I was prepared to be cynical about the Durham Hotel1 when Craig Spitzer, the General Manager, met Justin Laidlaw and I on the sidewalk of East Chapel Hill Street. He had a couple of white hardhats in-hand, which he said were precautionary and warned that if we were going to walk on any carpeted areas during this phase of the construction we would have to wear booties of the sort seen in high tech labs and hospitals, a stretchable blue material that was not quite paper nor fabric with elastic bands at the ankle.
They were serious about their space. It is symbolic, they have taken the same approach to preserving what is a beautiful late sixties building filled with arcs.
Because they want to maintain the surprise factor, no interior pictures were allowed (although we hope to be shooting a “Sights on the City” episode from the rooftop bar and its spectacular views of Durham any day now).
Spitzer embodies the mindset of embrace and connect embedded in the story of the Durham Hotel. He tells us they are going to have a shoe-shiner and something of a newsstand on the curb, which they will endeavour to stock with local products, that the coffee bar will be open to the public, as of course, will the rooftop bar. They want to engage with Durham.
A Gentian Group project, Brad Wiese and Daniel Robinson had the foresight to snap up the space way back in 2008. The building was an old bank, and those familiar with its sweeping curves will be happy to know that those shapes have been preserved throughout the interior including in the front desk, the aforementioned coffee bar (where the old bank vault door remains in the wall), and most importantly in the interior lobby, an open two story high ceiling space, with a second floor balcony overlooking the main restaurant area, booths along the arced interior wall, huge windows along the opposite side facing the now narrower Holland Street.
But before we see any of this, while we are still on the street admiring the hand-painted tiles just outside the front door,
Spitzer tells about his personal philosophy of engagement. A Long Islander by birth, he came to Durham from the old-world New York hotel business. His goal is for his hotel to be a place so warm, so welcoming that not only do their guests feel that, but the vibe extended so far that they are the postman’s favorite stop on his route.
Spitzer goes on to tell us that hotels stay relevant if done right. His background makes you believe the man knows whereof he speaks. As our tour went in and on, and Justin and ogled the stunning, chic, red, white, and black carpets, the thoughtful preserved slits of windows in the stairwell, that will help retain the buildings distinctive spaceship-like appearance from outside, we learned where Spitzer was imbued with that philosophy.
From Long Island, he went to the University of Wisconsin and came back to a Madison Avenue sales job. But he didn’t find the world of Don Draper and the glamour of Mad Men, but rather the drudgery of J. Peterman and Julie Louise-Dreyfuss’s, Elaine.2 He was bored and unable to find meaning in his work. Spitzer had cooked as a kid. He had worked behind a deli counter. He thought about a career in the restaurant business, but in a conversation he recalls with his Dad, Pop advised that it might be possible to rise more quickly through the ranks of the hotels.
Those words proved prophetic.
We stand in the bright morning air and look over the Durham skyline, such as it is, now.
The stars aligned. Spitzer fell in with a brilliant old-school hotelier, a man named Henry Kallan, who had gone from being a world class Czeck soccer player to a bellman at the fabled Plaza Hotel when he left the land of his birth to seek his fortunes in America. By the time Spitzer met the legendary “Henry,” he had advanced from toting luggage to being the owner of two world class New York City hotels.
“Henry” to whom Spitzer was fortuitously introduced by his cousin’s best friend, had only one request, that Craig Spitzer cut his hair.
Spitzer did and worked first at “Hotel Elysée” the kind of hotel where he wore a starched white shirt and a pinstripe suit to work every day. Under Henry’s tutelage and through the dint of his own hard work, Spitzer advanced from greenhorn hotelier at twenty-two, to Henry Kallan’s next glorious hotel, the “Library Hotel” and was General Manger by twenty-five. Spitzer told me in his smiling, self-effacing way that working behind a deli counter and a glamorous New York City hotel front desk weren’t that different, both jobs were about people.
We moved from the open air section of the Durham’s rooftop bar/restaurant into the interior bar area. Spitzer notes it was designed by a company called Commune, who were specifically selected because of their work with preserving and upgrading mid-century buildings in California. They started in mostly residential work before ten years ago shifting into hotels and the restaurants inside of them, where they have become renown for work in downtown Los Angeles’s buildings from that era, and even more over their work in the storied California resort town of Palm Springs.
I can tell you standing on that roof, looking at the vintage red color in the interior of the bar, more great windows, admiring a bar top out of a decade wedged between a Hopper painting and Studio 54.3 It oozes class without ostentation. Spitzer said there will be a total of 128 seats on the rooftop, and though open to the public, as well as hotel guests, capacity will be strictly limited to 140. There will be a private corner, tucked away for penthouse hotel guests, but from the street to the rooftop, The Durham oozes engagement.
Spitzer embodies it. He tells us he has a need to satisfy people. He isn’t some privileged big city New Yorker descending on us either. He left his job managing the Library Hotel, right around the corner from Grand Central Station because he wanted a better quality of life and to raise a family.
He had friends in this area who were persuasive. His first three years in Raleigh, much to the shock and chagrin of many a native, he rode the bus to work. Learning the city with an intimacy only possible on public transportation. Public transportation is engagement with people as well as place. And those who know the Clarion Content well know that we see an essential unity between people and place that differentiates communities.
We like our Durham community. Spitzer, who now lives in Durham, does too. Between Raleigh and here, as the recession scuttled the project he had moved to the Triangle for, he left to work in Charlotte, which he and his wife admittedly found soulless and bland.
Spend an hour or two talking to the man, which I am sure many of you will, eventually, and you will see he is the antithesis of soulless and bland. I bet the proverbial bottom dollar that the Library Hotel was the mailman’s favorite stop on his route. And I almost envy the mailman who will pop into the Durham Hotel daily with their bundle, until I remember the newsstand, the coffee bar, the restaurant and the rooftop are open to the Durham community as well as hotel guests.
Opening July 10th2015.
2 Ironically, he quite literally worked as ad salesman in the New York building Seinfeld used for J. Peterman.
3 Elegant before elegance’s opulence began to fall into disrepute
4 A hotel so cool rooms house books from different ranges of Dewey Decimal System in order.