I love hotels. While I can understand traveling friends who flinch at the nightly cost of booking a room, I've never found convincing the old saw about only needing a place to sleep. It's like saying the only reason for eating is calories.
Traveling, even if it's for business, is a kind of waking dream. Our bodies — and the consciousness they carry — are literally transported from a place that's familiar, to one that isn't. When we arrive, the weather is different, people we've never seen before are speaking with different accents or languages. There may be palm trees, which, for a Midwesterner, is enough to make you stop and stare.
A good hotel becomes an indelible part of this experience. Such hotels needn't cost a fortune but, like good restaurants, they tend not to be cheap because the people working in them care about doing a good job.
My tendency is to favor older hotels, those with some history in their bones. In the States, many of these were constructed during boom times, in either the 1890s or 1920s. They were built of brick and held their respective blocks with an imperial dignity. These hotels were landmarks. They not only welcomed travelers, they proclaimed that the cities where they stood had also arrived.
The new JW Marriott hotel projects a similar, albeit highly contemporary, sense of purpose. Located on downtown Indianapolis' western flank, the JW is a 33-story concave column, sheathed in blue glass that, on sunny afternoons, casts a hyper-real glow east, down Washington Street. It's the tallest hotel in Indiana, the first skyscraper to go up in Indianapolis in several years. At 1,005 rooms, it is also the largest JW Marriott — the Marriott Corporation's luxury brand — in the world. In Indianapolis, the JW is, quite literally, the high end.
Needless to say, as a hotel lover, I was delighted when the JW Marriott folks took me up on a proposal to spend a night in their care. I wanted to see what the JW experience was like. I also wondered what this experience might add to Indianapolis.
Airports are the transit hubs of choice for cities today. The rising price of fuel notwithstanding, we fly places. Our understanding of geography is measured in hours, instead of days.
The lobby of the JW Marriott seems airborne. You enter beneath the arc of what feels like a great wing. Once inside, the verticality of the building's exterior gives way to a wide-open space that one might be forgiven for thinking is an extension of the airport.
Most lobbies in vintage hotels were designed to evoke palatial fantasies of days gone by. They seemed set in a deco version of King Arthur's Court. The lobby in the JW Marriott, on the other hand, casts you forward, into a plausible future. One of its ground-floor restaurants is even called High Velocity.
It's a little disconcerting. On the one hand, you are surrounded by a visual cacophony of objects — light fixtures, furniture, wall coverings and incidental objects — all implying streamlined motion. Yet, everywhere you look is imagery intended to suggest an avant-garde take on the seeming timelessness of the Midwest.
It's a bold juxtaposition that finds expression throughout the hotel.
Behind the check-in stations are large, back-lit glass photo-transparencies of golden clumps of marsh grass set against an inky, vaguely menacing, prairie sky. This is the Midwest as if imagined by David Lynch. Which, let me hasten to add, is not bad. After a lifetime of picket fence clichés, it's actually refreshing to see our home ground expressed in such a primal way.
Upstairs, on the floor dedicated to conferences and meetings, there are chest-high pedestals supporting small platters covered with swatches of living moss. There are also decorative installations featuring the decapitated trunks of birch trees and vases with prairie grass. You can't turn around without finding the shadow of Queen Anne's Lace or a photographic mural featuring sheaves of wheat.
There is, in fact, so much design going on — from the eccentric to the merely decorative — that you begin to wonder whether the people commissioned to embellish this place were as unsettled about how to describe the Midwest as the rest of us.
The Executive Suite
There's a thrill associated with seeing a place you think you know well, but from new angles. The JW Marriott provides this experience in spades. Upon taking what we were told is "the fastest elevator in the state of Indiana" to our suite on the 28th floor, my wife and I were knocked back by the floor-to-ceiling views of the city afforded by hallway windows. Over here was the White River, fat from torrential rains, snaking its way through the city's Westside. There was the IUPUI campus, seen whole: Finally, more than a series of parking lots, but actually taking form.
From our suite on the northeast corner of the building, we could see the Statehouse, where several hundred people were standing in the rain, protesting attempts to dismantle public education. Even at this great height, their voices echoed up to us. In our bedroom, we stared down the length of Washington Street, all the way to the eastern horizon. To one side, was Lucas Oil Stadium, a behemoth finally given some perspective by the vast expanse of the Convention Center's rooftop.
Dubbed "The Executive Suite," our space consisted of a living room and one-and-a-half bathrooms. It was as handsome as one would expect, replete with stylish furniture, a human-sensing energy management system, water-conserving toilets and faucets and a connectivity panel for DVD players, gaming systems and digital cameras. There was even a recycling bin.
Although not really large enough for entertaining, it was, for a couple, the equivalent of, say, a moon orbiting the larger Planet Marriott. It was a place with heavy doors and underfoot, warm, undulating carpet. The master bath included a walk-in shower with a total of four showerheads. Getting clean in this place amounted to an amusement park ride for grown-ups. There were not one, but two flat-screen TVs, and the king-size bed gave you the impression of rolling across a cloud.
In a recent visit, the boss, JW Marriott himself, complained that the desk chair in his suite was too hard to adjust. Although I didn't have that problem, I would say that the lack of a simple luggage rack left us wondering where, exactly, to put our stuff in a way that didn't sully the elegance of the space.
Same with the bathroom. To conserve water, the hotel encourages reuse of towels, but while there were plenty of shelves, there was only one hook to hang anything on. Who uses shelves in a hotel bathroom? Finally, the bathroom door contained a large plate of frosted glass. It looked great, but it also conducted light, meaning that, at night, the entire bedroom was illuminated if someone flipped the switch after closing the bathroom door.
Hotel users also prize location, and this is where the new JW really pays off. It didn't take us long to grasp the ways in which the JW clarifies and, perhaps, redefines our understanding of downtown Indianapolis.
The hotel acts as a pole, creating a force field of coherence for a cluster of public attractions that have heretofore lacked focus. The presence of the hotel, with all the people it accommodates, serves as fulcrum for the White River Park vicinity's amazing array of resources, including the State Museum, Eiteljorg, History Center, Victory Field, NCAA Hall of Champions and the Luc.
And that's just the beginning. The city's skywalk system broadens the reach of the JW — as well as several other major hostelries — virtually extending the hotel's interior to include the massive canyons of the Convention Center and even Circle Centre Mall.
Indeed, there is a deliberate synergy between the JW and the recent Convention Center expansion. Where most of the hotels in the JW Marriott chain have been created with the luxe-inclined traveler in mind, the Indianapolis version sees conventioneers as a primary clientele. Even more than the Convention Center expansion itself, the JW may be the greatest indicator yet of how important the convention business has become to the downtown's continuing viability. [See sidebar.]
As you stroll through the city's network of weather-proof boulevards, you can also see how Indy's Super Bowl proposal practically wrote itself. Like a lot of people I know, the prospect of holding the nation's Big Game in the dead of a Midwestern winter made me skeptical. But I had never experienced Indianapolis like a tourist before and taken the time to actually use the skywalk system. I'm not skeptical anymore. At the very least, I have a renewed appreciation for how the city has managed to create a downtown experience that can function 24 hours a day, if need be, and at any time of year. It really works.
From another galaxy
As we gazed out at the city, my wife and I started counting all the buildings that have been added to the skyline since we arrived in Indianapolis in 1988. Downtown has been — and continues to be — transformed. It is hard, though, to think of any one addition that has made such a self-conscious attempt to introduce itself with an exclamation point as the JW Marriott.
The JW stands out. Literally, of course, but figuratively, too. Built for a cosmopolitan traveling public, it speaks with a broader vocabulary than many of us are used to. At times, it feels like a visitor from another galaxy.
But in its insistence on trying to find ways of expressing a local sense of place, the JW, in its way, includes us in a larger, more worldly, urban conversation that might give us clues about what makes Indianapolis a distinctive 21st-century city.
For my taste, the JW tries a little too hard with many of its design flourishes. You wonder how much we see today will still be visually relevant as little as five years from now. But it also gets some things, like its marvelous city views, the unfailingly friendly sophistication of its staff and its decision to try to find new ways of expressing a Midwestern aesthetic in its interior design, impressively right.
This hotel, with its skywalk access to the Convention Center, may have been intended for conventioneers, but it also succeeds admirably as a getaway — at least as far as this stay-at-home tourist is concerned. For a day and a night, I dreamed I was in Indianapolis. It was a great trip.