Thesis Up Close

Few college seniors are lucky or talented enough to receive an invitation to intern with the Imagineers, the legendary group of designers and engineers who shape Disney’s world of make believe. John McHenry, MFA’14 and winner of the 2014 Chairman’s Award, was one of them. In 2012, as a architecture student at Philadelphia University, he was offered an internship at the Epcot Center in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. As tempting as the Disney offer was, he declined to join the Imagineers. He had recently accepted a spot in NYSID’s MFA-2 program and wanted to follow through with his decision to pursue graduate study in interior design. “I always wanted to be able to design a building from the outside to the inside, with equal attention paid to everything in between,”says McHenry. “Interior design was the missing link in my architectural education and I was determined to rectify that with graduate study.”

Given his past experience with Disney it should be no surprise that his MFA thesis project, Hotel Ambrosine, is quite different from most hospitality projects. A 90-room boutique hotel in lower Manhattan, McHenry calls it, “a theatrical hospitality experience.” The project draws inspiration from literature, film, and theater. An especially important influence is Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an immersive theater experience that tells the story of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth through the lens of film noir. Audiences move freely through the narrative at their own pace, choosing where to go and what to see. With Hotel Ambrosine, McHenry poses the question: “Can a boutique hotel signify more than just a collection of decorated rooms and contribute to the guest experience by transforming into an immersive and customizable destination?”

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To craft a unique guest experience, McHenry let narrative drive the design process. The hotel’s design is based on members of the fictional Batts family who owned the hotel in the 1920s. The building he chose to repurpose, the 120-year old 5 Beekman Place, a former office building near City Hall that contains one of the most spectacular atriums in the city (see illustration top left), provided the perfect skeleton on which to hang McHenry’s macabre story.

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The hotel has 90 guest rooms, each one with angled walls to reinforce the overall effect of the macabre and the unexpected (see illustration left). The building program also contains nine public spaces, and for the purposes of his thesis project, McHenry fully articulated three. De Vera (see illustration below right), inspired by the matriarch of the family, Winifred Batts, is a luxurious retail space located off the main lobby where guests can purchase antiques and jewelry. The inflexible personality of Winifred’s domineering husband, George Batts, the Ambrosine’s owner, permeates The Archive, the stately bookstore/library (see illustration bottom left). A spectacular subterranean space, a theatrical performance bar called Adelaide’s Chamber (see illustration top right), is an interior design portrayal of the Batt’s daughter, Adelaide, an intellectually disabled recluse who the parents were deeply ashamed of.

McHenry acknowledges that the project challenges the idea of what a typical guest can expect from the hospitality experience. “In addition to being a guest at the Hotel Ambrosine, you’re also an active audience member. If you chose, you can dig deeper and discover much more about the design and its influences. The amount you discover is up to you.”

McHenry’s next act? In less than two months after graduating he has landed a junior designer position at Kravitz Design Inc., the design and product development firm founded by Lenny Kravitz in 2003.

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Looking back on his two-year experience at NYSID, McHenry says, “I wanted to graduate with a thesis project that showcased my background in architecture, interior design, and multimedia vizualization. To that end, every class I took at NYSID helped me accomplish my goal.”

Phyllis Greer