A First Look at Style On the Cheap at The New Pod Hotel

Invasion of the Body Snatchers aside, Pod is a cool name for a budget hotel.  To my ears, it sounds upbeat and hip, because what could be more upbeat, or hip, than a place that proudly admits its rooms are small and cheap?

Those tall, skinny, caterpillar-like Tokyo capsule hotels with stacks of domed windows are my idea of pod hotel cool. So it was deflating to discover the Pod Hotel is the latest incarnation of the old Pickwick Arms, a boring, 1930s midtown east hotel that underwent a makeover four years ago and embraced its inner Ian Schrager (on a budget).

From the Web site pictures, the little rooms looked spiffy as did the lounge, awash in primary hues. There was even a roof deck.  Better still, we learned the hotel’s decorator, Vanessa Guilford, also created the ship-shape little rooms at the Maritime, a hotel I love. Grabbing my smallest overnight bag, I hopped onto the subway and headed to East 51st Street.

A sleek, boxy marquee banner announcing the Pod does its best to distract you from the

81-year-old brick building. So does the lobby, a cheery, Scandinavian-inflected room with wood-paneled walls, an updated kissing sofa, J.M. Rizzi’s cartoony murals and a rough-hewn tile wall behind the check-in desk, all stylish and mid-century mod.

Still, with a Coke machine planted opposite the sofa, I didn’t have to look far for reminders that the Pod embodies its name.  Joining the crowd in front of the elevators, I waited.  And waited. (One of the three merrily striped cars was stuck on an upper floor.) I eventually made my way to a tiny second-floor room at the end of a narrow, rather dark hallway.

My spirits tanked as I flipped on the light. My little room looked grim, the double bed pushed horizontally against a sharp-edged wood built-in nudging the white wall. And what was with the tight-fitting red and black bedspread? That wasn’t on the Web site. Neither was its large white stain. At $159, this was supposed to be a (somewhat) premium pod. I grabbed my bag and headed back downstairs.

Without missing a beat, the desk attendant handed me the key to a similar room on a higher floor. Though no bigger, it differed in all the right ways. A red and black fabric cushion that matched the bedspread covered the wall behind the bed.  Not only could I read or watch TV comfortably, but the bed looked like a daybed, a deft stroke of trompe l’oeil decorating. And though I didn’t love the fitted bedspread, it least it wasn’t stained.

With 100 square feet to ponder, drinking in the room’s details didn’t take long. But what little there was clicked. Everything was built in — two little blond wood tables flanking the platform bed, matching wood window shutters and the bed itself with three big drawers underneath.

The remaining components lined up neatly opposite the bed – the narrow open closet

equipped with polished steel hangers and a wall safe; the stainless steel sink with mirrors above, shelves below (towels, hairdryer) and enough counter space for two water glasses, soaps, shampoo and lotion.

And the cleverest part? The slim glass-fronted, subway-tiled stall shower outfitted with a high-end rain shower head; a door slid between shower and toilet affording privacy for one or the other. And though the shower took a while to heat up, it delivered.

Tech components proved agreeable, too – the tiny TV mounted on the wall, the iHome radio/alarm clock. Best of all, with two metal wall lamps perched above the bed, it was  rarely necessary to turn on the unsightly fluorescent overhead light (the dimmer helped when using it proved unavoidable).

But public spaces best show off the Pod’s design smarts. A wood ceiling visually warms the lounge adjoining the lobby, a big, stylish take on a dorm common room with navy Copenhagen chairs that swivel, bouquets of fresh daisies on the marble-topped side tables and a hip refractory table equipped with plugs for laptops or chargers. A wall of windows opens onto a deck, the wall of the next building brightened with a cheery Rizzi mural. Best detail: the touch-screen wall map of New York City.

The lobby crowd typified the Pod’s hotel/hostel mash-up (the cheapest rooms have shared baths, a relic of the Pickwick Arms) – twenty-something European backpackers, older travelers weekending from New Hampshire, a large group of students from Boston checking in with their teachers (“You missed curfew.” “Sorry, I was upstairs sleeping.”) From my perch in a swivel chair, I peeked up from my book and watched the dramas unfold.

Quirks are in a budget hotel’s DNA. From my room we heard doors slam, voices in the hallway and the vacuum cleaner.  But the Pod isn’t scary, and that’s a big plus in budgetsville.

It also isn’t dirt cheap, but prices dart around depending upon demand. (I just saw my double pod going for a mere $89.)  Cheapest are bunkbed pods and single pods with shared baths. I checked out the bathrooms, and those I saw were clean and (relatively) spacious. And the walls? White stone that almost looked like marble. You could do a lot worse.




4 replies
  1. Hillary Johnson
    Hillary Johnson says:

    Brave, intrepid you! I’ve always wondered what it might be like to stay here, given the inviting prices, and now I know it wouldn’t be scary at all and might even be perfectly fine. A very welcome scoop.

  2. Edward Cone
    Edward Cone says:

    What I like best about this pod hotel is your incisive, well-crafted language–a treat unto itself! How fine indeed to have an actual writer as hotel critic. You bring the “page” alive with your description. I can’t believe that (decades ago?) I used to recommend the Pickwick Arms to budget-conscious friends. You’ve brought it all back as effectively as Proust, but in its new (and much better) guise. Many thanks, and keep up the good work!

  3. Susan Kim
    Susan Kim says:

    I have wondered about these pod hotels and now I know the inside scoop! Very informative. Still at the high price you paid, by the hotel’s standards, for the premium room, I’m wondering if you couldn’t get something better on Hotwire or quikbook instead.


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