A First Look at Hotel Lola, the Latest Occupant of the Martha Washington Building

Lola — the fragrance.

Can a perfume bottle inspire a hotel? The thought never occurred to me until I visited Lola, a sleek new hotel in an old brick and stone building in the East 20s. But oh, those colors. The moody/glam lobby – and guest rooms and website – are ablaze in purple, scarlet, navy and yellow. And so is Lola, the Marc Jacobs fragrance in the whimsical bottle crowned with a plastic flower.  Like the bottle, the hotel has style.

No one mentioned perfume when I asked how the hotel got its name, which it adopted on December 1. “Louise Brooks lived here at one time. Wasn’t she in a movie called Lola?” a staff member said. That was Lulu, but an intriguing connection nonetheless.

The sprawling hotel stretching a block between East 29th and 30th streets opened in 1903 as the Martha Washington, a humble precursor to the classy Barbizon Hotel for Women. A classic residential hotel, it catered to women on their own in the big city, mainly secretaries and actresses.  In The Valley of the Dolls the smoky-voiced ingénue Anne Wells checks into the Martha Washington after moving to New York from New England. Brooks, incidentally, was asked to leave for “exercising on the roof in ‘flimsy pajamas,’” she wrote.

Lola — the lobby.

A Martha doesn’t turn into a Lola overnight. In 2003 the Martha Washington spiffed up, slimmed down from 416 rooms to 276 and morphed into Hotel Thirty Thirty, a moderately priced co-ed property brimming with backpackers. The result was hit and miss. The dreaded b-word, bedbugs, popped up on Tripadvisor reviews in 2010. It was time for a grand-scale redo that went beyond new bedding and fresh paint.

Lucky for Lola, the building is blessed with good bones, beginning with the handsome stonework at the 29th Street entrance, updated by bold yellow spotlights. Pull open the impossibly tall – and heavy – door, and an enormous, darkly lighted lobby beckons at the end of a long hallway punctuated by mirrors and sleek leather sofas. The earnest Martha Washington seems a long way away.

Lola — the “comma sofas.”

The lobby exudes the dark glamour of a cocktail lounge. At one end stands a massive check-in desk backed by plum taffeta curtains. Bookending it is a flashy Deco-inspired bar, awash in mirrors and black leather. Silver picture frames on the bar display the cocktail menu listing fancy $15 hotel cocktails like Hello, Gorgeous (Remy XO, Prosecco, simple syrup and lemon).

But looks are deceiving. There’s no cocktail lounge hauteur about the lobby, at least not yet.  From a perch on the banquette I watched guests in overcoats parade by pulling wheelies.  A trio of women speaking Polish sipped wine on one side of us. On the other side a pair of visitors from England holding Starbucks cups dissected their day. “Been fun, hasn’t it,” said one half of the twosome, looking content.

The new Lola continues upstairs, where the simple but stylish rooms range from

The Lola bar.

monkish (125 square feet with a single bed) to palatial (400-square-foot with two double beds). The superior king I saw was enormous; the big bed dressed in white 300-count sheets felt like a drop in the ocean. I plopped onto it; it felt great (the mattress is a Simmons). And I liked the wide yellow band atop the wallpaper, a quiet geometric that channels Eileen Gray.

Better still was the new bathroom, tiled in gray in a herringbone pattern. It gleamed with a roomy glass-paneled shower and a large rectangular washstand, illuminated by a round backlit mirror. A line-up of Pure bath products stood atop the sink. To quote Lola in a note to readers on the hotel website, xo.

Lola opened in low season with a flurry of rock-bottom prices, a too-good-to-be-true bargain. Prices have edged up for March, but the hotel is still a good deal. I know it’s tempting to charge $500 a night for a closet when high season rolls around, but wouldn’t it be nice if Lola remained that agreeable creature, a stylish moderate, at least for a while.

Hotel Lola, 29 East 29th Street; 212 689-1900. http://www.hotellolanyc.com/




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