Travel

Some hotels transcend hospitality to become something closer to home, such as New York’s Greenwich. By Dan Stapleton.

At home in downtown Manhattan’s Greenwich Hotel

The drawing room at The Greenwich Hotel.
Credit: HERBERT YPMA

The snowfall thickened as we negotiated the back streets of Queens, my cab driver and I, plotting a course towards the Midtown Tunnel and, beyond, to The Greenwich Hotel in lower Manhattan. The highway from the airport to the city was jammed, so the driver was improvising, careering along slippery residential roads with one eye on the GPS while he bellowed into his phone in Russian. A citywide ban on non-emergency vehicles was scheduled to take effect at 11pm, but as we skidded across a low-lit intersection the cabbie told me that we might be forced off the road earlier by the cops, and I believed him.

There’s nothing quite like Manhattan during a blizzard. The buildings appear as grand as ever, but the sounds of the city fade, the light softens and the tourists disappear from the sidewalks. When we finally emerged from the Midtown Tunnel at 37th Street, I rolled down the window just enough to breathe the wet air and let in a flurry of snowflakes. The only noise was the resonant whoop of squad cars on the avenues. We ploughed on, barely able to see five metres in front of us. The taxi rattled in the wind. 

Somehow, we reached Tribeca without being stopped by the traffic police. The neighbourhood’s cobblestone streets were deserted, its restaurants shuttered. Snow was piled high on the pavements and drifts were forming against parked cars. 

As we pulled up outside The Greenwich, a familiar figure approached the cab: Ben, the hotel’s veteran doorman, his shoulders hunched against the cold. The three of us manoeuvred my bags onto the sidewalk, grimacing as we plunged into the shin-deep gutter snow, while Ben and the cabbie joked about the mayor’s dire pronouncement that this blizzard would be the worst the city had ever seen. “You might be stuck inside for a while,” Ben told me as he swung open the hotel’s front doors and helped me in. It didn’t matter. It had been a long day and, at last, I was somewhere that resembled home. Certain hotels have a knack for feeling that way.

I have taken refuge at The Greenwich a handful of times in recent years. New York City can be a lonely place, but at this quietly splendid hotel, with its bespoke rooms and discreet staff, I am content in my solitude. I can sprawl for hours in one of the big armchairs in the drawing room – surrounded by books and artwork, with a log fire burning in the winter or the French doors open to the courtyard in the summer – and simply think. I feel clear-headed in the guest rooms, with their quaint writing desks, heavy floorboards, and Tibetan silk rugs. I relish being pummelled by the rain showers, which have the best water pressure I have ever experienced. 

Although Tribeca is close to the Financial District, and is bordered by hectic Canal Street and the ever-busy West Side Highway, it is a mostly calm place dominated by families. The area used to be industrial, and the red-brick factory buildings lend it a certain gravitas – but, unlike other downtown neighbourhoods, it is not showy. When actor Robert De Niro and his business partner Ira Drukier decided to build The Greenwich, they commissioned a structure made of brick, not metal or concrete, and they decided not to put any signage out front. “Ira and I wanted to create a low-key place that was compatible with the neighbourhood,” De Niro told me. “We wanted the hotel to blend in, not stand out and make a statement. That was the intention always.”

The Greenwich’s common areas, such as the drawing room, are open only to guests of the hotel. The feeling is of seclusion and privacy. For high-profile guests, this is a key selling point – a stay at The Greenwich is an opportunity to escape prying eyes and flashing cameras. For ordinary folk, the policy grants permission to relax, forget about dress codes, and behave as one might do in the home of a close relative. 

Late one November evening, after a trying day, I padded along the hallway in my trackpants and slippers and took a seat in the drawing room by the smouldering fire. There was a low hum in the air as guests lingered over late-night drinks. I ordered macaroni and cheese, which appeared minutes later, sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs, in a heavy metal skillet. After midnight, the room began to clear out, and I struck up a conversation with Nick, the waiter, who trod the line between professional and personal with aplomb. We talked for hours about travelling and books, until the fire died out and the hotel was still.

Curing heartbreak

A few summers ago, when I checked into The Greenwich for the first time, it was as a heartbroken man. The trip to New York was supposed to be an opportunity to focus on my work, and I had a full schedule of appointments laid out before me – but images of my former partner crowded my head. I cowered in the back of a cab with both windows open in an attempt to quell my nausea, nursing a migraine that had developed 30,000 feet above the Midwest. Manhattan seemed harsh in the sunshine, and the thick city air felt oppressive in my lungs.

A young man named Jay, with sincere eyes and an all-American smile, was staffing the front desk at The Greenwich that afternoon. Was this my first visit to the hotel? All I could muster was a nod. So Jay gently escorted me to the elevator, then down a hushed corridor fragrant with incense, to my room, where someone had left a plate of freshly baked cookies as a welcome gesture. In one corner, double doors opened onto a small balcony overlooking the central courtyard. The cream-coloured curtains rippled in the breeze. Jay left, and I sank into a comfortable king bed and slept.  

There is a swimming pool in the hotel that sits inside a 250-year-old wooden farm building from Japan. When the hotel was being constructed, one of De Niro and Drukier’s architects travelled to Kyoto, where he purchased the farmhouse and oversaw its disassembly by a team of master craftsmen. The wooden beams were then transported to New York and the structure was put back together in the basement of the hotel. 

Later that evening, when my headache had dissipated, I went down to the basement for a swim. Entering the farmhouse through a heavy wooden door, I was overcome by a sense of wellbeing, the likes of which I hadn’t felt since before my relationship ended. I was alone, in pure silence, standing waist-deep in lantern-lit water. I was also in the middle of the busiest city in America. I couldn’t believe it.

I slept again that night – the kind of deep, dreamless sleep that happens only rarely. In the morning, I reluctantly packed my bags.

My visit to The Greenwich had been on a whim, and I was booked into another hotel for the remainder of my stay in New York. There was just time for a quick coffee in the drawing room. As I sat, I saw Jay approach me, beaming. He asked how my night had been, and suddenly I was overcome by the urge to explain everything. Instead, I simply told him that I was sad to be leaving so soon. “Don’t worry,” Jay said, gesturing to the guests and luggage around me. “You can stay here as long as you like.” 

Why do some places endear themselves to frequent travellers while others don’t? What can make a hotel feel like home? My home is nothing like The Greenwich, but when I return to the hotel now, there is a sense of familiarity that goes beyond knowing my favourite room and some of the faces. What strange alchemy is at work behind the scenes, to make you forget that there are scenes at all? I’m not entirely sure, but perhaps I’ve found some kind of answer in Tribeca.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2015 as "Greenwich me time". Subscribe here.

Dan Stapleton
is a Sydney-based feature writer.

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