Downtown, where all the lights are bright, the pillows are cushy and the Gummi Bears are pricey but plentiful.
In 1975, I was a desk clerk at Seattle’s now-vanished Windsor Hotel, at Sixth and Union. It wasn’t posh: I had to rescue two guests and a go-go dancer from assault by a mad cabdriver in my lobby. My boss offered me a permanent Windsor Hotel room for free, but I was too scared to sleep there.
Since then I’ve traveled something like a million miles to hotels on assignment. At a Pittsburgh movie shoot, I lost a snowball fight to John Cusack and Benicio del Toro; at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, I befriended Janeane Garofalo’s frolicsome dogs by the eucalyptus-sheltered pool.
I’m a connoisseur of homes away from home. Everybody should sleep around in hotels, even in their hometown. As Samuel Johnson put it, “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.”
Hotels are a world unto themselves. They also open your eyes to the world around them. For this new column, I’ll visit different hotels, from chic to shabby, and report on the experience, sometimes accompanied by my wife, Mrs. Sleeping Around, sometimes solo. I’ll rendezvous with visiting authors or celebs, or recruit colorful guests for an impromptu party. Consider yourself invited to the parallel universe of Seattle hotels.
People have sought hotels ever since Joseph and Mary looked for a budget-priced double with a rollout cradle; American hotels have evolved as a microcosm of our national imagination, as A.K. Sandoval-Strausz shows in his recent book, Hotel: An American History. “Hotels offer their guests a temporary taste of luxuries,” he told me, “sumptuous surroundings not otherwise available to them.”
Maybe the ultimate U.S. hotel is imagined by Steven Millhauser in his Pulitzer-winning novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer — the thirty-story Grand Cosmo, containing a lake, a Moorish bazaar, a New England village and an insane asylum.
I read Martin Dressler at Seattle’s answer to the Grand Cosmo, the Sheraton Seattle Hotel. It’s the biggest in town, an entire city block, across the street from the site of my 1975 asylum, the Windsor. The street has gone from seedy to upscale. Where I saved the go-go girl now stands an Ann Taylor shop window. When one thousand chefs gather to toast über-chef Tom Douglas or the power elite honor Bill and Mimi Gardner Gates, it’s in the Sheraton’s seventy-five thousand square feet of event space.
Mrs. Sleeping Around and I discovered that the Sheraton lobby beats the old Windsor hands down. It’s capacious, yet warmed by cozy alcoves with flat-screen TVs and PCs and blue-chip local art on the walls. At the check-in desk, a Mark Tobey faces a Kenneth Callahan in a Northwest Mystic duel (Kenneth wins by a hair).
We scored a room on the thirtieth floor, affording Cosmo-worthy views of Elliott Bay and, just behind the point where Rainier Tower curves onto its skinny golf-tee base, the glittering jewel box of the Olympic Fairmont’s second-floor Georgian Room, where the hoity-toity take high tea.
Seattle looks better on high. Grand old buildings like the Washington Athletic Club reserve their fanciest terracotta flourishes for their upper floors. From our window (slightly splotched by a seagull evidently influenced by the Northwest Mystic painters), you see history on the march, from the stunning Art Deco Seattle Tower, a ziggurat boasting thirty-three shades of brick, to the rhyming pyramids atop the trendy W Hotel and the ancient Smith Tower. All over, condos sprout; some cost about what Ivar Haglund paid for the whole Smith Tower in 1976 ($1.8 million).
Lord knows what the Sheraton paid for its art collection. It claims to be the only hotel featuring two-dimensional Dale Chihuly art. We hated the poorly drawn work on the bedroom walls, though a piece above the toilet depicting a Chihuly chandelier was delightful. “Somebody’s gotta have the courage to tell Dale he’s not a draftsman, he’s a glass artist!” I complained.
Then we turned to the art of hotel TV. Fluffy yet compressible, two Sheraton pillows proved perfect to prop up our heads for a movie — anything from Juno to the adult channel’s What Women Really Want (which my wife doubts depicts any such thing). Disconcertingly, both a Disney Channel Hannah Montana episode and an adult-channel flick were titled “Hot Mom.”
Channel surfing gave us a “Hot Mom”-sized appetite. We just said no to the $8 Gummi Bears in their transparent bear-shaped jar by the TV and took the whooshingly swift elevator downstairs to the Daily Grill, cloned from a Beverly Hills–based chain.
Then we strolled to Pacific Place, downtown’s best mall-atrium, to catch a flick. And ran into . . . Dale Chihuly. Showing no courage whatsoever, I said, “Dale! Loved your piece in the Sheraton bathroom!” “You can see it in Chihuly Over Venice on DVD, or buy it on my Web site,” said Dale. “Though I think I sold most of ’em to the Sheraton.”
We returned to my favorite spot at the Sheraton: the pool. Dr. Sandoval-Strausz tells me that hotel pools have proliferated as public pools have declined. It’s that luxury fantasy. Back when I made $2 million overnight at Amazon.com, I hoped for a condo swimming pool. I lost the $2 million, but who needs it? The Sheraton pool’s commanding view of downtown I couldn’t have afforded even then.
You’ll have to wait until October to take your own Sheraton pool plunge. It’s closed for a $1.5 million renovation. This exemplifies a trend. “Around 1980,” says Sandoval-Strausz, “guests got bored with the industry’s standardization.” To bring the magic back, hotels started putting in new, eye-catching pools. “Some hotels even hire divers and assorted beautiful people to ornament those pools.” Note to Sheraton management: Mr. and Mrs. Sleeping Around are available!
Pool or no pool, it’s worthwhile to spend the night in a strange room. Instead of the tunnel vision you get on a business or shopping mission downtown, you see the city strictly for pleasure, like a flaneur in Paris. We saw new sights on streets we’ve seen a thousand times. Sleeping around can make you feel like a million (or in my case, two million) bucks. And it makes you realize that in every Windsor Hotel, there’s a Grand Cosmo yearning to be born.
Photo by Grant Ellis