How did Raffles, a Singapore-based luxury hotel chain, come to choose Boston as the city where it will open its first North American property? For the sake of time, let’s just say we can thank late Boston mayor Tom Menino for setting the process in motion.
The story goes something like this: In 2011 hotelier Gary Saunders and developer Jordan Warshaw purchased the former Boston Common Hotel and Conference Center in the Back Bay. At first they had modest aspirations for the hotel, which offered two-star accommodations in 64 rooms that were in desperate need of some love. At most, Saunders and Warshaw thought they might be able to add a couple of stories to the building, in addition to transforming it from run-down to remarkably opulent.
“When we started to renovate, we realized there were accessibility issues,” Warshaw said. “The building wasn’t at street level so you had to walk up six steps to get into it, so it didn’t work from a handicapped standpoint, it didn’t work from a seismic standpoint, and the elevators and stairwells were undersized. We realized that we were going to have to take it down and do something different.”
After six months of trying to work with the existing 1925 structure, Saunders and Warshaw met with Menino in 2012 to explain their dilemma.
“[Menino] literally said, ‘Go up guys, go up. I want you to think big. We are going to be putting up 400 foot zoning here, and we should plan for that,’” Saunders recalled.
And that’s exactly what they did. Fast forward to 2021, and after years of zoning meetings and planning sessions – plus a pandemic – the modest Boston Common Hotel and Conference center will open next year as the grand 35-story Raffles Boston Back Bay Hotel & Residences, a world class hotel that’s on par with properties such as the Four Seasons. The name may not be familiar yet, but it will soon be towering over Boston.
The $400 million project will include a 147-room hotel and 146 condominiums, plus fine dining, a lounge, a speakeasy, a Writers’ Bar, and a patisserie. It will also hold the distinction of having the largest hotel rooms in Boston (many of them suites).
Despite the lengthy process to bring the building at 430 Stuart St. to life, Saunders, a third generation hotelier whose portfolio includes the Lenox, and Warshaw, a Boston-based developer who founded the Noannet Group, say that they’ve never had as much fun on a project as they have working on Raffles.
“Because Jordan has never had such a big budget on a project before,” Saunders joked.
Originally Saunders and Warshaw’s hotel was intended to be an independent brand, likely falling under the umbrella of the Saunders Hotel Group. But realizing the opportunity they had with the size of the building and its prime location, they opted to look for a partner. That’s when the largest hotel companies in the US came calling. They had meetings with executives from Hilton, Marriott, and others. But they were most impressed with Accor, the parent company of Raffles, despite the fact that Raffles wouldn’t have the same name recognition in this country as other brands.
“The only weakness was that we would have to explain to people what Raffles is,” Warshaw said. “On the other hand, it’s an opportunity because people would learn about it.”
For the uninitiated, here’s a cheat sheet about the hotel chain: Raffles opened in Singapore in 1887 and was named for British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of colonial-era Singapore. Perhaps more importantly, its bar was where the cocktail the Singapore Sling was invented. In the movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” it’s where where Nick (Henry Golden) and Rachel (Constance Wu) stayed when they arrived in Singapore. Currently, the chain operates 15 locations, including properties in Paris, Istanbul, Dubai, Warsaw, Jakarta, and the Seychelles.
According to the design team for Raffles Back Bay, the challenge was creating a building that was unique, but would not feel out of place here. It also needed to compliment (and stand out against) the nearby John Hancock Tower, which is 62 stories tall. The nearby Four Season One Dalton is 61 stories.
The interior needed to meet the same challenges.
“In this instance we started to take inspiration from Boston’s heritage of the famed Emerald Necklace,” said Greg Keffer, from the Rockwell Group, which designed interior spaces in the residences. “We also wanted to take reference from the Back Bay and the stately Victorian brownstones that we see there. Some of the color palettes and material draws upon not only that, but also the landscape, the greens and the blues and the pale grays.”
The Emerald Necklace theme starts at the street-level entrance, but might be lost on those headed directly to the patisserie.
Those subtle associations with the city might be difficult to spot to those who work outside of design world, but there are some details that are hard to miss. Check-in for hotel guests takes place in the Sky Lobby, which occupies the 17th, 18th, and 19th floors, and sports a hanging garden and a grand staircase. From that vantage point, the restaurants and bars located off the lobby will offer stunning views of the city. From the Sky Terrace Lounge, patrons can sip cocktails with views of the South End. In the intimate Sky Lobby Fine Dining Restaurant, the views feature the Back Bay, Charles River, and Cambridge. Hotel interiors were designed by Stonehill Taylor.
The hotel and residences are scheduled to open in late 2022. If you happen to be sipping a Singapore Sling in the Sky Terrace Lounge or enjoying a glass of bourbon in the Writers’ Lounge, don’t forget to raise a glass and say a toast to Tom Menino. If he hadn’t encouraged Saunders and Warshaw to “think big,” there’s a very good chance there wouldn’t be a Sky Terrace Lounge, or even a Raffles in Boston.