At 13, She Fled the Nazis. At 95, She Runs a Storied Bohemian Hotel.

From a New York Times story by Abby Ellin headlined “At 13, She Fled the Nazis. At 95, She Runs a Storied Bohemian Hotel.”:

One night in 1980, Rita Paul asked her husband, Daniel, if he minded if they moved into the Hotel Earle in Greenwich Village. ‌ ‌

It was not such a strange request. The Paul‌‌s had owned the ‌‌Earle since 1973, ‌‌when it was already seven decades old. By the time the Pauls acquired it, the Earle had evolved from a bare-bones residential hotel to a funky haven for an eclectic crowd. For her own retreat, Ms. Paul had her eye on four connecting chambers on the fourth floor.

“I guess at the time we had a lot of empty rooms,” Ms. Paul said.

For the next 12 years, the Pauls were full-time residents there. Ms. Paul enjoyed an eccentric existence with her art supplies, her baby grand piano and her kiln. They stayed there until 1992, when they separated and moved into their own apartments nearby, but they continued to work as hoteliers. (The two reconciled for their daughter’s wedding in 1996; they remained together until Mr. Paul died in 2014, when he was 92.)

‌The hotel at 103 Waverly Place — which started as a private home, became the Earle and is now the Washington Square Hotel — has a unique place in the annals of downtown bohemia. At one point or another it was favored by writers (Ernest Hemingway, P.G. Wodehouse, Dylan Thomas) and musicians (like the Rolling Stones, who stayed there during their first world tour, in 1964).

The hotel will be 120 next year, making it one of the longest independently run hotels in New York City. It’s unclear how many of the city’s hotels are family-owned, but according to Sean F. Hennessey, a hotel consultant and clinical associate professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University, few are doing it quite like Ms. Paul is. “I’m not aware of any other hotels that are being run in the same way,” Mr. Hennessey said.

The place has seen its share of tumult. It survived the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, two world wars, the Great Depression, ‌the economic crises of the 1970s and 2008 and, most recently, the Covid pandemic.

Covid was arguably the ‌‌most challenging. The hotel stayed open for all of lockdown, but it had few guests. “There were nights we had nobody staying with us,” said Ms. Paul’s daughter, Judy Paul, the hotel’s chief executive.

‌‌The Pauls were fairly sure that the pandemic “was going to knock us out,” she said. Two pandemic loans for the hotel and two for its adjacent restaurant, North Square, helped. And business has slowly been picking up.

Which means that Ms. Paul, who is now 95, has been busy.

Though the day-to-day operations fall to her daughter and son-in-law, Marc Garrett, Ms. Paul, whose proper title is “artistic director,” has put her accent on every detail, from the hand-painted tiles ‌in the lobby‌ walls‌ to the room designs to the ‌murals in the restaurant.

“My strongest point is finding the right thing for the right place,” she said. “Sometimes it’s kind of difficult to figure out what that is.”

She was born Rita Puchalski in Berlin in‌ 1927 and moved with her family to Paris in 1933, where they lived until early 1940. Then, as it became apparent that the Nazis would soon arrive, she, her mother and brother sailed from Le Havre on the S.S. De Grasse, with one trunk among them. Comparatively speaking, the ocean liner was lavish. It had a proper shower, a bathroom and nice dining room. “We felt we’d died of luxury,” she said. “It was so much easier than anything we had in France.”

Rita’s father had come to America two years earlier to work in the building trade, and the rest of the family moved into an apartment he shared with his brother in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn.  

‌Construction was the family business. Rita’s grandfather spent three years in the late 1800s working on the Williamsburg Bridge before returning to Poland. But for Rita, a different kind of life beckoned.

She studied art at Hunter College, graduated in 1947 and became a fashion illustrator. She met Daniel Paul through a cousin; they married in 1949, and she went to live with her new husband in New Haven, Conn., where he worked in his father’s jewelry store. But she hated New Haven and begged her father to find her husband work in New York. ‌He hired Mr. Paul to help develop the 260-room Manhattan Beach Hotel.

After a three-month apprenticeship, Mr. Paul became the manager.

In 1967, Rita’s father and uncle bought their first hotel in Manhattan, the Rio on West 47th Street‌.

They bought the Clinton‌ in 1970 and then ‌the Earle in 1973.

Named for the original homeowner, Earle S. L’Amoureux, the Earle was a once‌ opulent eight-story hotel that devolved into a flophouse during the 1960s. In Ms. Paul’s own words, it was a “dump,” home to “crazies” and “petty criminals,” as well as struggling artists and folk musicians. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez lived for a time in Room 305, which inspired her song, “Diamonds & Rust.” (“Now you’re smiling out the window/Of that crummy hotel/Over Washington Square.”)

Ms. Paul loved the scene and developed a long friendship with Bo Diddley, a regular. “He wanted me to paint his portrait,” Ms. Paul said‌. But the timing never worked out.

In the late ’70s, they converted it to an affordable, European-style boutique hotel while honoring its eccentric past. It would be the first of many Rita Paul updates.

“I think a hotel is always in the renovating business,” Ms. Paul said.

A fan of Art Deco, she designed a series of paintings on tiles ‌— some copies of famous canvases, some black and white images of classic film stars, some abstract ‌— that still hang in the hotel and restaurant.

‌‌Now she works in her studio in her art-filled two-bedroom apartment around the corner from the hotel‌, where she moved after her “Eloise” years. It’s covered with paintings, ceramics and tiles, some of which she has made herself, others which she collected. ‌

And she has no plans to slow down. There’s the new finish for the outdoor dining shed on Waverly Place. There’s the new outdoor ‌‌sign for seating on Waverly and Macdougal streets. And there’s the ‌replacement for the ‌tabletops she designed for the lounge‌, which her daughter admitted had “seen better days.”

The Paul‌s still own the building and report that they often field offers from interested buyers. But they don’t want to sell. ‌

At night, Ms. Paul can usually be found dining in the restaurant. Or she’ll sit by the windows in her sixth-floor apartment overlooking the west side of Washington Square Park, a glass of wine in hand, looking out at her beloved neighborhood.

Abby Ellin has been contributing to The Times since the late 1990s. She is the author, most recently, of “Duped: Double Lives, False Identities and the Con Man I Almost Married.”


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