Independent spirits: the mavericks behind our US hotels


Independent spirits: the mavericks behind our US hotels

We meet the modern-day revolutionaries shaking up the country’s hotel scene from Nashville to New York City

Team Smith

BY Team Smith24 June 2019

In celebration of all things red, white and blue, we’re waving the flag for maverick hoteliers across the States who dream the American dream and like to do things their own way. After all, to understand how teepees ended up in Texas and Art Deco drinks trolleys found their way to the Catskills, you need to understand the visionaries behind these masterstroke hotels.

Independent boutique hotels | Rancho Pillow, Texas | Mr & Mrs Smith



Maybe it’s the thicket of roses painted across Sheila Youngblood’s ceiling (a gift from a graffiti-artist friend) that gives her away, the cow-skull-studded portico, gypsy caravan or smattering of travel-won trinkets – or her get up of kaftan and Yemeni madhalla hat – but, she’s no minimalist. Rancho Pillow, the Round Top hotel she’s cultivated on a vast Texan estate, reflects this vivaciousness: it’s maximalist in look and spirit. Sheila’s grandmother encouraged her to paint, take photographs and make music, and before Rancho Pillow was a hotel, it housed Pozo Hondo Studios, a space for visiting creatives. Eager to share this vibrant atmosphere, Sheila welcomes guests into psychedelic Tex Mex rooms inspired by Frida Kahlo, Chiapan weavings, Día de los Muertos and Old West bric-à-brac. You can find sanctuary in teepees or with a soak in open-air bath tubs, but Sheila also encourages people to connect with festivals, workshops and communal dinners, too. And, with her magpie-like instinct, she’ll point you to the best spots at the yearly Round Top Antiques Fair.

Independent boutique hotels | Hotel Tivoli, Upstate New York | Mr & Mrs Smith


Upstate New York

Brice Marden originally wanted to be a hotelier, but settled for becoming ‘the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades’ – as heralded by The New York Times, no less. But, his dream eventually came true – with artist wife Helen they own two retreats: Golden Rock Inn on Caribbean isle Nevis, and Hotel Tivoli, a revamped Victorian diner in Upstate New York, which Brice bought because he enjoyed the chicken they served. The couple are New York art scene royalty, but they’ve taken to this rural town in the hip Hudson Valley, where they now have a clutch of studios, too. Both Brice’s renowned colour planes and precisely plotted scribbles and Helen’s neon-splashed canvases inform Tivoli’s bohemian look, where Berber rugs, Mexican-style throws and painted bed-frames enliven gallery-white walls. Painterly input is evident in custom-blended hues and purple-tinted floors. And, the vein of creativity  continues with art-focused events attracting nearby Bard students and locals alike.

Independent boutique hotels | Public, New York | Mr & Mrs Smith


New York City

As trailblazers go, Ian Schrager takes some beating. The man who set the Seventies alight with his Studio 54 nightclub and went on to coin the ‘boutique hotel’ term in 1984 when he founded Morgans in New York – followed by a swathe of sub-brands, including Edition hotels – is still shaking things up today. Having sold Morgans in 2005, the Brooklyn-born boy hasn’t rested on his laurels. His latest project, Public New York, aims to make luxury accessible to all, with rooms that strip back unnecessary extras in favour of egalitarian prices and honeypot bars and restaurants that borrow from the Studio 54 style book. After all, who needs a trouser press when you’ve got a city-saluting rooftop bar and several season-savouring restaurants?

Independent boutique hotels | Urban Cowboy Nashville | Mr & Mrs Smith



We’ve been crushing hard on Nashville’s newest digs – not least because of real-life partners and hipper-than-thou hoteliers Lyon Porter and Jersey Banks. The cucumber-cool couple first established themselves in Brooklyn, when they built their dream home and opened it up to the public – hence the name, Urban Cowboy. But next the stetson-styled stay rode over to Nashville to tip its hat in the home of country music. With its new address came the same finely-tuned spirit and a desire to draw together artists, musicians and creatives from around the world. As you pull up to the restored Victorian-era mansion, expect to see tattooed-types playing guitar on the porch and a tumbler of whiskey to be thrust into your hand, before heading to the jam room where idle instruments entice you to get the band back together. If you’re looking for a traditional check-in, turn back now…

Independent boutique hotels | Faena Hotel Miami Beach | Mr & Mrs Smith


Miami Beach

Fedora-sporting Alan Faena may not be American, but his radical approach to ripping up the hotel rule-book is no less revolutionary. Having started out as a fashion designer, he went on to apply his creative verve to the down-at-heel docklands of his native Buenos Aires. However, rather than simply installing the Puerto Madero district with a hotel, he had bigger plans of infusing the barrio with his long-standing love of art and combining rooms in a converted red-brick building with a fantastical nightlife destination of bars, restaurants and even a cabaret theatre, where the Rojo Tango troupe regularly perform. Having fleshed out his concept, he then moved on to Miami, again transforming an erstwhile neglected area of Mid Beach into the Faena District, with two maximalist hotels – Faena Hotel Miami Beach, with theatrical interiors by director Baz Luhrmann, and compact Casa Faena across the road – plus the Faena Forum arts and events space that hosts festivals, exhibitions and more.

Independent boutique hotels | Wm Mulherin's Sons, Philadelphia | Mr & Mrs Smith



The inspiring spirit behind this styled-out Philly stay is of the liquid variety, rather than mere mortal. The name, still etched into stone frontage outside, nods to the Irish family who ran a whiskey blending and bottling factory here in the late 19th century – and if that isn’t reason to raise a glass, we don’t know what is. Interiors are atmospheric and reminiscent of the building’s liquor-loving heyday: abundant wood-paneling, exposed pipework, dangling filament lights, a moody downstairs bar and rustic Italian restaurant that serves smoky wood-fired pizzas which chime well with Fishtown’s foodie crowd. Outside, alternative diners and Indie music venues add to the area’s against-the-grain feel.

Independent boutique hotels | The DeWitt Oak Hill, Upstate New York | Mr & Mrs Smith


Upstate New York

When Dorothée Walliser moved from the Marais to Manhattan she left all her antiques behind, save for one piece: an Art Deco drinks trolley. The fact this now lives in her new home in the Catskill Mountains gives some sense of the premium placed on fun at this idiosyncratic Upstate B&B. See, Dorothée was made in France and spent much of her childhood trawling for treasures in the Marches aux Puces flea market of Paris. When she moved to the States, she worked for luxury publishing house Assouline, which is where she met friend and fellow antiques-obsessive Diane Ormrod. The pair decided to partner in the rock-n-roll repository, French & Scouser, referring to their respective places of birth, and the DeWitt Oak Hill is essentially an extension of the shop. Almost everything’s for sale, from the iron-frame beds to the star-spangled banner that covers one doorway and the kitsch animal figurines that might have been plucked from the fields outside. What’s not up for grabs, somewhat regretfully, is their coterie of canines, ranging from boxer Romeo to Brussels griffon Lola. However, you too can bring your own.

For more characterful stays, explore our boutique hotels in the United States