November 1, 2019 By Christopher Muther Boston Globe
In its current state, you’d hardly guess that this building was once the most glamorous edifice in Boston. When Winston Churchill came to town, he stayed here. So did Shirley Temple, Amelia Earhart, and the duke and duchess of Windsor. At present, this important piece of Boston history is primarily hosting layers of plaster dust, exposed drywall, bare floors, and many, many power tools.
But when the newly christened Newbury hotel opens this spring, the nearly 100-year-old gem at the corner of Newbury and Arlington streets will emerge with a thorough polishing, looking to attract a fresh generation of guests.
The Newbury is the new name of the former Taj Boston hotel. It opened in 1927 as the Ritz-Carlton and stayed the Ritz until 2007, when it was sold to the Mumbai-based Taj. Despite the changeover, many continued to refer to the hotel as “the old Ritz.”Call it Brahmin stubbornness, but it seemed that after eight decades, Bostonians had a hard time letting go of their beloved memories, and their beloved blue Ritz Fizz cocktail.
The iconic property has spent the past decade or so languishing on one of the most prominent corners in Boston. “Languishing” may sound a bit strong, but the hotel, which was sold in 2016 to an investment group with local ties for $125 million, was last updated 18 years ago — an eternity in hospitality years.
According to TripAdvisor reviews, the staff maintained a level of service befitting a historic property that once counted Lucille Ball among its guests, but the rooms were left behind. The scuffed, dark mahogany furniture and increasingly tattered margarine-yellow upholstered pieces were calling out for help.
When the hotel, which had its final day as the Taj on Thursday, reopens after a top-to-bottom renovation (developers declined to disclose the cost), those rooms will look firmly rooted in the style of 2020 hotels, where “residential” is the buzzword of the moment.
Designer Alexandra Champalimaud (the creative force behind redesigns of the Hotel Bel-Air, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the Carlyle) reimagined the rooms as if they were part of a tastefully appointed Beacon Hill pied-à-terre, withmuted wall colors, blue-velvet window seats, and curvaceous furniture.
The most noticeable exterior difference for Bostonians will be the main entrance. Guests will arrive on Newbury Street (the hotel’s street address is changing from 15 Arlington to One Newbury). The sidewalk outside the new entrance will feature a landscaped terrace plaza with tables and chairs.
Also new: a 4,000-square-foot, glass-rooftop restaurant with sweeping views of the city and multiple glass doors that will slide open on balmy days. There will be six retractable panels on the roof for clear nights. Celebrity designer Ken Fulk, known for creating spaces with pizzazz and pop, is steering the look of the space.
The glass restaurant harks back to the property’s early days, when the Ritz-Carlton opened an elaborate rooftop garden in 1931 and Boston’s glitterati came for dinner and dancing under the stars. The restaurant will be run by Major Food Group, which operates 20 restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, and Tel Aviv. This will be its first Boston outpost. Major Food Group will also curate the food and drink for the Newbury’s bar, called the Street Bar. Celebrated architect and designer Jeffrey Beers will fill the refreshed bar with rich, classic jewel tones. The first-floor cafe will be no more. The rooftop restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Although the Newbury will be managed by the hospitality investment company Highgate, the Newbury hotel brand will stand alone. Highgate has a varied portfolio, including the James, the Knickerbocker, and the Row in New York.
All of these changes may be difficult to grasp. Again, this is a hotel that people are still calling “the old Ritz,” and Boston stalwarts break out their finest frowns when such words and phrases as “celebrity designer,” “pizzazz and pop,” “New York,” or simply “new” are used to describe any entity within city limits.
But the people who work at the hotel are optimistic this change will be embraced.
Maureen Albright, who started working at the hotel nearly two decades ago, when it was still the Ritz-Carlton, stayed through the Taj years and is now eager to see the Newbury take shape. Recently, she spent more than three hours with a reporter, recounting tales of hotel glories past. Thanks to her knowledge and loquacious love of the property, she was recently appointed the official historian of the Newbury.
“If you told me 18 years ago that a building could mean so much to people, I never would have believed it,” she said. “But I have met hundreds of people who have told me how important this building has been in their lives, going back generations and generations.”
Albright, who has been the hotel’s director of engineering since her first day on the job, choked up talking about the renovation. “The old girl is finally getting the attention she deserves.”
Swirling the glass of merlot in her hand, Albright added: “I just think of her as this lovely grand dame who’s been counting on us to help her for years. This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
She’s not exaggerating. It is a rarity to have a building of this pedigree on Newbury Street that hasn’t been turned into, say, a Restoration Hardware. To see just how important the grand dame of Newbury Street has been to Boston, scan old issues of The Boston Globe and read each breathless account of the hotel’s opening and the stories of the celebrities who stayed.
In a 1926 front-page story, the Globe first reported that Boston was getting a Ritz-Carlton:
“We are convinced that there is no city in the country where the sort of service the Ritz hotels offers would be better received or better appreciated,” said George McAneny, president of the Ritz hotels in the United States.
The excitement surrounding the lavish opening night in May 1927 was reported in detail — lots and lots of detail — in another front-page Globe story. Noting that the Ritz opened in an atmosphere of “elegance rather than splendor,” the paper wrote that French chefs “put all of their art into the preparation of this meal, which was a revelation both in quality and variety of dishes.” For $10 a plate (that’s $144 in 2019 dollars), the French opulence was something entirely new to Boston.
Along with opulence came celebrities. When the first regular Boston-to-New York passenger plane made its inaugural flight, carrying six passengers, Charles Lindbergh stayed at the Ritz to celebrate. More than 5,000 fans mobbed Shirley Temple when the child star stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in 1938, and when Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, the third child of Jackie and President John F. Kennedy, was rushed to Children’s Medical Center in 1963 (and died two days later), President Kennedy stayed at the Ritz-Carlton.
Throughout its storied history, tales of importance emerged from the hotel. Rodgers and Hart wrote “Ten Cents a Dance” in their suite. In 1947, Tennessee Williams wrote part of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in his. Two years later, when Winston Churchill arrived, an entire suite was redecorated in Chinese red, black, and gold, his favorite colors.
For Bostonians, the Ritz-Carlton ballroom was where teenage girls glowed in their chiffon finery at coming-out parties. The cafe was where the ladies who lunched could be found gossiping over gimlets. The signature bar was where deals were made with firm handshakes. Anniversaries were acknowledged and weddings opulently celebrated.
The Ritz-Carlton could also be seen as a barometer of the changing times as it slowly loosened its strict dress code. Until 1971, a sign informed dining room and bar patrons that turtlenecks were not an acceptable substitute for a tie, and pantsuits and culottes were no-nos. Miniskirts were acceptable — but only on teenagers. Lifting the ban meant that Boston’s fashionable women could finally wear 1971’s fashion craze: hot pants. The Globe reported at the time that the male employees were happy to see the change.
For men, the rule on blazers and ties was slower to evolve. When Mayor Raymond Flynn arrived to dine in a golf shirt in 1993, he was asked to leave.
Thankfully, those dress codes are not returning. But Carlos Bueno, general manager of the hotel, said the Newbury is fully embracing the heritage of the building and hoping that guests will appreciate its return to splendor.
“Everything about the hotel is changing,” Bueno said. “We’re adding suites, we’re re-envisioning the ballroom and the lobby. The outside will look different. The restaurant concepts are exciting. But the one thing we don’t want to change is how important this hotel is to the city. We’re very aware of how precious this property is to so many people.”
On the surface, the success of the Newbury will be measured by the occupancy rate, the customer reviews, and the crowds at the rooftop restaurant. But let’s face it: The only way we’ll know for certain that it has staying power is if Bostonians finally stop calling the hotel at the corner of Newbury and Arlington “the old Ritz.”