August 25, 2020

JSA Architecture and Nomah Transform a 19th-century Mexico City Structure into Hotel Umbral

A century-old structure in Mexico City is now Hotel Umbral, a 59-key property by JSA Architecture and Nomah that’s entered through a reception area defined by marble flooring and walls, a custom granite desk by JSA, and Nomah’s custom bench. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Here’s a quick Spanish lesson. Umbral means threshold. But it’s also the name of a chic contemporary hotel in Mexico City as well as the idea behind its signature concept. Mere steps from central Zocalo Square, Hotel Umbral is one of the city’s few design hotels, a surprising fact given the dynamic restaurant, bar, and arts scene that has been flourishing there pre-pandemic. Another fact about Hotel Umbral is the full-scale collab­oration between JSA Architecture’s Javier Sánchez and Nomah, the interiors studio helmed by founder Laura Natividad and partner Dania Gutiérrez, that brought the project to fruition. Working for years with Sánchez at JSA, the two women became fast friends before launching and joining, respectively, Nomah. “We can’t say where one stops and the other begins,” Sánchez says of the built-in collegi­ality that so successfully converted this five-story, pink limestone structure, now part of Hilton’s Curio Collection. 

The lobby stair is from 1924, but its treads and risers, clad in terrazzo, are new, as is the stainless-steel balustrade. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

“The building dates to the 19th century, when it was built as an office building, and went through four renovations,” the architect continues. “And its height was increased three times.” Then came the 1920s. That’s when the historic edifice was totally restructured with steel and masonry to house office suites, 59 of them to be exact. By the time JSA and Nomah came on board, it had been derelict for years. But its salient features, symbolic of the industrial age, were still there in full glory. The entry level’s gracefully curved stairway with stainless-steel railings is one such feature. More indicative is the skylight-capped atrium with its long corridors, runs of glass-block ceiling, and original glass mosaic flooring. It’s there that the building’s bones and its essence are celebrated. In accordance with the city’s landmark commission, JSA kept it intact.

Brass marks the transition from the ground-floor public space to back-of-house offices. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

The architecture and interiors teams, however, established the story line from the first step in. Guests literally and figuratively cross over from the din of the crowded, lively city streets to the quiet of the sedate, noir lobby, rendered so with dimmed lighting, black marble, tinted plaster, and a hefty granite  reception desk. Only a decorative ceiling composition of brass rods adds a glowing spark while simultaneously lowering scale. That’s the first threshold, and it’s unexpected. “Today, people assume to see everything at first view,” Sánchez notes. “This is a decompression chamber, it’s for resting.” The team also notes that the hushed sensibility was influenced by In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s essay on Japanese aesthetics. 

A suite’s foyer has a custom aluminum sconce. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

From the lobby, guests are drawn to the ceremonial stair, set against its existing pink terrazzo backdrop with flooring created to replicate the original. Procession from the lobby up to the start of the atrium on the second floor marks the next threshold. It’s essentially one from dark to light. The only design intervention here is the walls’ two shades of textured plaster, another part of the chiaroscuro story. Otherwise, everything is original to 1924, including the doors leading to the 47 standard guest rooms and 12 suites. 

Now part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, with restored wooden window frames, the 43,000-square-foot, five-story building’s limestone facade and rooftop signage also date to the early 20th century. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Again, JSA Architecture and Nomah adhered to existing conditions. (Nomah, incidentally, is Natividad’s made-up word with no known meaning. “I didn’t want my own name on the studio,” she explains.) Back in the day, when accommodations housed lawyers and accountants, each consisted of a small reception area preceding the office proper. The arrangement, in effect a mini suite, perfectly suits the building’s new incarnation.

Intentionally tempering scale, the decorative brass ceiling grid is custom by Nomah. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Now, each anteroom is seductively moody and dark, with more black plaster and terrazzo, while the sleeping area is its opposite: crisp and bright, with white draperies, marble flooring, and textured plaster walls. It’s scenographic and, according to Natividad, emotional. “It’s a sensuous experience,” Gut­iérrez concurs. Meanwhile, the contrast is underscored at the portal between the two. A shiny brass archway marks the trans­ition, a device employed throughout the Umbral. As for sizes, standard rooms encompass approximately 425 square feet, the dozen street-fronting suites 600. 

Brass also marks the transition from a suite’s anteroom to its sleeping area, where the desk, lamp, and bed are custom by Nomah. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Truly special are the furnishings, nearly all custom by Nomah and made locally. They include a compact desk and sofa-daybed, both in walnut, for the anteroom, an oak bed and vanity, and a brass armoire. Inspiration came from Adolf Loos. “We aimed for functionality, only what was necessary,” Natividad states. “For example, you don’t need a drawer in the nightstand.” She and Gutiérrez’s lighting fixtures are similarly minimal—an L-shape desk lamp, a conical pendant at bedside, both brass. 

In the style of the industrial age, the 1920s atrium has newly plastered walls. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Umral’s major architectural intervention came on the roof, now considered the hotel’s sixth floor. Sánchez installed lush landscaping and sandblasted Mexican marble slabs around a serene 30-foot lap pool. Steps away is Terrazza, the hotel’s restaurant and bar, ready for reservations, post-pandemic. Then, JSA set it all under an immense steel canopy, keeping these amenities hidden from street view, per a landmark committee fiat—and the property’s mystery and history alive. 

All guest room walls are painted plaster. Photography by Rafael Gamo.
Under a steel canopy, sandblasted marble surrounds the new rooftop pool. Photography by Rafael Gamo.
Back corridors are enhanced with a hanging garden formed from metal chains. Photography by Rafael Gamo.
Marble flooring runs beneath a suite’s custom vanity in white oak and solid surfacing. Photography by Rafael Gamo. 
Guest room sleeping areas include linen and velvet window treatments and a brass pendant fixture, all custom. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Project Team: 
Carlos Mar; Carlos Chauca; Alejandra Monter; Rodrigo Álvarez: JSA Architecture. Samuel Torres; Anuar Por­tugal; Gabriela González; Karen Osorio; Rebeca Yáñez: Nomah. PAAR-Taller: Landscaping Con­sultant. Luz en Arquitectura: Lighting Consultant. Ctrl_Edit: Custom Graphics. José Alfonso Méndez V.: Structural Engineer. SEI Sistemas Especiales de Ingeniería: MEP. Electron 14: Woodwork, Furniture Workshop.

Product Sources: Opalab: Pendant Globes (Lobby). Ton: Chair (Suite). Vivenda: Linens (Guest Rooms). Sun­brella: Furniture Upholstery (Roof). Domus: Lounge Chair (Guest Room). Throughout: Santamargherita through Grupo Arca: Flooring, Baseboards. Corev: Plaster Paint. Vitrosol: Custom Windows. Lutron: Automated Lighting System.

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