By Terry Trucco
At a glance: The Belleclaire occupies a spectacular Emory Roth brick building replete with turrets, bay windows and carved limestone gargoyles. But for years entering this wildly phantasmagorical 1903 structure – one of the few with such panache on the Upper West Side — was a letdown. The lobby was narrow and awkward. Never in your wildest dreams would you imagine this was the W hotel of its day, attracting guests like Mark Twain and Maxim Gorky.
No more. In January 2013 the lobby’s long, painful renovation ended with a flourish. The Belleclaire still isn’t the W. But it’s been bumped up more than a few notches to a comfy/contemporary neighborhood hotel with some style.
Improvements can be seen the moment you enter the lobby, expanded to twice its previous size and outfitted with a skylight, multiple seating areas and a bar. Original details, like the soaring ceiling and chicly shabby mosaic floor, blend amiably with wood-paneled walls, velvet armchairs and a tufted sofa that undulates. I especially like the wall of glass boxes, filled with early 20th-century memorabilia like typewriters and top hats, that separates the seating area from the elevators.
Rooms veer from teeny to palatial in size. The lobby is a welcome respite if you wind up in one of the former.
Rooms: The exterior oozes history, but inside, the rooms have been yanked into the 21st century. The standard queen-bed room I saw was big enough for two with a wood floor (yes!) — and some style, if the prevailing high-headboard-white-sheet look is for you. The Belleclaire’s take comes in tufted red leather with throw pillows added for additional color on the snowy bed. A wall-mounted flatpanel LG TV faced the bed, and a large framed mirror leaned nonchalantly against the wall by the window. The bathroom, newly done in small, drab olive green tiles, had a tub/shower combo and was surprisingly large.
But all standard rooms are not created equal. A smaller standard queen I saw (pictured) wasn’t nearly as airy and had a courtyard view that made it darker. It still had the flashy red leather headboard, wood floor and wall-mounted TV, and its newly renovated bathroom — albeit very small — was a spotless display of large white stone tile. But I prefer my ironing board in the closet, not leaning against the wall by the bed.
Need space for the family? Suites can sleep six, and roll-aways are available. Hallways sport wood wainscoting painted white and though freshly decorated several floors look worn in places. Elevators too slow? Two vintage staircases, gorgeous with marble floors and wrought iron banisters, connect the floors.
Upscale note: If you’ve stayed before and recall the “economy rooms” with shared bathrooms, they’re history. All rooms now have private baths.
Food and drink: None at the moment, but plans are afoot for a restaurant. In the meantime, Starbucks, uber-deli Zabar’s and food stores Fairway and Citarella are nearby as are numerous restaurants from April Bloomfield’s hot new White Gold Butcher, featuring unconventional cuts of meat, to Red Farm, the smart locavore Chinese restaurant across the street. Also nearby is the famed open-air Boat Basin Cafe, perched beside the Hudson River and open spring through fall.
Amenities: The second floor fitness room, opened in 2008, is well equipped, with windows overlooking Broadway and mirrors galore. Hypoallergenic pillows, comp copies of Time Out New York and free WiFi in the rooms. Comp copies of The New York Post and USA Today in the lobby.
Surroundings: Residential but bustling with lots of restaurants and shops on Broadway, around the corner from the hotel entrance. Lincoln Center, Riverside Park, the American Museum of Natural History and Rose Planetarium and the New-York Historical Society are an easy walk. Midtown with its shops and restaurants and Times Square and the Theater District are a straight shot south by subway or bus; Columbia University is a straight shot north. Lincoln Center, 11 blocks away, is reached easily by bus, subway or foot. And the subway station and bus stops are a short walk away, including the 79th Street crosstown bus, which deposits you across the street from the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue.
Back story: The Belleclaire opened in 1903 and was the W Hotel of its day — hip, stylish and flamboyant. Famed architect Emery Roth, known for landmark apartment buildings like the San Remo and the Beresford as well as the Warwick and Beverly (now the Benjamin) hotels, devised the exuberant exterior with a heady blend of Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession styles. Mark Twain was an early guest as was Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who was asked to leave when it was discovered the woman accompanying him was not his wife. A menu from the hotel’s glory days is currently displayed in the front window, an amusing artifact.
The hotel eventually lost its gloss — and A-list guests. Over the years it housed youth groups and displaced persons. A rehab in 2003 positioned the place as a modestly priced family-friendly hotel with neo-Scandinavian-style rooms. Rooms received a drastic redo in 2008, the new fitness room was added, and voila, the Belleclaire was reborn. With the lobby, completed in 2013, the refurbishment feels complete. The hotel is part of the Triumph Group, featuring stylish updates of vintage hotels including the Iroquois and Cosmopolitan.
Keep in mind: Window air conditioners in some rooms (which can be noisy). Hallways are narrow and some look worn.