For years, architect-developer Bruce Redman Becker walked past the old Pirelli Tire Building that towered over Interstates 91 and 95 in New Haven, wondering why the concrete carcass designed by modernist architect Marcel Breuer was empty.
In a few weeks, the former Long Wharf office building is due to open as the converted Hotel Marcel. Becker designed, developed and redesigned it into a net-zero energy hotel to tap into the tourist and business visitor markets of New Haven and the Connecticut coastline.
“I wasn’t looking to do a hotel, to be honest,” said Becker, who describes his work as affordable mixed-use building design and historic preservation.
But the more he saw the building, a remnant of 1960s urban renewal, the more he insisted that it “cannot stand empty”.
Becker, whose works include 777 Main Street in Hartford and 360 State Street in New Haven – high-rise residential buildings – said he was fascinated by Breuer, who died in 1981 aged 79 . The Hungarian-born modernist architect and furniture designer was a key figure in Germany’s influential Bauhaus design school.
The former Pirelli building is the “most visible” of Breuer’s buildings in the United States, making its 20-year abandonment particularly difficult to bear, Becker said. Some observers say the brutalist design – a minimalist construction emphasizing building materials and structural elements rather than decorative motifs – is ugly.
“I love the building,” he said. “It’s like art. Not everyone appreciates modern art.
The light gray concrete building that encompasses New Haven’s harbor and the city’s skyline is not meant to be a pretty building, Becker said. It is designed to express its structure.
He does a “heroic presentation of his cantilever” while showing off his “magnificent precast concrete material”, he said.
The building, which opened in 1970 to house the offices of Armstrong Rubber Co., also offers a “play of light and shadow under different lights that is captivating,” Becker said.
“I really like it as a piece of architecture with a capital A,” he said. “This is by no means a classic New England building.”
The Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli bought the site and the tire business from Armstrong in 1988 and decided a few years later to sell the property, including the building. It then belonged to Ikea, the Swedish furniture store which took over an adjacent building as its retail site.
Becker said he negotiated for a year to buy the Pirelli building and 130 parking spaces from Ikea. The retailer known for its basic furniture designs “became familiar with my concept of embracing Bauhaus,” he said.
The new 165-room Hilton hotel will use solar energy to power lighting, heating, air conditioning and hot water. Becker declined to disclose the cost of the project.
The hospitality industry has struggled during COVID-19 and is only recently recovering. Still, the American Hotel & Lodging Association says U.S. hotel business travel revenue is expected to be 23% below pre-pandemic levels in 2022 in the U.S., ending the year down more than $20 billion from 2019. Connecticut’s decline is expected to be 27%.
Leisure travel is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels this year, but business travel, which is the hospitality industry‘s main source of income, “will take much longer to recover”, said the business group.
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Steve Fontana, New Haven’s deputy director of economic development, said the “long-term fundamentals” of the city’s market are strong and improving. New Haven attracts not only tourists, but also investors, researchers and others to the biopharmaceutical industry and coastal health sciences.
New Haven Union Station and I-95 are near the new hotel, connecting Connecticut to New York and Boston. Amtrak service from New Haven extends to Hartford and Springfield, Mass., and Avelo Airlines has established Tweed Airport as an East Coast hub.
The Long Wharf area includes the Long Wharf Theater (planning to leave this site), Sports Haven, Jordan’s Furniture, healthcare facilities, the Long Wharf Maritime Center and now the Marcel Hotel.
“There’s a bit of something for everyone,” Fontana said.
Becker said he was taking care of a few final details before the hotel opens in mid-May.
“All parking signs are in place and trees are planted,” he said. “Soap dispensers are mounted in public restrooms.”
Stephen Singer can be reached at [email protected]