Williamsburg has the hipster factor, Greenwich Village the patina of artsy alumni – Beat poets and jazz legends. But for quintessential luxury and fine art, nowhere can rival those well-tended blocks between 59th and 96th, Fifth Avenue and the East River.
Driving over Ed Koch Bridge from JFK in the fading light of a midsummer’s day, already my spirits soar at the sudden eruption of skyscrapers filling the taxi windscreen, the sharpening of the world into Cubist grid and angle, the knowledge that the Met and MOMA were now only a New York minute away. We turn past the Oscar de La Renta and Longchamp stores onto a quiet brownstone-lined street, and there on a white awning are the delicate curling letters: The Lowell.
The hotel does not make a grand impact (how very un-Manhattan of it). The reception is small and quiet, the only indication of its luxurious credentials being an impressive arrangement of lilies that subtly perfume the space. In a city known for its brashness, full of showy ‘concept’ and ‘design’ hotels, the Lowell keeps its glamorous spaces tucked away from prying eyes and has done since the 1920s. It is more sanctuary than ‘scene’.
Into my one-bedroom suite and the record is set straight: this is a pied-a-terre to impress the most discerning of guests. The décor is subtly yet unmistakably opulent, the eye catching a glimmer of gold on the handpainted de Gournay wallpaper, the sheen of antique mahogany furniture against a backdrop of serene pale blue. Not only is there a bottle of pale chilled and a fruit platter waiting in the suite, but glasses of Champagne arrive with the suitcases. This is my kind of welcome.
There are velvet armchairs to melt into, Assouline coffee table books to flip through and a cavernous marble bathtub to soak in. Feet sink into the silky pile of an oriental rug. The living room even has rarest of New York finds – a wood-burning fireplace – though it is far too warm on my June visit to warrant lighting the thing.
It is creature comforts like this, as well as the terraces and kitchenettes, that see the Lowell often described as “residential”. Well, I wish I could say my house was anything like this, but it’s true that many – very lucky – people stay here for extended periods, whether it’s because their brownstone is under renovation or during on a corporate gig. In fact, Madonna apparently lived here for nine months. Suites far outnumber rooms and pets are welcome for a small fee. But for a truly homely feel, at least as far as a Brit like myself is concerned, they should ensure there is milk in the fridge for tea (although when I called down to ask, of course some was immediately brought up to the room).
There are bigger suites than mine – the Penthouse has two garden terraces and space for a full dinner party – but the one-bedroom option feels more than ample for a couple. In fact, in a lesser city I probably wouldn’t have left it. But this is New York, and it happens to be my 30th birthday. Rooftop bars beckon…
A late breakfast in The Pembroke Room at the Lowell, reaching gratefully for silver pots of coffee and steamed milk (proper, weighty silverware is one of my favorite things about a good hotel breakfast). The surroundings are traditional and formal, all heavily draped windows and linen tablecloths brushing plush carpets. The buckwheat pancakes with blueberries would have been enough to impress, but then the waiter conjures up a pot of his own homemade strawberry jam using fruit from his garden alongside the toast, and a box of macarons by way of a birthday gift as we leave.
This room is also the setting for the hotel’s renowned afternoon tea. For a more relaxed lounge setting guests (and lots of locals) head down to Jacques Bar or the Club Room for drinks and light bites. They redesigned earlier this year by Mark Pinney, the architect of Armani and Apple stores, and Michael S. Smith, who also has the White House interiors on his CV. Perhaps the most striking thing about these spaces, though, are the exquisite floral arrangements – bursts of cherry blossom, peonies and roses – which are apparently the handiwork of the hotel’s owner, who visits New York City Flower Market for the best blooms each week.
Between the iconic Madison and Park Avenues, one is certainly spoilt for choice for shopping. The 3Bs – Bergdorf-Goodman, Barneys and Bloomingdale’s – are within walking distance and most of the major luxury labels have chosen this locale for their flagships. By my preference is to soak up the sun. If the Lowell is like a private residence, it has the best front garden one could hope for: Central Park.
Languid in the heat, we wander among the picnickers and streets performers, and wilt in a rowing boat on the Lake before heading onto Museum Mile. In the Met we gaze upon Manet’s boaters and Cezanne’s bathers in the blessed air-conditioning, and revive with cocktails on its rooftop bar among the bacchanalian dinner table spreads of Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, replicas of nearly 100 objects from museum collection assembled as a surreal feast.
I didn’t entirely forego retail indulgence on my trip though; come late afternoon, I returned to my idyllic pied-a-terre with aching feet, a touch of sunburn, a broad smile and a little blue bag from Tiffany.
The Lowell, 28 East 63rd Street, at Madison Ave, New York, NY 10065, www.lowellhotel.com.