Sleeping Around NYC: Life Hotel
By Shari Hartford
As a veteran of print publishing I enjoy stories about “the good old days.” And since I was in the business for 35 years, those stories had better be long before my time.
Enter the Life Hotel, or as it was known in 1895, the headquarters for Life magazine. With working space on the lower floors and staff apartments on the upper floors, a speakeasy in the basement (still an operating, now legal, bar) and famous names of the day – Dana Gibson, Norman Rockwell, Margaret Bourke-White – wandering the halls, the team called this home until 1931.
Fast forward 125 years and the building, after many incarnations of unmemorable hotels, has been restored to all its glory as Life, which opened in 2017. Located just blocks from Penn Station, Madison Square Garden and other NYC attractions, I recently spent the night to see if there was indeed life in this old building.
First things first. The entrance to the hotel is more gorgeous townhouse than urban hotel…and that’s a good thing. When I arrived, there was no doorman to welcome me and the entry steps could be daunting for guests with luggage. The tiny lobby has a cool-vibe bar and an open kitchen restaurant (more on that later.) The one-man reception desk was tucked away in the corner and, I must say, the gentleman who checked me in could have been more welcoming. No need to perpetuate the myth of surly New Yorkers.
The hotel has ten floors and a total of 98 rooms. The rooms combine the amenities we have come to expect from a boutique hotel with the allure of the original features. I loved the brass bed, the white washed walls, the soft and comfy bed linens and the interesting lighting. And the bathroom was larger than average with great (original?) tiles on the floor. It’s also possible the flooring in my king room was original to the building…very cool. When I went up to my 10th floor room I wondered about the unique elevator and later found out that it is known as a half-moon birdcage elevator; one of only two in the U.S.
Later in the evening I got hungry and wandered down to restaurant Henry, Harlem chef, Joseph Johnson’s new home. The cuisine combines African, Caribbean, Asian and the American South in an eclectic menu of familiar and not-so-familiar items. For an appetizer I chose the Yassa Corn, pieces of corn on the cob in a Dijon, onion and coconut sauce. It was absolutely delicious. The meal highlight was the Salmon Noodles, perfectly grilled salmon atop rice noodles with assorted vegetables in an African nectar broth. I wasn’t altogether sure what the individual tastes were, but the temptation to lick the dish was very strong! When I stayed, room service had not yet been set up but it’s in the cards for the near future, as is a full breakfast menu.
I’m happy to say when I checked out the next morning, the woman doing front desk duty was warm and delightful. I’ll be back for another helping of salmon and perhaps a visit downstairs to the speakeasy. Oh, and another ride in the birdcage.
For more information, see lifehotel.com.
Shari Hartford is the former managing editor for Diversion magazine, where she wrote about travel in the northeast and cruising. She is currently a freelance writer and editor based in her hometown of New York City.