Museum Hotel, Wellington

Black is the new black
by Jason Burgess

Q:What do Willie Nelson, a chopper motorcycle and a hippopotamus have in common?
A: The Museum Hotel in Wellington. A 165-room boutique inn with a focus on the arts, located in the centre of Wellington City, overlooking the harbour and a stone’s throw from Te Papa.

On the outside, there’s barely a hint of what lies within the boxy black monolith. Well, that is if you discount the four immense human profiles cut from cast steel that make for a playful structural welcome to the hotel’s city block. Oh, and the Weta Workshop designed hippopotamus with yawning mouth standing above the street entrance.

Further clues avail themselves as I pull into the hotel parking, where a glass atrium (aka The Long Gallery) features eye catching art pieces, from a customised iron horse chopper motorcycle to a larger-than- life portrait of John Key made from toasted bread.

Stepping through the sliding door into the lobby is like stepping into the Looking Glass. For those used to clinical hotel chain experiences, be warned: this is no ordinary lobby. The Museum Hotel is a kind of wonderland for grown-ups. ??Chandeliers drip from the ceiling and the walls are festooned with artworks by local luminaries such as Bill Hammond, Raymond Ching, Ian Scott and Nigel Brown, to name but a few. Two MV Agusta 1000cc sport bikes, antique sideboards, plus table sculptures by the likes of Todd Couper and Gregor Kregar punctuate the seating arrangements.

On this Friday afternoon the foyer is buzzing as Sans Souci, a gypsy jazz trio, play Django Reinhardt arrangements. Freshly brewed coffee permeates the atmosphere and champagne corks pop. The reception also doubles as a bar, where immaculately turned out staff are draped in the latest slick black designer threads from local fashionista, Alexandra Owen.

An eclectic array of Regency styled furniture transforms the lobby into an intimate meeting area. It’s akin to being in the lounge of an eccentric old world uncle with a bent for contemporary art. Rushing traffic on the street outside might as well be a world away. The intimacy is contagious. In the space of an hour I meet a Miss Universe contestant, an in-house celebrity chef, and witness a serious looking uniformed policemen jotting down his wedding night confirmation details into a notebook.

The Museum Hotel started life in 1990 on the other side of the road. It was moved inch by inch, to its current location on 120-metres of railway tracks in 1993. The move itself took only two days. The building, the largest ever relocated in New Zealand, reached its destination in perfect condition.

It’s hard to talk about the Museum Hotel without mentioning owner Chris Parkin. The hotel is his home. He is passionate about Wellington, is a gold patron of the International Arts Festival, and a major sponsor of an endless list of cultural events. He’s on the board of Te Papa and chairman of the St. James Trust, which manages both the St. James theatre and the Opera House. He believes “Art is critical for our future.” Chris’ extensive collection of original art, some of which he began acquiring in 1983, lines the walls.

The hotel was recently cited in a Top 10 list of art hotels of the world on Yahoo’s Travel site. He has successfully turned a hobby into a branding strategy, and a way forward for a hotel he originally opened to cater for budget travellers. When he moved the hotel, Chris shifted gears. He commissioned Liz Santos, a set designer, to create a “theatrical feel to the lobby. It’s ageless and will stand the test of time,” he says.

Taking the elevator to my Studio room in the Residents’ wing, I notice feature walls and art pieces change at every floor. The spacious open plan studio features rich dark cabinetry, warm earthy textures and wood tones. A slider separates the lounge from the king size bedroom, and two floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the urban lifestyle of the Capital beyond Wakefield Street. Entertainment-wise there are two flat-screen TV’s and a home theatre system. I discover a full granite topped kitchen, with espresso machine, dishwasher and all the mod cons.

In the bedroom, a leather panelled bedhead rests amongst a floral papered feature wall. The cavernous bathroom has a large tub and walk in rain shower. It’s the perfect pad for a decadent weekend for two.

On level one is a fitness centre, complete with a 50m lap-pool in its own conservatory. The conference and banqueting facilities cater for groups of 2 -120; an excellent business bolt-hole.

Another string to the hotel’s bow of accolades is its harbour view Hippopotamus Restaurant. For Kiwi’s, hippo’s aren’t exactly while there is a food chain in France called Hippopotamus, the name was inspired by a gourmet burger joint in San Francisco. ??“I always thought it would be a great name for a restaurant,” says Chris. With head chef Laurent Loudeac at the helm, and bookings tailing into next season, this is no ordinary hotel restaurant. The beautifully presented fare is as artful as anything hanging in the lobby. Laurent was recently named Supreme Winner of the coveted 2009 Kapiti Chef Collection, and his passion for and knowledge of food and wine is shared among his mostly European staff. As well as catering for three square meals, Hippopotamus also boasts an exquisite selection of French pastries for its ever-popular afternoon High Tea service. ??At the time of writing, the restaurant was about to be given a face lift, under the auspices of legendary local interior designer Michael Nolder. With opulence as the operative word, Nolder’s mission is create “New Zealand’s best bar and something completely over-the–top.”

The Museum Hotel sits at a cultural nexus point within the city. Courtney Place nightlife is just a block to the south, Cuba Street’s hip downbeat scene less than ten minutes on foot, and the waterfront, galleries and eateries just a hop, skip and jump along the redeveloped harbourside. With a growing pool of loyal guests, Chris says for him, “The hotel is like building a really nice large house and having lots of friends coming to stay.”

www.museumhotel.co.nz