Updating a Grande Dame

If the just-renovated Latham feels more like an elite apartment building than a trendy hotel, that’s because it started out that way when it was built a century ago.

Grandly positioned at the northeast corner of one of Center City’s most prime intersections — 17th and Walnut Streets — it was only transformed into a hotel in the 1970s, a prescient, if contrary, move by a group of investors. At a time when commercial buildings were being converted to apartments, this group took a chance in the opposite direction, presaging a hotel boom that started in the ’80s and has been occasionally revisited, in spurts, every decade.

In recent years, however, under the ownership of Ocean Properties, this small European-style hotel had begun to look a little tired. Its restaurant and bar remained shrouded from the street, completely wasting its excellent vantage, and the yesteryear appeal of its gracious lobby shifted from refined to hopelessly old-fashioned.

Finally, the hotel closed for the first seven months of last year so guest rooms could be redone. They now sport a palette of neutrals enlivened with metallic tones of gold and steely blue. For the first time since the ’70s, the white marble floors of the bathrooms have been uncovered, and timeless black and white photos of City Hall line the walls.

Meanwhile, during the last six months or so, the hotel’s public spaces have been gradually updated. This Thursday marks the official completion of the renovation.

Most remarkable has been the gutting and rebuilding of the first two floors, handled by local firm BLT Architects. The distinctive plasterwork ceiling has been repainted and touched up, with new accents of periwinkle and cafe au lait added to what had been a muted monotone cream. The fitness center has relocated from a windowless space to a more expansive one offering views of the Walnut Street parade below.

Best of all, last month a new restaurant, Urban Enoteca, started welcoming customers. Its timing was excellent — when location scouts for “Dead Man Down,” the Colin Farrell-starrer that recently completing shooting in town, noticed the then-empty corner spot, they asked general manager John Byrns if they could stage the space as a trendy Manhattan restaurant.

“We told him that that was exactly what we had planned, anyway,” laughs Byrns. Originally aiming for a May 1 opening, Byrns delayed the restaurant’s debut by a few days and garnered a ton of advance publicity in the bargain.

Since then, every time I’ve passed — peeking in the now-open windows, stopping by to use the familiar restrooms (re-designed but in the same spot) or nosing up to the bar for a drink and a chance to catch the end of a Phillies game — at least some people, and often many of them, have been availing themselves of the space.

For Joe Broderick, a hotel doorman who’s been standing guard since the beginning — he’s been at the hotel for 42 years — the change has been a long time coming.

“I’m so glad to see this work being done,” Broderick says. Waylaid by the economy, the property lost ground as the Sofitel and the Palomar stepped up the city’s hospitality game, he observes. “We’ve had some catching up to do.”

With the hotel’s new modern touches, Broderick’s look has been refreshed, too. Gone is the vaguely equestrian uniform that so distinguished the hotel’s doormen before. “It all looked great, but those boots were very uncomfortable,” Broderick laughs. “It took me three months to break them in.”

His boxy black ensemble may be slightly hipper, but no one will ever mistake the avuncular Broderick for a Stephen Starr greeter. And that is as it should be at the Latham. As with the nearby Art Alliance, which is hosting its own (latest) restaurant incarnation, this is one classic public space that clings resolutely and lovingly to its glory days.

It may be striving for a piece of the lounge pie with its new, semi-secret lobby space on the other side of the hotel reception area. It may offer a big screen TV and game tables to encourage guests — and perhaps savvy local denizens — to hang out awhile. And it may feature touches like wallpaper inflected with fiberglass gold threads and plush carpet splashed with deep purple paisley to remind them that this is not your granddad’s den.

But, there she is, holding pride of place in a pantheon of over-sized photos of Philadelphia’s Hollywood celebrities. Grace Kelly, a serene and lovely reminder that here, as elsewhere in town, the past is always present.

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco

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