1220_TJI_toppppp.jpg 
TRANSFORMED From stripper pole to luxe bathroom.

It’s tough to know where to begin a discussion of The Dean, the new 52-room boutique hotel opening in January in downtown Providence. So let’s just start with the building’s impossibly evocative history.

It was built in 1912 by the Episcopal Diocese as a haven for the down and out, and the façade above the front door still has “CHURCH HOUSE ERECTED 1912 TO THE GLORY OF GOD” etched in stone. But that operation eventually fizzled, as did the various hotels, bars, clubs, skin joints, and restaurants (including a Roger Clemens-owned fried chicken cafe) that followed. One 1940s iteration, the Rialto Hotel, was apparently so overflowing with sin that the Navy barred sailors from going there. Another, the Hotel Plaza, had twin signs appealing to pedestrians on Fountain Street: “TRANSIENTS ACCOMMODATED” and “DANCING NITELY.” And then of course, there was the Sportsman’s Inn, the “Gentleman’s Club” with blacked-out windows that, up until just a few years ago, left passersby wondering, “What the hell is going on in there?” The stripper heels, dollar bills, crack pipes, heroin needles, and MC Hammer tapes found during renovation have begun to answer that question.

History aside, the concept of the hotel is worth noting, too. Providence native Ari Heckman, who now runs the Brooklyn-based design/development firm ASH NYC, says that The Dean — which he is spearheading, along with Steel Yard co-founder Clay Rockefeller — is part of a wave of quirky and distinct hotels inspired by places like the Ace Hotel, which started in the Pacific Northwest and has since expanded to New York, London, and elsewhere. But The Dean isn’t merely trend surfing, he says; it’s filling a conspicuous void in the local hotelscape. For a town that likes to think of itself as creative, edgy, and exuberant, where is the lodging to reflect that? A few candidates come to mind, like the Biltmore (where Heckman’s parents were married) and more recently-opened boutiques like Hotel Providence and Federal Hill’s Dolce Villa. But Providence’s overnight offerings mostly tend to be “really corporate and banal” places that could be found in any city in the country, he says. The Dean, meanwhile, aims to be “of Providence and for Providence.”

Sounds good. But how do you pull it off?

In The Dean’s case, you give prime lobby space to a local artisan coffee company, Bolt, to open their first brick-and-mortar space. You rent out not one, but two, first-floor spaces to the visionary (and notoriously press-shy) barman and restaurateur, Mike Sears, who will lend his Kubrickian passion for detail and ambiance to a German-style beer hall called Faust and the Magdalenae Room, “an intimate and discreet cocktail lounge reminiscent of the fine hotel bars of Europe.” Upstairs, you equip every guest room with bed frames by RISD grad Nate Nadeau’s fabrication shop, Iron Origami; a concrete elephant bedside table made by another RISD grad, Will Reeves; and wall hangings that will include work by local photographer Stephanie Ewens, who documented the premises before its renovation. And, oh yeah, you install a set of private, rentable karaoke rooms downstairs — collectively called The Boombox — that Heckman says are the only ones of their kind within 100 miles.

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