Don’t call her the Ritz. She’s the Taj no more.

Say hello to the Newbury, Boston’s grand dame of hotels

The Boston Globe    Christopher Muther,  November 1, 2019

Excerpts from an article in The 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, with muted 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.”

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