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TRAVEL

The Brentwood, Saratoga Springs

TRAVEL

The Brentwood, Saratoga Springs

A design studio tackles their most personal project yet: their own hotel

by Nara Shin
on 31 March 2017

Driving onto the Brentwood Hotel's gravel courtyard—which itself clamors with growls of welcome—one can't help but let out a sigh of relief. It's a four-hour commitment from NYC, and the Taconic State Parkway doesn't offer much to look at in the colder months. But there's already an outdoor fire wailing away and records playing in the cozy, five-stool lobby. Despite the petite nature of these lodgings—at one story, and 12 rooms—the reception desk makes a big impression with its high gloss black paint, antique furnishings, and tasteful gold embellishments. A motel it isn't, the Brentwood seems to be declaring despite its former life as one built in the 1970s (the only thing preserved is the L-shaped structure and its name). It is, however, a labor of love from its owners Studio Tack, who took a break from designing other company's properties to try out their own for the first time.

We headed up north to speak with the Brooklyn-based design studio's founding members about the perils and perks of nurturing your own property. To emphasize: Saratoga Springs is not the best place to visit in the winter unless you are an avid snowshoer (though some might appreciate the quiet, especially when Skidmore College is on break). Their famed mineral springs, which shoot from public fountains, are frozen over. We tried our best to envision what summer is like here—when the city's population triples, for good reason. Both the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra do residences at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center; Yaddo has hosted artists (from Sylvia Plath to David Foster Wallace) on retreat since the 1920s; but what brings the hordes are the races—the highlight of the season being the Travers Stake (last year saw a $1.25 million purse).

And that is the Brentwood's biggest asset: pure geographic position. "There are B&Bs, but we are the only hotel or motel within visual eyeline and rock distance from the racetrack," Studio Tack partner Jou-Yie Chou tells CH. Typically, visitors to the Saratoga Race Course have to stay at least a mile away, or at the Saratoga Casino and Hotel (still a 20-minute walk away). Not many can say they've seen horses processing from the stables and paddocks to the track from their hotel room window, but the Brentwood Hotel guests do, during the season—basically up until Halloween, then the horses go warm up in Florida. "It's pretty unique," says Chou, "It's the only track in America that it happens, that a horse processes on a public street to the racetrack."

As for the hotel itself, it's gorgeous. Brass light fixtures and oil paintings scored at Brimfield, Massachusetts' famed flea market mix with cast iron tables and antique wooden chairs. Woodworker Dave Cummings handmade the custom beds at his nearby wood shop in Bolton Landing; atop the luxury mattress are Sharktooth's hand-dyed French linen blankets. The practical budget choices—like side tables from Pottery Barn—blend in seamlessly, evidence of Studio Tack's experience and knowing what battles to pick. "Spend money on what your hand is touching, and spend less money on what your feet are touching; or what your eye can see but what your hand can't," advises Chou. "So if you walk into your room, it's a painted plywood floor. But then when you walk into the bathroom, there are super high-end brass fixtures. Or you look at the tiles—pretty cheap tiles—but then you go your bed that you actually sit in, very, very nice 100% cotton."

Fellow partner Leigh Salem tells CH on their shared vision, "When we walked this property initially everyone was on the same page. We wanted this place very much to have a mood to it, and be able to have a personality. We all knew what we were making." Partner Brian Smith adds, "This place is a little moody. It's handsome. Those are key words. It wasn't like, this is going to be all-white and glittery, airy and open. We're like, no, it's going to be a little sinister."

"You're only here for three nights," says Chou. "This is not your home. This is an experience that is literally a manifestation of our minds. It's a little theatrical, right? We're pulling you into our interpretation of what a Saratoga trackside motel renovation should be. It doesn't need to be as comfortable as your home. It needs to be transformative, experiential enough that it extracts you from your regular day-to-day." Hence, the all-dark bathroom that Studio Tack has been dying to do for awhile, but all clients of theirs to date have turned down. "Have you ever seen one in a house?" says Smith. "I haven't, no one ever thinks of it." But it actually works here at the Brentwood: the reflective properties of the high gloss black paint are more than enough luminosity for a bathroom.

Refreshingly different from Barcelona's Casa Bonay, the 19th century mansion Studio Tack helped restore into a hotel, or their Hudson Valley project Scribner's Catskill Lodge—the Brentwood feels very much a personal endeavor, rather than a copy-paste of Studio Tack's résumé (which can happen when design studios grow older). "This area has a self-selecting population and culture that comes to it every single year, during the race season," says Smith. "Outside of the race season—it's great that it is close-ish to NYC, but there are a lot of populations up here of people who aren't being really served by physical cultures like this, but deserve it. That live in Albany, that live in the area. I think Ruben [Caldwell, the fourth partner], his friends and his family, are a testament to that—they all live up here, within an hour, half-hour drive."

Right across the road is "the best bar in Saratoga": Horseshoe Inn Bar & Grill, which re-opens for the season every March, and is the place to be for live music until around 11PM, when folks move downtown. (Lesser known is their track breakfast, available within a minute's walk from your room). Downtown, the options are diverse: Henry St. Taproom for craft beer and fireplace fiends, El Mexicano where the buck goes far (we encountered free chips and salsa, free quesadillas, free tequila shots, and free dessert à la tortilla, banana and whipped cream), and Southern and Louisiana food of immense proportions at decades-long staple Hattie's Restaurant (the password to the speakeasy is "jambalaya").

The Studio Tack guys can't enjoy their summer getaway for too long, as they are textbook workaholics. They've just transformed a 1950s motel into a 49-room beaut in the Wyoming ski town Jackson Hole; the just-opened Anvil Hotel avoids the country rustic cliches and instead emanates relaxed sophistication. (The fourth member of Studio Tack, Ruben Caldwell, was absent during the interview because he had moved to Jackson Hole to dedicate himself full-time to the project; a sign of Studio Tack's dedication). Other hotels in the pipeline take them all over the country: Portland, Oregon and Long Island, New York and a hush-hush project in California.

Catch the off-season rate right now starting at $125, or plan in advance to reserve a room during race season. This year's dates are from 21 July to 4 September, with Travers Stakes taking place on Saturday, 26 August 2017. Peak rates start at $375; keeping in mind that there are only 12 rooms, check availability and reserve online at the Brentwood.

Lobby image courtesy of Read McKendree, all other images by Cool Hunting

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