Washington Sq. Hotel keeping Village spirit alive

The Washington Square Hotel’s lobby includes Art Deco styles and tile work by Rita Paul. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

BY GABE HERMAN | As the storied Washington Square Hotel has changed with the times over the decades — including a name change from the Hotel Earle— the family-owned business continues to move forward. Right now, that means getting ready for the upcoming second annual Village Trip festival celebrating Greenwich Village, of which the hotel is a sponsor and founding partner.

The hotel, at 103 Waverly Place, across from the park’s northwest corner, opened in 1902 with an eight-story building. A second building next door was added five years later, and a ninth floor was added to each in 1910. Finally, a brownstone on the corner at MacDougal St. was razed for a three-story annex in 1917, which is part of the hotel to this day.

Dan and Rita Paul bought the hotel in 1973, according to their daughter Judy Paul, who is the C.E.O. The hotel business goes back three generations in the family, including operations at Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, plus two other hotels in Manhattan at 132 W. 47th St. that was bought in 1967, and at 19 W. 31st St., acquired in 1971.

Judy Paul formerly worked in healthcare finance for 10 years, but said she always had a passion for food. She was drawn into the family business when the art gallery formerly in the hotel’s corner property, at Waverly Place and MacDougal St., was turned into a restaurant in 1992.

“You learn by making every mistake, but you persevere and keep going,” Paul said of the experience at the restaurant.

The Washington Square Hotel’s stylish lounge. (Courtesy Washington Square Hotel)

Paul has lived in the Village for 30 years. She was a member of Community Board 2 for 14 years, serving on its Parks and Landmarks committees. Her father was a public member of the board’s Parks Committee. She said she learned a lot from her experience on C.B. 2, and said it was great to see how involved locals are.

“I’m glad that I did it,” she said. “I got to know a lot of people from the community.”

The Pauls have managed to upgrade the hotel’s facilities, while retaining much of its history and charm, including its Art Deco style. In its earlier days, the place was known for hosting all manner of famous artists, yet also for being somewhat of a dingy flophouse.

There is a gym with modern equipment, and a lobby bar that offers smaller meals for guests, in addition to the lounge and restaurant. A rooftop garden was added atop the three-story corner building seven years ago; not open to guests, it supplies organic herbs and vegetables for the restaurant.

The hotel’s rooftop garden at the corner of Waverly Place and MacDougal St. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

Despite upgrades and some changes, the hotel’s artistic legacy continues. There are beautiful pieces of tile work throughout the buildings, all done by Judy’s mother Rita, who also did a lot of the designs for the rooms and signs. Rita, who was a fashion illustrator, also did all the tile work for the lobby when it was redone for the hotel’s centennial.

The 100th anniversary in 2002 also included a live performance in the lobby by longtime regular Bo Diddley. Judy Paul recalled that the legendary musician, who died in 2008, often had breakfast with her and her dad. She remembered him as a funny person who told great stories. He had his own regular room in the hotel, which he liked because it was quiet during the day.

All of the Washington Square Hotel’s tile work was done by Rita Paul. (Photo by Gabe Herman)
Design touches by Rita Paul, including her tile work, can be found throughout the hotel. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

The hotel hosts a jazz brunch every Sunday in its lounge, and a former breakfast server there who was an aspiring musician once submitted a tape to the hotel. She turned out to be Norah Jones, who would eventually move on from the hotel and make it big.

A seemingly endless roll call of musicians and artists have passed through the hotel over the years, among them, Ernest Hemingway, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Chuck Berry and Dee Dee Ramone, to name just a few.

But the hotel isn’t just a remnant of Greenwich Village’s history. It hosts Village Nights, a monthly salon series from musician Richard Barone that aims to keep the Village’s ’60s spirit alive with rollicking music shows.

“It’s nice because the history of the hotel is so involved with music, it’s nice that we’re recreating that,” Judy Paul said of Village Nights.

And the Village Trip festival, now in its second year, started by former British journalist Liz Thomson, celebrates the art of the Village and will hold some its events at the hotel, just as it did last year. The headliner for this year’s festival, which will run from Sept. 26 to Sept. 29, will be singer/songwriter Steve Earle.

The Village Trip, Paul said, aims “to celebrate what the Village means to all of us, and we don’t want to lose the history of the area.”

She added that it’s important to keep the Village feeling going.

“It’s what we’re trying to do in the hotel,” she said, “and Washington Square Park has such an amazing history, so it’s cool to be able to do a concert.”

The Washington Square Hotel has changed a bit over the years, yet still remains true to its Village roots. (Courtesy Washington Square Hotel)

As for the financial realities of running a local business, Paul said things have gotten tougher in recent years, partly due to an increase of hotel rooms in the area and the emergence of Airbnb. She said the hotel still rents out the same volume of rooms, though at lower rates.

But she said it’s still a good business and fun for her.

“I really enjoy meeting our guests,” Paul said. “It’s a global clientele and we get a lot of repeat business.”

Paul said people like the family-run feeling of the hotel.

Even as the city becomes more gentrified, New Yorkers can still be known as being less than friendly at times. But a common response from guests, Paul said, is they can’t believe how friendly everyone is at the Washington Square Hotel.