January 1, 2010

Wish You Were Here: A Dilapidated Motel Turned Chic Bohemian Inn

Facing the Gulf of Mexico in sunny, surf-friendly St. Petersburg, Florida, the bohemian Postcard Inn on the Beach is a place to write home about. But it wasn’t always that way. Just a year ago, it was a Travelodge. A neglected one at that. The carpet was moldy, the furniture was old, and the draperies matched the teal bedcovers. SLDesign principal Chris Sheffield puts it succinctly: “I wanted to run to the car and go back to the airport.” But B.R. Guest Restaurants founder and president Stephen Hanson knew that the property had potential—he’d already tested the waters with the luxury James Hotels in Arizona and Chicago. “The idea of a budget hotel was something he was very interested in,” B.R. Guest design director Tara Oxley continues.

Three B.R. Guest staffers worked with Oxley on the project, the exact same team that previously collaborated with Sheffield on a B.R. Guest—owned bar in New York. Believing that, with some work, the St. Petersburg property could channel the area’s laid-back, retro vibe, the pair had less than a year—and a tight budget—to make that happen. They started, Oxley says, by “peeling away the layers,” such as the beige-and-teal ceramic floor tile in the lobby. An unremarkable concrete slab lay underneath, but the designers had a vision. They polished the concrete and stenciled it with decorative flourishes. “It was a beautiful solution with cost savings,” she adds.

There wasn’t much that could be done to change the identical layout of the 196 guest rooms, including 16 bungalows. So Sheffield and Oxley pledged to design each room differently to make the “hotel feel very boutique-y,” Sheffield says. “It’s really important to establish a new experience per room.”

One way to do that was through lighting. The designers combed flea markets and consignment shops for an assortment of vintage lamps, primarily for side tables, and found a few pendants, too. Artwork benefited from a similar approach. In each of the three room types, the designers stenciled a selection of different quotes on the wall. (Janis Joplin’s “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.” Jon Bon Jovi’s “Map out your future—but do it in pencil.”) A couple of photographers were hired to shoot local beach culture, and the images became mini collages in some rooms and photomurals others. In both the guest rooms and lobby, surfboards and skateboard decks lend youth-culture interest.

The 4,700-square-foot lobby represents the most extensive overhaul, with 90 percent demolished and built anew. Sheffield and Oxley opened the dropped ceiling before reinstalling sections at several heights to give the space dimension. Knocking down walls allowed for additional seating and created a canteen for breakfast and light snacks. Then Sheffield went to work with a vibrant selection of vintage-inspired pinks, oranges, and browns. “The palette contrasts with the white walls and the concrete floor,” he says. “But it’s not a beachy cliché.” Some of the colors come from the books and accessories placed in the rhythmically staggered cubbies of a 36-foot-wide bookcase.

To achieve a relaxed sense of home, he combined vintage furniture collected over time—a mix of rattan, wicker, and wood—with new fully upholstered pieces. Organizing these into five seating areas encourages guests to gather and hang out. Most eye-catching is the group anchored by two large yellow sofas dividing the lobby from the entrance: Overhead, 1,500 feet of macramé rope loops around and between a cluster of simple ceiling fixtures. This site-specific sculpture has a special place in the designers’ hearts. “We were looking for something unique there, because people can look through the window and see it. So we hung a bunch of lights, then figured out what to do around them,” Sheffield says. “One day, we spent 10 hours with our iPhones out, teaching ourselves how to macramé knots.”

That do-it-yourself quality extends to the adjacent Wildwood BBQ & Burger, a spin-off of a B.R. Guest barbecue joint in New York. At the St. Petersburg version, one of the most noticeable features is a divider made from logs. “What’s an interesting way of separating space with what we have on-site?” Oxley recalls asking. After looking around, she and Sheffield discovered the restaurant’s stack of smoker wood. Oxley piled up some logs on one side of the dining room, and the result is a 10-foot-high wall with light filtering through. “The DIY touches create a character and sensibility that don’t come out of a box,” Sheffield says. “Guests have a stronger emotional connection because of it.” Now, that sounds like more than just a crash pad for spring break.

Photography by Eric Laignel.


Kate Rohrer: SLDesign. Rojo Architects: Architect of Record. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects: Landscaping Consultant. Araya Design: Graphics Consultant. Griner Engineering: MEP. Spacewerks: Woodwork. DDM Consutruction: General Contractor.

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