The Dean Hotel: Hanging Its Hat on an Iniquitous History

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Finding the Dean Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island meant driving a circle or two in the shadow of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, then sliding at just the right moment into a car-length loading zone. I guess we looked dazed, as the valet quickly  welcomed us and ran down the operational details of entrusting our motor vehicle to him. In the lobby, right before I realized I’d left my phone in the car, I thought, What a helpful, reassuring experience, and then he dashed in. “You left your phone. Anything else we should look for?” He was maybe the most useful valet I’d ever handed the keys to.

The Dean opened in early 2014, located in the Downcity neighborhood of Providence–a bookish little city with a proud accent, riddled with institutions of higher learning. The Dean is designed, the sort of place that was receiving ample attention before it ever opened, and the kind of attention that inevitably references Brooklyn. Downcity can also be read as simply “downtown”–and it’s a beautiful downtown if you are an architecture fan, but also a functional one that has joined the other downtowns of America transmogrified into a stylish improvement district. The Dean may not have been first of its kind in Providence, but it currently carries the banner.

The Dean Hotel

122 Fountain Street
Providence, Rhode Island
Website
Fifty-two rooms, from $109

 

Of course it has a narrative, a logline even: stylish hotel opened in former strip club/brothel, a peg on which to hang the glossy magazine feature. However, the only whiffs of such iniquity are intentional. (See the Magdalenae Room, below.) Still, the Dean is clearly a reclaimed space. The front desk sits in more of a utility closet than a lobby, separated from the neon-lit common area by a short flight of steps and an open bookcase wall with a (curated, you will be reminded) selection of books one might be afraid to touch lest it lose its Instagrammability. Squeezed in next to the common area is an outpost of Bolt Coffee, with its state-of-the-art bean magic and local baked goods (Knead: you are a wonder). This all adds up to a coldly weaponized performative style that is quickly softened by the proscriptive helpfulness of the clerk. Pretty it may be, but the Dean does not forget that it is housing people for money, which it does well.

To get to the floors above, where the rooms are, you will take a small gated lift with a small stool in the corner for the ghost of an elevator operator. The clerk will walk you to this and explain how to use it. It will still take a couple tries to get it right. I hate you, elevator.

The rooms are classified by names–we stayed in the Gang, with two queen beds, each on a custom-welded frame so sturdy it could seemingly support a Mini Cooper; a folding chair in a corner; a sort of knee-high marble sconce that served as a night table; and a writing table hard on a wall, mostly holding the a la carte amenities, locally sourced and whimsical. The aesthetic presented is austere but not foreboding.

The Matouk linens make other, lesser bed linens feel like burlap. The toiletries are also locally sourced. The shower is rainfall. The work of local photographer bedecks the walls are bedecked. Might you have read about this all in promotional materials? Yes. But that does not take away from the rightness of it, and ultimately the thoughtfulness. The obviously worn Oriental rugs? They are discreetly nailed to the floor for safety.

Might there be an ice bucket stashed somewhere? Upon further investigation and with the polite assistance of the clerk, we found a clear plastic wine bag intended to serve also as an ice bucket–free of charge, of course, but if we would like to take it home with us, we’d accrue a modest $10 charge.

I don’t know if many guests inquire as to the availability of an ice bucket, because both by circumstance and design, the Dean is not the sort of place you’d want to order in Seamless. Not only is there a restaurant (well, a new one opening in the fall) and Bolt Coffee on the premises, but the Dean is also smack in the middle of a downtown entertainment district. A block in either direction brings you to both pub food and the Michelin Star-type places. (Wanna bike there? The Dean offers use of refurbed bikes to guests.)

But ultimately, say you’re late getting in on the first night of your stay and you found a Domino’s that would in fact deliver, the only surfaces big enough to hold an American large pizza are the beds and the floor. Not that I’ve never tucked into, say, some Panda Express sitting cross-legged on the sad bed of a sad motel room, but eating in your room would defeat the purpose here. Go downstairs and karaoke instead! The Dean also provides Providence’s only karaoke bar, The Boombox, from which we heard an enthusiastic rendition of “Kokomo.”) Go out and expense account it up! Live in a manner befitting the curation of your quarters!

Speaking of which, other than the ice bucket, another mainstay of American hostelry was missing at first glance–the television. Oh, there it was, up on the wall, over the writing desk, facing the beds at a right angle, suggesting a dilemma over whether or not to omit the TV entirely, then landing on the option of including it, but in a fashion to shame anyone so crass as to see who is on Colbert before hitting the hay.

I understand that this sort of declarative style can be off-putting, and I know certain family members who would hate this place. In our case it was not. As an infrequent traveler, and one who was raised thinking that a Mariott with an indoor/outdoor pool was the height of luxury, this exercise was approached in the spirit of experimentation. We were visiting out of whim. Being prodded to more whimsy was useful in this case.

I did have the nagging feeling that there was some greater commodification at work, that while the Dean was terrific, it might be conceived as some cynical ploy to put style in a bottle, give it a couple years to work out the kinks and then scale exponentially until some sucker like Choice Hotels buys it for buckets of money. This may or may not be the case, but a quiet cocktail in The Magdalenae Room, in the basement of the hotel, felt like something else. The Room is gorgeous, intentionally invoking a brothel, with Art Deco naked-lady murals in the shadows and fascinating woodwork–the Room was designed and built out by people who cared.

The bartender was as skilled as any you’ll meet, and it was slow enough that she chatted with us about the hotel and about Providence. Any misgivings I have about commercialism in general wafted away in the face of such obvious and intentional attentiveness, like mist the lemon rind twisted two inches away from the glass.

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Brent Cox has written for the Awl, the Toast, Saveur and elsewhere. He resides quietly in the South of Brooklyn.

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