PALM SPRINGS -- Here I sit at a reclaimed desk made from fiberboard and corrugated steel. A flask of Sailor Jerry spiced rum, 92 proof but with the seal as yet unbroken, beckons from the minibar. Lawrence Welk’s instrumental rendition of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” wafts from the turntable near the bed. I put a sign made from rock and rope and etched with the message, “Not Now,” on the outside knob of my way-’70s burnt orange-painted door.
Man, if I can’t write the definitive hipster column in a setting like the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, then, screw it, it can’t be done.
It is as if I’ve been plopped down into a surrealistic mashup of “Mad Men” and “Portlandia,” set amid swaying palm trees and an oh-so-carefully crafted neo-midcentury-modern milieu. And, more astonishing, it’s all at about midcentury prices, $119 a night.
The Ace, I have been told, is where all the cool kids stay, the ones who back in school never invited me to their edgy poetry readings and ironic-rich, all-night bull sessions at non-chain coffeehouses. I feel so consumed by kitsch that at any moment I might crack open one of those cans of PBR from the mini-fridge – the only touch lacking, a retro pull-top tab – just to stem the ennui.
Hipster posing aside, the very small (just six) chain of Ace hotels has tapped in to a certain type of traveler, one who recoils at the mints-on-the-pillow, plaid-bedspread sameness of your Marriott or Hyatt, one who finds row upon high-rise row of closet-sized rooms absolutely soul-crushing.
Started in Seattle (where else?) in 1999 as an artistic response to the corporate hospitality industry, Ace quickly made a name for itself for the very reason principal owner Alex Calderwood gave it its name. “The ace is the high and low card in the deck,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “We employ that high and low principle in our hotel models.”
Last month, mere weeks before Calderwood was about to launch his latest Ace in downtown Los Angeles, he died at age 47 in London, reportedly while staying in his new hotel there. Its mercurial creator, who had his first business success opening a chain of retro barbershops in the Northwest, may be gone, but the Ace aesthetic thrives. It’s telling that Calderwood’s first Ace, in Seattle, was a converted halfway house that used many of the original elements – yet tweaked for those with quirky artistic sensibilities.
In an interview with the Desert Sun shortly before the Palm Springs hotel’s 2009 opening, Calderwood said his ideal clientele is a “cultural enthusiast,” someone more interested in art and design of the place where they lay their head than whether there’s a free continental breakfast and turn-down service.
“We don’t really look at it as a demographic but more as a psychographic,” he told the paper. “It’s a mindset, people of the same sensibilities of any age or any income level.”
It can be easy to miss the Ace as you cruise along the famous curve on Palm Canyon Drive just past the city’s ritzy downtown shopping area. From the street, it’s a low-rise, nondescript edifice, with nary a lit sign heralding its presence. The reason it at first looks so vanilla in this land of a thousand pastels is that the joint used to be a Howard Johnson roadside motor lodge with a Denny’s attached to it. Isn’t that just perfect? Calderwood and company took two low-brow cultural institutions and utterly transformed them, just a few touches (OK, more than a few) turning Plain Jane into Hipster Heidi.
That Denny’s is now King’s Highway, perhaps the only restaurant in this foodie-mad enclave that bears an epigram (“I’m thrilled to death with life, Johnny Cash”) and a subtitle (“A Roadside Diner”). What other “roadside diner” serves a Kurobuta pork chop, with “forbidden” black rice, ong choy, baby potatoes and Szechuan sauce for $25 or, for those watching waistlines, a raw kale and quinoa salad with a hibiscus vinaigrette ($9)?
Then there’s the hotel itself, the erstwhile Howard Johnson, which clearly has had a lot of work done, like so many aging stars in this town. The stucco façade has been redone, patios with attached outdoor fireplaces added, artwork by local muralists adorn the sides of each building. Inside my room are a modernist depiction of a vintage desert ranch house, either a Pollock print or a Rorschach test, and a sheet of butcher paper bearing a list of pop-culture milestones (“Anita Bryant Pied 1977,” “Pentagon Papers 1971,” “Prozac 1987”) in a trendy Helvetica font.
My hip vibe is fading fast in the room, so I decide to take the needle off the Lawrence Welk record in the middle of a tepid version of “Wabash Cannonball” – it was either that or break the seal on the Sailor Jerry rum – and lounge poolside for a spell. There, I meet a nice young couple vacationing from Philadelphia, Michael James and Heather Davis. James’ arm-sleeve tats clue me in to their trendiness.
“It definitely appeals to a certain aesthetic,” Davis says. “It appeals to vintage yet modern principles, you know? It kind of mixes those things pretty well without feeling ... ”
James finishes her sentence: “Overdone. It just kind of feels good, a good blend.”
Davis: “The hotel reflects the city. A lot of hotel chains go by a formula everywhere, whereas the Ace always thinks about its environment. By that I mean, what’s around here, historically what Palm Springs is about – a little bit kitsch and a little …”
James chimes in: “desert vibe.”
Another couple, Amy Bortolazzo and Tom Masters, of Sydney, Australia, enlist an Ace worker to take smartphone pics of them poolside and in front of the (intentionally) distressed yellow-and-red painted metal “ACE” sign along a side wall.
The pair say they consider the Ace more than a hotel.
“Rather than just a place to stay, it’s a place that was almost nicer than the city around it,” Masters says. “You almost want to stay in the hotel rather than go out. We like the records in the room. They actually curate the records. We got Stevie Nicks and some new ones.”
No Lawrence Welk? I check with the other couple, James and Davis, and they got a Velvet Underground record to spin.
I was beginning to think I got Welk by design, the front desk person checking me out and then furtively scanning room listings under the heading “decrepit and culturally sclerotic.” When I return to the room, I flip through the rest of my LP choices: A Johnny Mathis disk from 1959, an album from pianist George Shearing circa 1960 and a collection of arias by Hungarian-born soprano Gitta Alpar.
The needle skips once as I cue up Gitta and notice that right next to the Sailor Jerry in the minibar is a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey.
My choice: Either crack the label on the Jameson ($30, on the company credit card) or leave my beloved Gitta behind and repair to the Amigo Room in King’s Highway for Tuesday night karaoke.
But don’t worry, hipsters: It’s an ironic karaoke.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.