by James M. Crotty
June 23, 2005

The Roger (Hotel Roger Williams) 131 Madison Avenue @ 31st Street New York, NY 10016 Tel: (212) 448-7000 Reservations: (888) 448-7788 Fax: (212) 448-7007

Situated at 31st and Madison abutting gauche Korea Town, the tacky tourist confines of the Empire State Building, the former glory of Murray Hill’s elegant brownstones and the surging popularity of its post-collegiate high-rise "dorms," plus a short walk to newly revamped Grand Central, Bryant Park, and Madison Park, stands the Hotel Roger Williams, a spry, brightly colored and extraordinarily friendly boutique oasis. As the gentrification/fine dining bandwagon moves like a tsunami up Park Avenue from its source in Union Square, the neighborhood around the Roger Williams will soon match the kicky fun of the hotel itself.

Named for founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, who owned the land on which the hotel stands and commandeered adjacent Madison Avenue Baptist Church, and reflecting the stately ambitions of Murray Hill’s Old Money elite, the recently “enhanced” “Roger” –- its second makeover since going boutique in the mid-90s boutique frenzy –- feels refreshingly continental. This is particularly true of the Roger’s signature “help yourself” Breakfast Pantry, which features fresh baked scones, breads and muffins from Balthazar and other fine New York French bakeries, as well as European meats and cheeses (the bagels are from NYC’s own H & H). The Pantry also doubles as the Lounge Roger Williams, a fun lunch and dinner spot featuring a menu created by APT’s Jonathan Morr.

Like the good small hotels of Central Europe, as opposed to Schraeger’s aloof showiness, the Roger is modern without being mean. Kandinsky-inspired colors (lime green, tangerine, and peppy shades of orange, blue and more) are splashed on the ultra cool furnishings and guest rooms, but, like the hotel staff, aren’t intrusive. The mood is upbeat but peaceful, hip but comfortable.

Annette Jaffe worked within Philip DeBolske’s original design footprint to provided the above “enchancements.” It represents a strategic move for the Roger, given the enormous influx of British and European tourists drawn by favorable exchange rates to nearby Macy’s, Time Square, Broadway, and the Empire State Building.

All in all, there are three qualities that set the Roger apart from competing boutique hotels and make it Monk-worthy:

1. The unmistakable friendliness of the service personnel. What the very young staff lacks in cultural depth, they easily make up for in disposition. From the moment you disembark from your taxi, you are cared for and listened to. These staffers are trained well. It’s not easy to exude relaxed fun while remaining formally attentive to guest needs, but the Roger staff pulls it off with unmitigated aplomb. According to my friendly hotel desk attendant, Neil, all staff at the hotel, from the doorman to the bellman to the repair guys, act as concierges. In other words, if there’s a problem, it gets taken care of, without an unnecessary wait for the message to filter through a cumbersome chain of command.

2. The Roger is genuinely business-friendly. As a peripatetic writer for twenty years, I’ve always resented being charged exhorbitant rates for simple services like web access and local dialing. At the Roger, you receive free local dialing to three different local area codes, unlimited wireless connectivity in rooms and public spaces, and 24/7 gym access, all for a $10 daily fee. Since the fee is so small anyway, I advised the hotel to drop it, as the extra bookings generated by news of free Internet, local calls, and gym access will more than offset the loss of ten quid. Throw in complimentary Wall Street Journals and Financial times delivered straight to the room (instead of just in the mezzanine), combined with the existing complimentary shoe shine, and the hotel would close the deal with most business travelers.

3. Veranda Four One One. Room 411 is a dual purpose Junior Suite, featuring an inside room equipped with a Murphy bed, combined with an 800-foot exquisitely landscaped terrace, handsomely appointed with wooden teak benches, chairs and tables from Smith and Hawken, candelabras, sconces, and candle lanterns, walls of climbing ivy, an array of flora, plus a retractable awning that covers the entire outdoor space except for a few pieces of stray furniture (but who’s quibbling? Not moi!). It has the feel of a modern English garden, making it a very nice spot for a small meeting ($500-750/day), rehearsal dinner, bridal shower, corporate event or reception ($1000/day). Veranda Four One One can hold about 40 people comfortably outside, with 20 more inside. It would also be the perfect place for a small Super Bowl party or VIP media event, if the Roger went the extra step of providing HD TV on the room’s flat-screen monitor.

Alas, the Veranda Four One does have one major drawback, a very loud set of fans droning away down below, but my Johnson and Wales Hospitality grad reassured me that at night the sound of music on the excellent sound system drowns out the sizable cacophony.

Of the Roger’s 190 rooms, there are 17 with large stone terraces, a remarkable trait in a boutique property. I particularly recommend Penthouse suites 1603 or 1605. Each comes with a gorgeous view of the Empire State Building, the enduring symbol of New York City’s former glory, begging to be reclaimed as locals and visitors alike rediscover Murray Hill’s genteel roots.

There’s no better place in the neighborhood to explore those roots than the gentle, pleasing comfort of the all-new Hotel Roger Williams.