Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, designer and developer Ari Heckman sometimes passed by a run-down historic building that functioned as a gentleman's club, brothel, and pay-by-the-hour flophouse. Once, he even photographed the neon female silhouettes displayed in the window of the brick building for a high school art class. "It was really notorious, and an undesirable place to be. I'm sure my parents would have been horrified to know that I even walked by it as a kid," said Heckman, the founder of the Brooklyn firm ASH NYC, and a former Curbed Young Gun. "Obviously I never imagined that years later I would own the building."
The story of how this eyesore in downtown Providence became a stylish 52-room boutique hotel called The Dean, which opened this year, is a story of the triumph of optimism and naiveté over the inconvenient fact that, as Heckman puts it, "a set designer could not have designed a better crack house." It all started when a local contact approached him about the sale, and said, "You're going to laugh, because this building is horrifying, but you should go take a look. Maybe it will be interesting to you." Indeed it was; it became ASH NYC's very first hotel project.
The building had already had several lives by the time it became a gentleman's club. Built in 1912 by an episcopal diocese, it was originally meant to house members of the clergy. But by the Great Depression, the structure had morphed into housing for the indigent, and there was a chapel and a social service agency on the first floor. The rooms upstairs could be rented monthly. In the 1920s and 1930s, this part of downtown Providence was home to a vaudeville theater district, and the brick building soon became a flophouse for vaudeville actors. By middle of the century, downtown Providence had fallen into decline, and the historic building eventually became a strip club with 60 hourly rooms upstairs.
"It was in that condition up until the moment we bought it," says Heckman. "I went to the building on the last day of its active strip club life. The next day, the lights were off and that was the end of that."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the renovation was not as easy as just demolishing everything and starting from scratch. Surrounded by ornate mercantile buildings built between 1880 and 1930, this particular building, while indisputably the ugly duckling of the bunch, was located in a local and a national historic district. The layout of the rooms and ground floor was even considered historic, so ASH NYC, unable to knock out the partitions, had the massive challenge of turning grim pay-by-the-hour rooms into $350 a night king suites without changing the space's form at all.
"There were definitely moments of panic, where it felt highly unrealistic that we would be able to make something out of that," says Heckman. "There was nothing good happening in those rooms. They did everything wrong to make the space feel as disturbing as possible."
The rooms were incredibly dark, due to bizarre window treatments. The ceilings were only 7.5 feet high, with popcorn ceiling tile made of Styrofoam. The carpets were, predictably, disgusting. The ground floor had a number of stripper poles.
'I'm sure many people who are more seasoned in the hotel industry would have looked at this building, and thought 'there's no way you can do anything with that,' says Heckman. "In this case our naiveté worked to our advantage."
The firm's mandate was to restore the building to what it looked like in 1912. All the later add-ons needed to be stripped back to highlight the original architectural elements. The renovation team replaced all the windows with historically appropriate windows, restored the storefronts to their old layouts, and rebuilt a cornice that projects off the roof. After peeling away so many layers from what had initially resembled a pared-down brick box, the ASH NYC team made the welcome discovery that the building was far more intriguing than it had originally seemed. "Amazing details that just revealed themselves as we went through the construction process," says Heckman. The lobby now displays the building's century-old mosaic tile flooring.
The overhaul took 2.5 years. During a business trip to Belgium, the creative team got the idea to juxtapose a neutral color scheme and a minimalist vibe with American vintage décor and whimsical touches like an elephant side table cast in concrete. Much of the decor was made specifically for the hotel in New England; the rest came from Belgium.
The one-time gentleman's club has been divided into four different parts: a restaurant, a coffee shop, a bar, and a karaoke lounge. The karaoke lounge, with its bright red lights, disco ball, leather banquettes, and retro vibe, pays homage to the former space.
"I always thought that rather than white-washing over the history and the story, it made it a much more interesting place if there were subtle nods to that," says Heckman. "I think people enjoy participating in that from a distance, from a remove."
Staggering before-and-after photos, below: