The Martha Washington Hotel on 29th Street in Manhattan is an institution. Originally built in 1903, the hotel exclusively catered to women until 1996—and about 40 women who currently reside in the building have lived there since before the changeover.
So, when Heather Maloney, vice president of design at Chelsea Hotels, was tasked with refreshing the landmark building, she looked to its rich history and stately design for inspiration. Working with Selldorf Architects and a number of vendors, she came up with the “Modern Martha” redesign concept, which helped maintain the tastefully simple interiors of the ground floor and second floor while updating their finishes.
The creation of a welcoming entrance was the first major undertaking. The previous one was three feet above ground level, which was not ADA compliant, and it was not easily visible for guests. So, Selldorf Architects dropped half the slab to street level and installed large mahogany and glass doors that now help draw attention to the building’s beautifully restored neoclassical façade. “The restoration really makes it a more lovely entrance,” Maloney says. “The entire ground floor is now covered in a sea of teal-blue concrete tiles in herringbone pattern.” The minimalist design inside also includes white walls, a white ceiling, and subtly corrugated white millwork that wraps around the space’s columns.
The very first space inside the building is the ground-floor restaurant, and the hotel lobby lies just beyond, and both were redesigned to give the spaces a more loft-like feel, with sculptural, hanging light installations specially designed for the floor’s 18-foot ceilings. The reception desk occupies a midway point between the spaces, backlit with a frosted glass wall for subtle drama, and the desk itself is made of hammered bronze.
On the second floor, crews converted 11 hotel rooms into a ballroom and event space with an accompanying 1,700-square-foot outdoor terrace. The design incorporated existing historical flourishes such as arched windows and leaded glass doors. “We wanted to make sure the furnishing was simple and tasteful, and [we] added a custom bar that matched the architecture’s interior,” Maloney says.
In the hotel’s remaining 256 guest rooms. Maloney paired understated wallpaper and modern lighting with cameo prints that show silhouettes downing drinks or eating cherries. It’s all in keeping with the Modern Martha concept on the first two floors.
From concept to completion, Maloney’s typical design and construction process relies heavily on partnerships with subcontractors and vendors. Starting with a collaborative concept process, “each of our properties is branded with a definitive personality with the help of branding consultants that helps us imagine the design and collaborate with a designer,” Maloney says.
For the Martha Washington hotel, Selldorf designed the ground floor and second floor of the hotel in collaboration with Maloney’s team, and Maloney’s team did the guestrooms on its own. “It’s very important to me to have strong relationships with vendors,” Maloney says, adding that they’re crucial when plans change or the unexpected arises.
“There’s always something that happens that needs urgent attention,” she says, especially on a project such as the Martha Washington Hotel, which was fast-tracked for completion in just eight to nine months. “Our tile collaborators were tremendous. They developed a custom color and produced huge quantities of tile in a really short amount of time.”
Other partners were able to quickly adapt to changes in the design scheme. Kaswell Flooring Systems, for example, was able to make major adjustments when carpeting in the ballroom was discarded in favor of wooden flooring. “My vendors are key partners in problem-solving and providing solutions,” Maloney says.
As she tackles ongoing renovations at several other Chelsea Hotel’s properties, Maloney continues to take satisfaction in finding innovative ways to develop custom designs and promote the company’s brand. “My two favorite parts of the job are concepting and working with our subs and workshops to execute a design,” she says. “I love the challenge of getting things made affordably and on schedule—and it is always a challenge.”