Anatomy of a Scene: The Ace Hotel

It’s an unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon in January and a menagerie of bright blue construction equipment is wallowing in the sunlight of 29th and Broadway, where a big, high pasture of plywood now wraps around the entire street corner. The Ace Hotel is taking over.

The Ace, the first East Coast outpost of the buzzworthy Portland hotel mini-chain, has become the centerpiece of a neighborhood that enthusiastic developers have awkwardly dubbed both “NoMad” (North of Madison Square Park) and “SoMa” (South of Macy’s, in a nod to the dotcom-heavy San Francisco district of the same name) with little success. Those who have office space here might say they’re based in Chelsea, the Flatiron, or even the Garment District, so as to avoid the unpleasantness of admitting that they work in the dreary expanse to the southeast of Penn Station. But for the people who have colonized the Ace’s lobby from early morning through late night, that’s part of the charm. “I mean, look at the area it’s in. You walk outside and there’s some guy trying to sell you suitcases for five bucks,” says Remington Guest (“Yes, that’s my real name,” he adds), a dapper 21-year-old from Hoboken who’s made the Ace into a second home. The CUNY Baruch undergrad, who is employed at the edgy Tribeca fashion outlet Opening Ceremony and also works as a model, is seated this afternoon on the end of one of the worn-out crimson velvet couches that fill the back of the hotel lobby. Guest, who has shown up to the Ace today wearing a dark green-and-blue striped oxford artfully half-buttoned over a thermal shirt and accessorized with a plaid neck scarf, says he first found out about the Ace in October “from one of the trillion blogs I read. “He was already familiar with the neighborhood because a half dozen modeling agencies are headquartered within a few blocks, he stopped by. “It’s in such a surprising area,” he says. “It was like a hidden bar in itself.” The Ace, arguably, is the neighborhood now. It’s already home to Spotted Pig sibling restaurant The Breslin, which is decorated to stuff the arteries of well-moneyed Chicago slaughterhouse barons, and the compact and sunlit Stumptown Coffee Roasters, whose young staff appear in a uniform of tweed fedoras and forearm tattoos. Soon, they’ll be joined by an array of attractions rarely seen this side of Las Vegas Boulevard: a sub shop run by No. 7‘s Tyler Kord, a branch of Opening Ceremony (much to Guest’s delight), and the much-talked-about basement bar, which either has a Tin Pan Alley theme or a vintage boxing theme or maybe both. But the heart of the Ace beats in the lobby, with its Ivy League reading-room tables, a bar serving up Old Fashioneds and the cult favorite Porkslap Pale Ale, a vintage-style photobooth, and a massive, tattered American flag on the wall. There’s something very college-common-room about it (minus the pajamas): On any given day you might run into packs of MacBook-toting Internet entrepreneurs, professorial 40-somethings chatting over Stumptown lattes (yes, Malcolm Gladwell’s been spotted there), disheveled hipsters dreamily scribbling in Moleskine notebooks, the occasional legitimate celebrity (Tobey Maguire! Ethan Hawke!) or a collective of graphic designers gathered around the end of the long table, their colorful samples spilling out of satchels on the floor. You might forget that it’s actually a hotel, and wonder why that family with German accents is sitting around looking at an upside-down MTA subway map. Ugh, they’re taking up a choice spot next to the taxidermied badgers. The Ace regulars — Acers? Aceheads? Acicles?– greet the constant bustle with a giddy curiosity, expecting something even cooler to be just around the corner. At the same time, they’re concerned about the hotel’s continuing buzz and what it’ll do to their secret clubhouse. Like a school cafeteria, the cliques of the Ace don’t necessarily adore one another. “There’s so many laptops,” Remington Guest says, sipping from a cup of green tea. “[Once] I was sitting at the middle table and there was a guy playing Starcraft.”

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One man who can usually be found in the Ace lobby with his laptop — a PC, not a Mac — is Charlie O’Donnell, entrepreneur-in-residence at venture capital firm First Round Capital. O’Donnell, 30, boasts the distinction of being the “mayor” of the Ace Hotel on mobile networking service Foursquare, a title given to the person who “checks in” to a given venue the most frequently (on BlackBook’s own iPhone app, for example … Guest, also a Foursquare user, says he’s made it a goal to oust O’Donell as mayor.) In November, O’Donnell wrote a blog post called “Will the Ace Hotel embrace the innovation community?” in which he detailed the Ace lobby’s emergence as a social hub for the local tech-entrepreneur scene, and wondered whether the hotel would start to crack down on their presence, considering they are technically taking up seating and hogging the Wi-Fi. They didn’t, and several months later, O’Donnell’s still there almost every day. But the Ace’s daytime set isn’t entirely sold on the after-work crowd that waltzs in every evening. Speaking of a recent Saturday night, Guest says warily, “There was a line out the door, with bouncers. I didn’t even know they did that here.” He doesn’t spend much time at the Ace after dark, preferring its daytime scene–particularly in the morning, when most of the laptops haven’t yet flickered on. By the late afternoon, Guest says, “it’s an obvious shift. The lights go completely dim. They bring candles out, and light them up. Some people with laptops stay, but they start drinking.” In the late evening hours, I receive a text message from a friend — let’s call him Jesse. A 27-year-old digital advertising professional who lives in Williamsburg and is meticulously up-to-speed on the latest in the local music scene, Jesse is the prototypical Acehead. You’ll find him there during the day, sure, but he’s also keen to be part of its after-hours cabal. “Do u still have an ace hotel room key from when u stayed there?” Jesse texts me, referring to a time several months ago when, in between apartments, I’d nabbed once of the Ace’s “bunk bed” rooms to share with an out-of-town friend. A great deal by Manhattan standards, assuming you like the summer-camp vibe. I text him back. I tell him I might still have the key around; I’m a pack rat, after all. But I want to know: why does he want it? When Jesse replies, it’s a text message tinged with that breed of male frustration unique to the wrong side of a Manhattan velvet rope: “Because it’s getting popular to a point where guys needed one to get in.”