Anthony Haden-Guest meets James Sherwin, general manager of the Mark — the latest in a line of grand hotels being turned into boutique hotels and apartments
James Sherwin and I seated ourselves in the Connaught. It had to be the Connaught, one of the world’s incontrovertibly grand hotels. Sherwin once worked in the Connaught Group and has also worked in New York’s Carlyle, another of the world’s incontrovertibly grand hotels.
Now he is the manager of the Mark, the venerable hotel which has been gutted and sleekly retrofitted just up Madison from the Carlyle. These are times of both subtle and obvious changes in post-sub-prime Manhattan and Sherwin is determined to put the Mark at the heart of them.
We drank white wine and got into the backstory. ‘I was born and brought up on a farm in Cheshire,’ Sherwin says. ‘But I knew I wasn’t going to be a farmer. And we used to go away with our grandparents on holidays to rather wonderful hotels. From the moment I walked in I was hooked! One day I said to my grandfather: “Can I go and look at the kitchen?” And he said: “Whatever for?”’
Sherwin, who has the artful artlessness of a PG Wodehouse character, was soon at hotel school, then the Savoy, where he got a job in the mid-1970s, including a gap year in Monte Carlo. ‘Which was huge fun,’ he says. ‘It was the last of the glamour days. I went to see Louis de Polignac, who was on the board, and said I would love to stay for longer. And he said: “James, you should stop thinking that right away. You’re far too young to stay in Monte Carlo. You’re not American, and as you can see we’re really into Americans. And you’re not Monégasque, which doesn’t make it easy.”’
Sherwin returned to the Savoy, where he stayed until 1991. ‘They were heady days. We didn’t use words like sales, and I had a wonderful card that had everything the company owned on it and no title. The then managing director Giles Shepard, who was very much my mentor, said: “As soon as you have a title and I send you to Hong Kong, you won’t get in to see the Jardines or whoever. But if I don’t put a title on it, they know they have to see you because it has all these important names on it.”’
But Sherwin dreamed of living in America. In 1991 he went to the Carlyle, where he stayed for ten years. Now: the Mark.
The Mark, which is owned by Alexico, a New York group that has developed and controls several hotels and residential buildings, will be very Manhattanesque in that it will be mostly hotel, plus some privately owned apartments. The catering is in the hands of the Alsace-born superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the place owes its look to a design team headed by Jacques Grange, the Parisian decorator.
‘It’s going to be very colourful,’ Sherwin says. ‘It’s quite innovative. Every piece of furniture is numbered, and beautifully, beautifully, beautifully made. I would say that it was cutting-edge but with comfort. You flop into your sofa, which is the most delicious mohair, and sit on your fauteuil, which is silver leaf over gold leaf with the most gorgeous fabric. But it’s not Louis. It’s quite simple but madly elegant. But it’s low-key.
‘I think there will be a group of people who will buy in because they need a pied-à-terre, rather than live there permanently. A lot of the interest is from abroad, and we will make it incredibly easy for them. It’s maybe really for people who want to be there overall only three months a year and hand back the keys to me and say: “James, you can let it if you want.” And we take good care of their possessions and put them into storage.’
And they would get some proportion of the rental? ‘It works out 50–50, which is a very hefty contribution to your maintenance. One of the things we are doing is having a plethora of choices of where you can go for your glass of wine or your cup of tea or you just want to sit down and NOT pay for anything. At the Carlyle we would have loved our gallery area to be bigger, because you don’t want to meet so-and-so in your room, of course. So we are going to make that into a whole new thinking. It will be very friendly but not familiar.’
So to the competition. I observed that the hoteliers André Balazs and Ian Schrager, twin avatars of downtown chic, have enviable connections.
‘Part of the raison d’?tre for employing me is that they’ve got their black books and so do I,’ Sherwin said. ‘I think there will be a movement by some people who left the Upper East Side to go downtown because they wanted a bit of buzz and youth. And we are going to have that at the Mark. I think we will bring some of the downtown business back uptown and breathe more life into that corner of New York.’