In a world where the "narrative" of every brand is its promotional calling card, New York's Life Hotel is blessed with an authentic backstory. It was the original home of Life Magazine, a famous humour and photographic journal that launched with the motto "While there's Life, there's hope". The building, completed in 1895 by leading architecture practice Carrere and Hastings, has a handsome Beaux Arts facade behind which sit 98 newly configured rooms, and a ground floor bar and restaurant. The likes of Charles Dana Gibson, Norman Rockwell, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Capa, many of whom lived in the upper apartments of the building, imbue the corridors with the ghosts of a literary and artistic past.
Situated in New York's NoMad (a midtown Manhattan neighbourhood north of Madison Square Park) at 19 West 31st Street, Life Hotel is located in a district that hasn't quite finished reinventing itself. At every corner another massive building, heavy with 19th century architectural gravitas is being made over for a young well-heeled 21st century customer. The boutique Ace Hotel spearheaded the shift, opening in 2010 and continues to be the acme of cool with the Breslin Bar and Dining gastro pub, in the British tradition, housed within its walls. NoMad, which has Chelsea, Murray Hill and the Flatiron district on its boundaries is well positioned for the subway, while also being a great walking district.
As is fashionable, most probably driven by economics, the space that was once given over to a hotel foyer is now devoted to a bar and restaurant accessed directly from the street. Hence one wheels a bag through these convivial spaces to check in, be given a metal refillable water bottle and navigate the small lift to the room. The decor is pleasing in a light, open Instagram-worthy way, with clean, extremely comfortable beds and a small but well-designed en suite. I know that the framed handwritten phrases on the wall are an attempt to link to the literary past but sentiments such as "Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass but learning to dance in the rain", do no favours.
New York is a city that cuts no slack. When I stayed at Life Hotel the restaurant, Henry, was mostly empty and felt a tad unloved. Now I read in a New York Times review that its reinvention by chef Joseph Johnson (JJ) saw it named one of the 10 best restaurants to launch in 2018. The menu takes its cues from African, Asian and Caribbean cuisine and, such is the measure of JJ's success, that his initials are emblazoned in pink neon in the front window. There is also a subterranean cocktail lounge, Gibson + Luce, with a prohibition vibe serving "craft" cocktails.
I like to walk so here are a few destinations within a 10-minute stride of the Life Hotel. Dover Street Market fashion emporium – now with Parisian Rose Bakery (eight minutes), The Ace Hotel with the aforementioned Breslin Bar + Dining alongside Stumptown Coffee Roasters (four minutes), The Sex Museum (six minutes) The Empire State Building (five minutes), Madison Square Garden (10 minutes).
Room types in this four-star hotel vary from Classic Queen to Premium King with Private Terrace or additional sleeper sofa. While I had enough space I wouldn't associate the words premium king with the room I occupied: it felt economic and well-planned rather than generous. A Premium King is priced from $196 per night. 19 West 31st Street, New York. See lifehotel.com for bookings
I greatly enjoyed my stay for the convenience, the comfort as the room felt like a little nest to come back to at the end of the day and there was a sense of safety for the single traveller. I have to admit, as an ex-magazine editor, I did appreciate the history of the building, original design elements of which the owners were at pains to retain, alongside the 60-inch TVs and Wi-Fi, which people demand as part of a luxury experience. I didn't hit the gym that I saw described as "micro", but given the workout I got walking the streets of NoMad it wasn't necessary.
This handsome early 19th century building has serious New York provenance as the original home of Life Magazine.
The room decor was light and fresh but the framed platitudes hit a false note.