To listen to Mark Croce discuss his latest project, the Curtiss Hotel at 210 Franklin Street, is to understand how someone becomes completely and utterly consumed with an idea. The idea in this case is building and running the poshest hotel in Western New York, while using the bones of a historic building as the foundation. Could the building of this super-luxury hotel represent a definitive milestone in the much-discussed Buffalo Resurgence?
I received an opportunity to perform a walkthrough with Mark of the project recently, which is in the early stages of a complete renovation and restoration. While the new construction is pushing ahead, Croce estimates that he has already spent around $850,000 thus far just on the gutting, demolition and abatement work. His plan is to have the Curtiss Hotel up and running this coming fall, although he’s understandably reluctant to be pinned down to a specific date. New Year’s is definitely a hard target, because there’s a huge New Year’s Eve bash planned at the hotel, which he intends to tie in to the 5th annual Statler City Ice Ball.
Some quick history on 210 Franklin Street: this building was constructed in 1912 when Buffalo was in the midst of its glorious boomtown years. It was considered a “Chicago-style” skyscraper at six stories, and was
the one of the first steel-framed buildings in Buffalo. This style of building represented a marked departure from older exterior framing technologies such as cast-iron (think the Stanton Building at 251 Main) which were prevalent at the time.
Croce wants to make the Curtiss Hotel *the* destination 5-star hotel in area – the absolute, indisputable pinnacle – and is sparing no expense or detail when it comes to the customer experience. “They say there’s only room for one at the top of the market…which means there’s a lot of room underneath!” Croce quips. Referring to the level the Curtiss Hotel will be playing at: “We are in a unique market segment all by ourselves.” He sees the Curtiss Hotel as operating on the same level as some legendary high-end hotels in Las Vegas and NYC.
“You see a lot of new hotel inventory going up around downtown, but nobody is putting the money into a property like this. We only have 68 guest rooms here, but with a budget of over $285,000 per room to provide the best room amenities Western New York has ever seen”. He’s content for the mid-market players to fight it out amongst each other for that piece of the market, but makes it clear the Curtiss Hotel will be the “antithesis” of “cookie-cutter” chain hotels.
When I countered with the timeless b-school mantra that everyone has competition, no matter how unique the value proposition of a new market offering, Croce was having none of it. “This is going to be the highest-end hotel anywhere in Western New York, period”. Zeroing in on the Hotel Henry, a contemporary, cosmopolitan hotel currently being constructed in the storied Richardson-Olmsted complex, Croce sees it as complementary. “It’s located in a totally different market. They will do well for themselves where they are located, however there’s nothing that’s going to be at this level in downtown Buffalo.”
Another highly-regarded operation that could be drawn upon for comparison might be the nearby Lafayette Hotel, extensively renovated by developer Rocco Termini after almost falling to ruin. The reply was not unexpected: “There is no comparison!” Croce insists, pointing out that only a couple of floors in the Lafayette actually represent the hotel operation, with the remainder being primarily apartments and restaurant/banquet space. Where the owners of the Lafayette farmed out the food and beverage operations (Bourbon & Butter, Sweet & Savory, etc.) to outside firms, Croce will own and operate all food and beverage operations located at the Curtiss Hotel. It’s an area he feels comfortable in, given his plethora of holdings in other local bars, nightclubs and restaurants, including the venerable Buffalo Chophouse where Croce recently completed a transformational top to bottom remodel and overhaul after 13 strong years of operating Buffalo’s only prime steakhouse. “I build the box, and I build the operations inside of the box.”
To give an idea of how upscale, Curtiss Hotel room rates are estimated to start in the $200/night range, and will go up from there depending on the time of year, availability, etc… Suites, including the ultra-luxurious Presidential Suite on the top floor, will obviously fetch a higher rate. “It’s a yield management business”, he explains, “we will assess pricing based on supply and demand”.
The Curtiss From the Ground Up
Entering from Franklin Street, a visitor is greeted by a very high open hallway with the original detailed terra cotta tiles on either side (Figure 1). This opens up into a main lobby area (Figure 2) which will house a front desk and check-in area. The hydraulic scaffolding system in the foreground of the picture is necessary to construct the new elevator shaft, which is being built to fit through the square openings cut in each of the seven thick concrete floors.
The elevators themselves are incorporating some leading edge technology. Croce explains that the two new high-speed elevators will travel 350 vertical feet/minute (standard elevator speed is 200’/minute), with one being dedicated for express service to the rooftop patio and lounge. They are so fast, the doors actually start to open before the elevators reach their destination.
Although they are very high-tech, they are going to have a retro ‘old-world’ design, complete with special period doors and rotary dial floor indicators to keep with the period design. He estimates he is spending $650,000 alone on installing these elevators with this state-of-the art high-speed technology. “You won’t see elevators like this anywhere in Western New York”, he insists. “It makes a big impression on people when they push a button, and they’re getting off at their floor three seconds later”.
In the southeast corner of the building nearest the intersection of Franklin and W. Huron, a 27’ diameter round revolving bar will be constructed, inspired by the old “Chez Ami” Supper Club which previously existed downtown on Delaware Avenue. The customers will rotate with the bar around the center column (Figure 3). The picture shows the red-dotted line showing the outline of the rotating platform, with the supporting column in the middle. The bar is designed to rotate three-hundred and sixty degrees every half hour, or two full revolutions per hour. The exterior of the bar along Franklin and Huron is being clad in new tall storefront glass, which is behind the plywood panels seen in the background of the picture. The idea is to give patrons an unobstructed view of the surrounding street and buildings.
To the west of this corner bar area will be two private dining rooms (Figure 4) with a folding partition in the middle, so that they can be converted to one large room if required (think private parties and conferences). The far west wall of the dining area will be taken up by kitchen space, along with a stairwell to the basement, where another support kitchen will be located. The ground-floor restaurant – whose theme is not yet disclosed – will provide full-service breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. The ground-floor dining operation is expected to house around 150 people, plus another 50 or so people at the bar, bringing the total entertaining capacity of the first floor to around 200+ customers.
Full-service valet parking will be provided to all guests and customers, completely free of charge at all times. You will not find another downtown hotel that provides this amenity free of charge.
Also at ground level will be an outdoor ‘urban hot spring’ that will be able to be utilized year round indoors & outdoors. This is essentially a Roman Bath designed for use in cold Buffalo winters. “When it’s minus five outside, you can still be underneath the stars with snow falling on your head while sitting in 104 degree water.”
The basement turned out to be a real challenge for the development team (Figure 5), and brought some setbacks. At the initiation of the project, it was discovered the water table was immediately beneath the concrete floor, which complicated work immensely. The original concrete slab had to be removed (Figure 6), and a special ‘dewatering’ pump system had to be installed to continuously remove the water so that the elevator shaft pit – which runs even deeper – could be installed (Figure 7). The system had to be large enough to drop the water level by 12 feet, and its presence is evidenced by a crisscross of large pipes and valves. “This was an enormous undertaking”, says Croce, who estimates this delayed construction by about a month. “This thing was a $200,000 headache.”
Once a new 5” concrete slab floor is poured, the basement will be fully usable and a functioning part of the hotel. Bathrooms will be located down here, as will be the fitness center, men’s salon, storage space, on-premise laundry, and a secondary support kitchen.
A particularly impressive feat of engineering is the construction of the elevator shafts through cutting successive square openings through each thick reinforced concrete floor. Looking up the shaft (see Figures 8 & 9), one appreciates the precision that is required to align everything perfectly through seven floors of a period structure.
On each of the room floors, tradesman are everywhere putting up walls and the getting ready to install the many fine touches that will define the Curtiss Hotel experience (Figure 10). Croce confirms that every window in the building had to be rebuilt or replaced, at an expense in excess of $600,000. In order to obtain historic tax credits, the hotel had to order a particular type of window consistent with the building’s design, which drove up costs. “That was one of the compromises we had to meet to qualify for historic tax credits. It’s not free money”, Croce explains.
Guests will control their rooms completely electronically from a custom-designed bedside panel – from opening the drapes to turning on the lights or setting the temperature in the room….even Pandora music feeds and room service. “We’re probably the first establishment in the United States to have something this detailed”, Croce maintains. It wasn’t cheap being first – he estimates this unique technology and all of its systems integration cost nearly $1MM of project funds alone.
Much attention has been given to the spa inspired bathrooms, with Croce adding digital multi-head showers with side-sprays and rain heads to every room, along with $2,500 Toto toilets and washlets replete with electronic self-cleaning technology and bidets. Thirty bathrooms will also contain a Bain Ultra airjet soaking tub with “aroma cloud” and “chromatherapy”, with the higher-end rooms also having steam showers capable of providing chromatherapy and aromatheraphy. Imported Spanish and Italian Marble and other high-end building materials will figure prominently throughout the bathrooms and the public areas of the property.
Croce makes no secret of his distaste for typical chain hotels with “cookie-cutter” room layouts. “Every room here is unique, and custom-designed. No two room designs are alike anywhere in the Curtiss Hotel.”
The detail work is being looked after by well-known and reputable local interior designer Paul LaMorticella of “Dream Designs & More”, who has been involved in selecting almost everything the customer sees, feels or interacts with: furniture, fabric, carpeting, colors and décor. The high quality construction management is being overseen by Buffalo’s own R&P Oak Hill Development, LLC. Croce has assembled a great design, development and construction team to bring this unique high-end concept to market.
The rooftop-level patio lounge is another differentiator to set the Curtiss Hotel apart, and is costing over $1MM to build and create. Steel framing stands everywhere, illustrating where walls will be going up to create a sophisticated, sheltered, heated outdoor experience with a stunning view of the surrounding urban skyline (see photos). Rooftop guests will be served by a covered bar in one corner, and will be protected from the rain and cold through protective structures and heat. In addition to a network of infrared heaters, the central feature will be a giant fire pit. With these elements in place, the Curtiss rooftop patio bar and lounge will be able to extend its season long after other outdoor patios close up for the summer.
Croce sees the target demographic for this bar to be the more sophisticated adult crowd. The only other local rooftop venue he sees as being remotely on the same level is SkyBar, one of his many existing bar/restaurant holdings. “Nobody’s got a view like this”, he explains, “not even SkyBar.”
Beyond Bricks and Mortar
Building a high-end hotel is one thing, but running it is quite another. Much will depend on the management team, and the service levels they will maintain. In this way, Croce’s other big challenge will lie in the recruiting of the best of the best management and staff who will deliver on the brand’s promise.
It’s one thing to put in an elegant rooftop patio or high-speed elevators, but the human component usually proves to be the greater challenge in consistently providing that ‘beyond expectations’ customer experience.
In recognition of this fact, the Curtiss Hotel is about to embark on an aggressive hiring spree to fill the open positions needed to run the hotel and food & beverage outlets. Leaving no stone unturned in the search for the best talent, “well-paying” key operations management and culinary talent positions are going to be advertised across the country. “The key people have to be on board at least six months in advance of the opening of the property.”
There is little doubt that Mark Croce is taking on some risk in putting up such a grand hotel, but it also reflects well on the current bullishness in Buffalo that is prevailing for the first time in decades. Leading many other Rust Belt cities, Buffalo’s revival has been steep. It wouldn’t have been that long ago that anyone positing a project like the Curtiss Hotel would be written off as a dreamer. I choose to interpret the arrival of the Curtiss Hotel as representing a new high water mark for the city, and another incremental move in revitalizing the downtown core with its storied historic architecture.
Readers can follow the progress of the Curtiss Hotel at facebook.com/CurtissHotel
Photography: Bruce Haydon.
Exterior picture by Gio Centurione.