the Warwick New York Hotel in 1980 and has since built a global brand around it. Today, more than 60 hotels and resorts worldwide are under the Warwick flag. Throughout three decades of expansion, the company has maintained a focus on one-of-a-kind, world-class destinations—places where the original patrons of The Warwick would have felt right at home touching down when on vacation.
“The principal direction given to designers with whom we work is that the design must, in the end, respect the history and heritage of the hotel itself,” says Warren Chiu, the eldest son of Richard and vice president of development at Warwick Hotels and Resorts. Chiu, a trained architect, oversees the expansion of the company’s portfolio and the capital improvements that are carried out at each location. The company occasionally does ground-up construction “in certain markets where our brand is dominant, and where we feel comfortable with the risks involved,” but Chiu says the focus is on acquiring existing hotels that are then renovated and “repositioned to become part of the Warwick brand.”
Like the original New York Warwick, many of the company’s acquisitions are designated landmarks, so there is often an element of historic preservation involved. In Dallas, for example, the company bought the iconic Melrose Hotel, a household name among locals. The building was originally comprised of apartments for highly exclusive tenants. “Not only did you have to be a millionaire, you had to be from Texas in order to live there,” Chiu says. When the company began an extensive renovation of the building in 2007, most of the exterior work was subject to review and approval by a special city agency because of the building’s status as a historic landmark. It is now known as the Warwick Melrose Dallas and has been thoroughly modernized without sacrificing its well-established character.
“When we do renovations, we like to bring the history back and make it visible so guests know what the hotel was once like,” Chiu says. “Every hotel has a unique story to tell.”
A similar case in point is Warwick’s latest acquisition, the Allerton Hotel in Chicago. Built in 1924, the Allerton is located on Michigan Avenue along the “Magnificent Mile.” The 35-floor red brick building is crowned with an illuminated “Allerton” marquee that has been indoctrinated as a permanent fixture of the Chicago skyline by the city’s historic preservation bylaw. Since the hotel was purchased in 2014, Chiu has been overseeing a full renovation of the exterior façade, a painstaking process that includes replacing all the guest room windows in a way that preserves the historic character. “The aim of the renovation is to restore the façade without compromising the tradition and the value it contributes to the Chicago city landscape,” Chiu says.
Far from being a drawback, Chiu sees the constraints of historic preservation as windows of opportunity where the physical character of the space becomes integrated with its “cultural programming.” The Allerton was originally made famous by the Tip Top Tap lounge located on the top floor—where The Breakfast Club, a beloved national radio show, was broadcast from 1933 to 1968. Many of the architectural elements remain from the radio show era, and plans are in the works to revive the atmosphere of food, drink, and entertainment with renovations that will be completed in 2016 through 2017. Chiu says renovations of this nature are often lengthy—not just because of physical complexity, but because of the attention to detail it takes to enhance the guest experience that goes with it.
“We don’t just renovate, renovate, renovate and then not make improvements to the ‘software’—the service culture of the hotel. Those elements have to go hand in hand,” he says.
At the Warwick San Francisco, a hotel near the city’s Union Square that the company recently reopened after extensive renovation, a similar scenario has played out. The 1913 structure, like most historical San Francisco buildings, was built without an air-conditioning system due to the chilly nature of the city. However, travelers’ demand for air-conditioning in hotels has increased significantly in recent years. Designing and installing a brand new air-conditioning system in a 1913 structure proved to be the biggest challenge for the project. “It was a build-as-you-go kind of thing,” Chiu says. “You couldn’t just follow the design drawings proposed by the architect. We were literally opening up walls to figure out exactly how to pipe things through the building—discoveries behind those walls presented design and installation challenges.”
Guests will undoubtedly appreciate the air conditioning, but they’re more likely to notice the new food and beverage offerings. Chiu describes the new bar as “a concept focused on hand-crafted cocktails using mostly European ingredients”. The restaurant is housed in a separate building next door with a main entrance onto the street and caters to the farm-to-table crowd. The exposed wood ceiling and custom iron work create an unpretentious vintage feel that captures the spirit of the next generation of Warwick guests. It’s part of the atmosphere that Warwick is infusing throughout its portfolio.
While preserving the glory of the past, Chiu says the company is embracing a younger clientele. “We are introducing a set-up that is simple and punchy with modern touches,” he says. “We want our hotels to be more relevant and easier for millennials to connect with.”
But it’s not just young travelers in America that Warwick is catering to; as always, globetrotters are welcome. The company has owned numerous hotels in Europe for quite some time, but they have recently expanded to new markets. Two new hotels in Cuba have recently joined the portfolio along with one in the Bahamas—the Paradise Island resort—which is currently under construction and is scheduled for a grand opening in the middle of 2016. The company has a strong presence in the South Pacific with four destinations in Fiji alone, and operations in the Middle East and North Africa are expanding; Warwick manages hotels in Jordan, Lebanon, Dubai, Iraq and Qatar.
With each new acquisition, the company pulls the best from the past while including the modern conveniences its guests expect. In both cases, nothing is spared to create an enchanting, one-of-a-kind experience—the kind that’s unavailable in a chain hotel.