(Bloomberg) -- A 1960s office block in central London might seem an unlikely place to build a treehouse, but that’s exactly what billionaire hotelier Barry Sternlicht has done.
The Treehouse Hotel is the first iteration of a new brand from the mastermind who created W Hotels in 1995, served as chief executive officer of Starwood Hotels, and founded Baccarat’s hotel chain in 2015. According to Sternlicht and his partners at Starwood Capital Group, it’s intended to be an offshoot of 1 Hotels, the company’s popular eco-luxury brand, with outposts in Manhattan, Miami, Brooklyn, N.Y., and West Hollywood, Calif.
The concept’s inaugural location fills the top floors of a 16-story tower that has 95 rooms, a rooftop bar called the Nest, and a small smattering of food and coffee venues, both on the ground floor and on the 15th floor.
Arguably, the views alone could justify the name, since the 360-degree outlook from the roof deck offers tremendous sights of the British capital—from Canary Wharf and the Shard to the BT Tower and the London Eye. But treehouses offer campy nostalgia, not Baccarat-style comfort. So what’s it like to sleep in this one? We checked in to find out.
Finding the front desk isn’t exactly an intuitive matter, being that it’s on the 15th floor. Getting there requires walking through the ground-floor coffee shop to the elevators—and maybe asking a barista. But once you do arrive, the namesake concept is impossible to ignore. Throughout the public areas, walls are covered in bark and shingles. Much of the furniture is made from wood or rattan. Light fixtures are either bare filament lightbulbs or pulled-from-the-campsite kerosene lamps (fitted with LEDs). Potted plants hang from ceilings everywhere; finding a stack of old-school board games here is as easy as finding a child playing Candy Crush in the airport.
All this verges on feeling gimmicky. If it fails to wow, the panorama of London behind the front desk does not. And the staff’s talents go beyond looking the part (you know, young and hip). They’re friendly, helpful, and can provide all manner of recommendations—down to the best local poetry slam.
Sleeping in one of Sternlicht’s treehouse rooms doesn’t feel like home from a design perspective—unless you happen to live in a summer camp bunkhouse in upstate New York—but it does deliver on the technological comforts of our everyday lives. Via the hotel’s propriety mobile app, you can manage every aspect of your stay from check-in to check-out, request an “in-room picnic,” communicate with staff, and find out what’s happening in the area. It’s easy to stream Netflix or Spotify from your phone to the giant smart TV. But there’s one glaring omission that’s surely a dealbreaker for some: There’s no gym or spa.
Besides the kitsch, the room decor is more luxury Shoreditch loft than suburban Surrey treehouse. The floors are wooden, and the bare cement walls say warehouse, not 9-to-5 wage slaves. The area rug is a patchwork kilim, the comfortable club chair an unidentifiable vintage velour. In the corner near the walk-in rain shower is a decadent freestanding copper and steel roll-top soaking bath, with rubber duckie and phone/tablet stand—luxury with a wink. And in the spirit of 1 Hotels, there are nods to sustainability, such as the large, refillable bottles of local body soaps and shampoos. The white cotton sheets are organic, as is the fair-trade Karma Cola in the minibar. All this isn’t bad for the price point: consistently under $300 a night.
Aspects can feel alienating, though. Instead of creating a fantasy around a ubiquitous concept—being surrounded by nature, for instance—the design leans hard on Americana. A baseball bat sits on a bench next to the closet, with a fielder’s mitt hanging above. Vintage bedside reading books such as Winter Sunshine, by early 20th century American naturalist John Burroughs, are piled under a Magic 8 Ball; across the room is a tome about baseball cards. Only one hard-bound selection, Harvard Classics No. 27, bothered to feature English authors. A sense of place, it seems, was far from Sternlicht’s priority.
Like the decor, Madera—the 15th floor Mexican restaurant—is sometimes contrived and often overly American, down to the unusually large portions. Its sharing-style menu (influenced largely by California’s Mexican restaurants, not Mexico’s Mexican restaurants) includes a queso fundido appetizer with chili and mushrooms that could send four guests rolling out the door; the house specialty, simply called “Rocks,” consists of beef, chicken, or shrimp served sizzling on hot “lava stones.” Skip that in favor of something lighter and more market-driven, such as the fish of the day; on our visit, it was a generous seared halibut steak served with watercress, radish, and roast baby potatoes.
Or pass Madera up entirely in favor of the rooftop bar, one floor above. Yes, it’s called the Nest, and it’s got more bark, more wood, more hanging plants. No, it doesn’t have the lofty ambitions to compete with the Connaught a few blocks away. But such cocktails as the sour House Finch (with vodka, gooseberry, and egg white) have a fun bird theme, and the prices are reasonable. Gin & tonics start at £10 ($13). We’ll bring visitors here for the views alone.
The Bottom Line
It doesn’t take long to realize that Treehouse is Sterlicht’s American dream—not a British one. Sure, treehouses are mythic in Britain, too—think Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred-Acre Wood or the Treetop Walkway at London’s Kew Gardens—but the far more ubiquitous British backyard fascination is the humble shed, loved by everyone from eccentric tinkerers to former Prime Minister David Cameron as his £25,000 writing hut. (A shed-themed hotel may have to wait, but when it comes, we’re there.) Ultimately, Treehouse is too hemmed inside its forest lookout; the jokes fall flat for anyone outside the club.
This might be the master plan: to give guests the feeling of being on vacation, not just in London or Paris or Amsterdam (or whatever cities may come next), but also a child’s backyard in 1950s Anytown, U.S.A. A brand that doesn’t demand customization for each market would certainly be easier to scale. (Additional locations in the U.S. and abroad are expected to be announced soon.)
The concept has its limitations. But the views don’t—and in this case, those alone are worth a return.
To contact the author of this story: Timothy Coulter in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
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