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Restoration Hardware has buzz, goods, but no permit

Restoration Hardware moved to a historic building.JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

On March 5, Gary Friedman, the silver-haired CEO emeritus of Restoration Hardware, was warned that a party in Boston the next night to celebrate the opening of his enormous store could get seriously overcrowded.

“We can ask for forgiveness [afterward],” he told the group, according to people who were there.

Friedman denies saying that, but 24 hours later, police and fire officials were indeed summoned to the former Louis Boston building at 234 Berkeley St. to block a horde of smartly dressed men and women trying to shoehorn themselves through the store’s gaping steel-and-glass doors.

Now, forgiveness isn’t all Friedman needs. The 40,000-square-foot home goods store selling $279 duvet covers and $895 riveted mesh chandeliers still doesn’t have an occupancy permit. Even after the over-the-top party and a photo-op ribbon-cutting, the lavish store in the heart of the trendy Newbury Street shopping district isn’t open. And it’s not clear when it will be.

The packed party on March 6 caused a sensation, which apparently is what Friedman was hoping for. At the meeting with consultants the day before, when the executive was cautioned that the building could be overrun, he was unbothered, according to people in the room. With approval to host 1,200 guests, party organizers had mailed invitations — many in a black box containing an iPod Shuffle — to more than 5,000 people.


While Restoration Hardware had a permit for its party, city inspectors say it won’t be open for business until issues related to the building’s fire alarm, exhaust system, and the store’s unique — and uniquely complicated — elevator are resolved. For now, the alley behind the building remains cluttered with ladders and hydraulic lifts, while well-heeled would-be shoppers can only peer through the oversized doors at an elegant showroom stocked with statues, urns, and vintage camelback chairs.


“Bringing a building of this historic age up to code is not a typical process,” a store spokeswoman said in an e-mail this week.

According to city officials, the opening — the real one — is still weeks away.

“They may have gotten a little ahead of themselves in their enthusiasm to show the world what they’ve done with a very significant building in Boston,” said Bryan Glascock, commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department. “At this point, the ball’s sort of in their court. They can let us know when they’re ready for final inspection.”

It was nearly two years ago that Restoration Hardware — now branded simply as RH — announced plans to move into the historic Berkeley Street building, the 150-year-old former home of the New England Museum of Natural History and, more recently, the luxury emporium Louis Boston. RH, which closed its Boylston Street location in 2008, was embarking on a makeover of sorts, moving away from a business built on knobs and hinges and becoming a purveyor of high-end home furnishings.

What followed was a radical remodeling of the interior of the mammoth building. Decades of structural modifications were ripped out and a stunning steel-caged, glass-cab elevator was designed for the central atrium. Neither RH nor the building’s owners, S.R. Weiner & Associates and W.S. Development, will say how much money has been spent on the upgrade, but it’s in the millions.

“This represents a significant investment in a building that everyone has watched lose its luster,” said Glascock.


Originally, RH executives intended to open the store last December, and Boston-based event planner Bryan Rafanelli, whose resume includes White House state dinners, inaugural balls, and Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, was enlisted to help put on a 12/12/12-themed party. But the bash had to be postponed when work, particularly on the traction and counterweight elevator, was not finished.

According to people familiar with the renovations, the ornate elevator, a knockoff of an iconic 1892 model in Los Angeles, has been difficult to install. Although the company says it was delivered to the Berkeley Street building in October, the elevator still was not functioning by the time the fashionable mob showed up at the March 6 party, and it has yet to be licensed by the state Department of Public Safety.

“Elevators of this kind are not in existence nor reproduced, which has created complications,” said store spokeswoman Katya Sorokko.

The city issued RH a temporary occupancy permit for the party, but some involved in putting on the event were concerned about the huge number of invitations. At the meeting the day before, the issue of overcrowding was raised, but Friedman and Carlos Alberini, the CEO of the publicly traded company, insisted on proceeding. That, according to people who were there, is when Friedman suggested that the company could simply “ask for forgiveness” if problems arose.

Sorokko denies Friedman made the remark.

“That is not accurate,” she said in an e-mail. “Gary and everyone from the team was concerned about having a safe and comfortable event.”


The party started at 6:30 p.m. and within 20 minutes the first floor was so crowded guests could barely move in any direction. People were entering through doors on Berkeley and Newbury streets, while others bypassed the long lines outside and were led in through the catering entrance. Hemmed in, helpless servers held aloft trays of purple artichoke and green garlic risotto, port-soaked figs with goat cheese on flatbread crisps, and mini lobster rolls. Cipriani Bellini cocktails served in champagne glasses would appear and immediately be grabbed by grumbling and bewildered guests.

“I thought I was at the seafood show and this was the sardine can exhibit,” said Charles Hotel owner Dick Friedman.

“This will go down as one of the all-time worst planned events in Boston party history,” Janet Prensky, a partner at the Boston PR firm Aigner/Prensky Marketing Group, tweeted the night of the party.

By 7:30 p.m., police and fire officials were on the scene shooing people from the doors and ordering the store to pull the plug on the music and cease food and drink service.

“It was a happening event. There were a lot of people obviously very interested in the store and the location, and that’s a good thing,” said Thomas DeSimone, a partner in W.S. Development, one of the building’s owners. “But if one person doesn’t have the kind of experience we hoped they’d have, that’s unfortunate. And in this case, it was maybe more than one person.”


Rafanelli, who has produced events vastly more complex than the opening of a furniture store, declined to be interviewed. “We do not comment regarding our clients’ business matters,” he said in an e-mail. But people who work with Rafanelli say he’s disappointed with the way the event was handled. Joyce Kulhawik, the former TV reporter who’s something of a fixture on Boston’s social circuit, was on the party’s host committee. She arrived early with Marilyn Riseman and found a cozy seat on one of RH’s expensive couches. Her husband was not so lucky.

“He never made it inside. When he got to the door, [the police] told him, ‘This party is over,’ ” she said, laughing. “You might not deliberately plan to do a party that way, but at least everyone’s talking about Restoration Hardware.”

And it’s not even open.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at Shanahan@Globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan