Hotel Palomar Philadelphia: An Interview with Designer Dayna Lee

Just off of Walnut Street, in the heart of Rittenhouse Square, lies a historic Art Deco skyscraper called The Architects Building. Designed by Paul Philippe Cret in 1929, it has been home to the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) since 1930. Until now, that is. Today, it is a Kimpton hotel. But wait, this is not your typical historical-building-demolition-gentrification horror story. No, this project is a story of respect, imagination and forethought...

Hotel Palomar is San Francisco-based Kimpton's first hotel in Philadelphia. But it is also its 11th adaptive reuse project and its first LEED-registered hotel. And, is as the case with most Kimpton properties, it is a hotel that celebrates both the historical significance of its site and the unique character of the city in which it's located. While all new mechanical systems have been installed to make the building run more efficiently, great care has been taken to preserve many of its more visible, noteworthy features: the crown molding in the penthouse ballroom; the gorgeous AIA library on the 24th floor; the elaborately etched elevator doors and the tile mosaic in the elevator lobby.

In addition to respecting the building itself, an effort has also been made to respect its original inhabitants - Philadelphia architects. Meeting rooms have been named after notable professionals in the field as a way of honoring their contributions to the city's architecture. Those represented are Julian Abele (who, in 1902, was the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture and a contributor to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Free Library of Philadelphia); Frank Lloyd Wright (for his last completed project, Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park); I.M. Pei (for his work on the Society Hill Towers) and Paul Philippe Cret (UPenn professor and designer of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Rodin Museum, Rittenhouse Square and The Architects Building, itself).

Most Kimpton hotels tell a story, and this one is all about "Art in Motion," an idea that embraces art in its many forms - visual, film, fashion, dance and yes, architecture. Recently, I interviewed the project's interior designer, Dayna Lee of Powerstrip Studio, to find out more about the concept for the hotel, the challenges and rewards of sustainable design, and the resulting imaginative interiors.
Thanks for sharing, Dayna!

How did you come to work on the Hotel Palomar?

The Owner of Hotel Palomar, Kimpton Hotels, invited us to work on this great building and it was truly an honor. We also designed a successful Kimpton hotel in Aspen, called Sky.

What interested you most about the project?

The most alluring part of the project is the juxtaposition of the building and the goal; we were challenged to gut the tall historic building and turn it into one of with most cutting edge sustainable systems and make it luxurious. The team set our sights for a Silver LEED certification and the project was awarded Gold.

Have you worked on other sustainable projects?

Yes, we are always endeavoring to make our projects sustainable, whether or not the property's owner seeks a LEED certification. It is part of our studio's being with all things considered.

How would you describe your concept for the hotel?

The original highly respected architecture of Palomar Philadelphia has been intelligently layered beneath and between the sleek, art-filled spaces of the hotel. The design is delicately inspired by historical references, which pays a modern homage to Federal Philadelphians. We mix a simple fabric palette of muslin and linen with expensive plush textures and then engineer the material to be woven of recycled content. A collaboration with Architect, General Contractor and Owner still exists to make the sustainability seamless with the design.

How were the historical elements of the original Architect's building incorporated into the design?

Philadelphia's 1920's Architects Building is a slender art deco tower. Our design intent to convert it to the luxury Palomar Philadelphia hotel is respectful to the discipline of architecture by recognizing and emphasizing the lines, weight and era of the building. We designed and constructed interior art deco elements which feel as though it might have been there although we expressed the shapes more overtly. For example, we designed a dramatic stepped ceiling in the lobby which leads straight to the lobby fireplace.

Can you talk about how the desire for LEED certification impacted the interior design of the hotel? Did this sustainability goal make you feel restricted in your design?

I made a conscious decision to have our strict efforts towards achieving LEED certification not affect our interior design in a compromising way. There are magnificent ways to achieve LEED certification while maintaining plush high end luxury. For example, just by using paints and adhesives which do not have volatile compounds, one can sleep fitfully without the invisible off-gassing. And that is a luxury too.

Were there any 'happy accidents' that occurred as the result of these restrictions?

We look forward to the 'happy accidents' in all projects. Those are gifted surprises. The Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia required us to keep certain rooms intact. There are rooms on the top floor which were preserved and became the natural location for our ballroom and parlor. Now we enjoy a bright airy penthouse ballroom like a crown.

What role did the city of Philadelphia play in your design?

Philadelphia flirts heavily in our artwork. Modern art co-exists with powdered wigs. Ironic and sincere best describes the art collection that includes local and U.S. paintings, sculpture and multi-media, which is apparent upon arrival. An abstract portrait of Ben Franklin greets you under the awning at the entrance.

What was the greatest challenge of the project?

Wading through various products and materials' discerning different levels of sustainability of products while identifying those that should not claim to be. That was time consuming.

What's your favorite part of the design?

Our entrance into the Lobby is an extreme change of the former cold and forgotten Architects Building Lobby. Our living room showcases a sculpted modern deco fireplace finished with white glass [overlay] of recycled composite glass. Museum quality hand tufted rugs lay beneath our custom designed furnishings. Guests walk through installations of 2-dimensional brass sculpture inlaid in the wood floors. The dining table base of gold metal sculpture is inspired by Philippe Hiquily. A beautiful folding screen is made out of layers of reflective glass with each layer scribbled with a theoretical argument presented by various architects.

What design ideas/lessons can Apartment Therapy readers take from the Hotel Palomar and apply to their own homes?

The most clever and responsible thing one can do with materials and furnishings is to not order something that requires more natural resources to be cut down and then - to further make things worse- packed and shipped with a ton of boxes and popcorn.. Buy vintage or used locally. Re-purpose materials or an object with some clever thought.

Only use No-VOC or Low VOC paints and adhesives in your home. The difference in the health of yourself and family is imperative and how lovely your house and textiles will be without a tinge of volatile fumes.

What are you working on now?

We are working on several grand projects. One unveils in a few weeks - The Surfcomber Miami in South Beach - another Kimpton property. We have a sweet design that lead guests all the way to the surf.

For more information about Dayna Lee, visit Powerstrip Studios

More about the Hotel Palomar Philadelphia on Apartment Therapy:
Hotel Palomar
10 Fabulous Hotels That Even Pets Can Enjoy

(Image: Hotel Palomar Philadelphia)