They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure—and few people know this better than Alex Calderwood. In 1999 he and friends Wade Weigel and Doug Herrick took a run-down Salvation Army halfway house in Seattle and transformed it into the Ace Hotel, which instantly became a hip boutique destination for budget-conscious travelers.
The Ace brand expanded to Portland, Ore., in 2007, and to Manhattan and Palm Springs, Calif., in 2009; the California property involved the renovation of a derelict Howard Johnson motel. “There’s a real creative challenge to taking something that’s considered a problem property and making something interesting out of it,” Calderwood says. “You wind up with these happy accidents, these quirky kind of places.”
Calderwood, Weigel, and Herrick—all gay, joined by straight partner Jack Barron in 2007—came into the hotel business with little experience. Calderwood, who’s done everything from planning events for Microsoft and Pearl Jam to opening the Rudy’s Barbershop chain in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles with Weigel, doesn’t consider himself a hotelier but rather an entrepreneur: “We just kind of approached it with instinct. Because we didn’t have the baggage of traditional experience. We just wanted to create a space that spoke to us. We wondered, What kind of place would we and our friends like?”
The answer to that question depended on the city. Local artists design each of the hotels, so no two look alike. The Seattle Ace has a minimalist vibe, complete with whitewashed and stainless steel surfaces, while Manhattan comes off as a luxe hostel. The Portland Ace reflects a local independent cultural streak with hand-painted murals created by art students and street artists, and the Palm Springs location has a distinctly camp feel—it’s designed with touches of inspiration from Native American–themed sleepaway summer camps.
“Every time I’m in Palm Springs, I see a different type of gay,” Calderwood says of the California hotel, which serves as a gay-friendly alternative for travelers who don’t go for the clothing-optional scene.
Calderwood wasn’t ready to divulge what cities he and his partners are targeting next, but in an interview on a New York style blog last year he let slip that Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Savannah, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn., are all on his radar.
It’s safe to assume the next Ace will continue the group’s penchant for gay-friendliness—a fair amount of the chain’s promotional efforts target the lucrative market. The Palm Springs hotel, for instance, enjoyed one of its biggest weekends of 2009 during the city’s pride festival in November, when Ace brought in DJs and musicians, and screened classic gay porn presented by Butt magazine.
“[The founders] are all gay,” Calderwood says, “but like our guests, we see ourselves as cultural enthusiasts. We’re into music and art and style and architecture and literature, and all of that is so much a part of gay culture.”