The New York real estate titan talks to us about his new hotel, moving on from failure and why he finds the term mogul "amusing."
interview by Mickey Boardman / photography by Eric T. White
24 June 2016
The New York real estate titan talks to us about his new hotel, moving on from failure and why he finds the term mogul "amusing."
Aby Rosen is the co-founder of RFR, a New York City-based real estate investment, development and management firm that owns and manages some of Manhattan's most legendary addresses, including the Seagram Building and Lever House. Rosen is also known for his eye for art and design; his spectacular art collection can be found on display at his hotel properties, which include the Gramercy Park Hotel, the Paramount Hotel and the newly opened 11 Howard in SoHo.
Were you obsessed with buildings as a kid? Like, do you remember looking at a tall building when you were a kid and thinking, "Wow, I want to own that"?
Yeah. My father would take me around on afternoons to construction sites. He was a builder. I loved the smell of concrete. I loved the smell of sand; it has a moist, wet feel. It was exciting.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. I was born in 1960, finished school there. I went to Israel for two years, just to try something different, and my parents had an idea that I should move there for a while. It wasn't really my thing. I went back to Germany and finished law school in 1987, and moved to New York on December 11 of 1987.
You're Jewish and there must not have been much of a Jewish community in Germany at that time, was there?
There was very little of a Jewish community. There were about 6,000 Jews in Frankfurt.
How did your parents end up in Frankfurt then?
You know my father is an Auschwitz survivor. He was liberated in Germany, stayed in Germany post-war and had no place to go. He was a Polish Jew, and he didn't want to go back to Poland. My mother was a Belgian. She was a hidden child; she was Jewish and she was hidden with non-Jewish farmers outside of Brussels for about five years. They met somewhere in 1955, and then somehow they went to Canada, and then they went back to Germany and stayed there. I was born there, I stayed there, I worked there and I had a good time. I'm a guy who makes things work for himself, so I enjoyed myself. I had a lot of good friends, a lot of Jewish friends but also a lot of non-Jewish friends. You can't live in a place like that and live in this kind of isolation. I always loved New York -- I always wanted to be here. I always thought that this would be my home at one point. Since I was 14 or 15, I used to sneak back here every couple of weeks with friends to party on the weekend and then fly back.
What is the first building that you bought?
The first thing I ever bought in America was the Chateau Marmont in LA, which I then sold to André [Balazs].
Yep, that's the first thing I ever bought. I owned it for three months then sold it to him...André is an old friend of mine who invested with us when we did a club in New York called M.K.
Yeah, I've been there. There was a trapeze that Marlon Ungaro, this drag queen, used to swing from.
Yeah, it was a weird club. We invested in the club, and then André wanted to come in so we sold him half of our interests. And that's how we met André. Then a couple years later, he bought the hotel from us. It was the beginning of our so-called "boutique hotel chain." Then André bought it, and that was the end of the hotel chain. We then did other things in LA, then I went back to New York. It was a better place for me than LA.
What is it about hotels that you like?
I like the engagement with the people. I think it's different than the office market. In the office market, you sign a lease for 10 years and then you don't see the tenant and you forget about him/her. Here, every morning you wake up and it's an empty hotel. Every day you need to be on the ball; you need to reinvent yourself with a story, with a design, with a food component, etc. It's very labor intensive; it's very people intensive. I happen to like that someway, somehow. I'm slightly masochistic because it is a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I deal with events, food, press; I deal with lots of different things. It gives me the right feedback for the rest of what I do.
If I only did hotels, that wouldn't be what I really want to do. I consider myself -- 29 years later -- like a mini-brand that does hotels, office, residential and retail. We buy things that are good and make them better. We don't go to places where nobody has ever been; that's never my goal. My goal is to see something that is good and make it better. I think over the last 28 years we've had lots of success by really adding something that was missing. By adding color, a design, great architecture, some landscaping, some flowers, some vision that we believe people are looking for. Or you invent something they haven't seen before, and then that's a surprise. It's a very competitive environment; you want to make something that's different, but you also want to make something that fits in. You can't be too much of a pioneer, because then you're creating a very narrow demand, and the goal is to create big demand. That's the balance, I think, between what's creative, what's strong enough, what's surprising enough but what is also safe. It's a continuation of quality. You find something that's good and you have to make sure it lasts for a long time.
Do you consider yourself a mogul?
I find the word amusing.
How would you describe yourself? If you had to fill out a form, what would you put under "occupation"?
I wouldn't put mogul in there [ laughs]. I wouldn't put "humble developer," either. It's a good question. I'd say it the other way around: "What would you want on your gravestone?" I would want my gravestone to say, "I had a good eye, and I had fun doing it." That's how I approach my life. I know I have -- my wife calls it "grit." I have a really strong drive, I have a very good eye and I know what looks good and what doesn't look good. I know I have the ability to combine the human touch with real estate or the space, the facilities. I know what needs to happen, and I make a living out of that, and not a bad one. Tycoon, mogul, mover and shaker are funny expressions, which I don't use. If I were to mock myself, mogul would be the perfect one. I would wake up, look in the mirror and say, "Hi mogul, how are you doing?" But I don't take myself that seriously.
Tell me about this hotel, 11 Howard. Why this neighborhood, because this was the Holiday Inn, right?
This was a Holiday Inn.
I've been in this Holiday Inn. My parents stayed here all the time.
It was the highest paid Holiday Inn in the city.
It was super expensive.
It was super expensive! It was like 400 bucks a night.
We would go on trips, and my dad would stay here when it was that much, and I was like, "You could stay at The Standard or The Mercer for $600. Why would you pay $450 to stay at the Holiday Inn?"
It's funny because it's one of the ways they tricked us. Even though it was a Holiday Inn -- which is a brand that should be out of commission -- there are enough people that are brand hungry or that look for brand safety, and they know that a Holiday Inn isn't five star, but that it's a good four star.
I also think my parents thought they weren't going to get ripped off.
There's an honesty factor to this: Holiday Inn equals honesty. So when we looked at the Holiday Inn and saw it was for sale, we said, "It's not possible that they can drive those rates here." Obviously I love Howard Street; I think Howard Street is the last remaining "wow" street in SoHo. It has the right ingredients: It's eclectic, it's fun, it's cobblestone, it has high and low, it has the shoemaker next to an antique store that charges 60,000 dollars for a chair. It was available, I bought it really well and I bought it really fast; I bought it in two days because I thought it was great. That's what I do; I see something and I act really fast. I don't overact, but I act fast. I think speed is everything in this town. We had a great team; we brought [designer] Anda Andrei in. I've been doing this for 20–30 years, and I've always wanted to work with her. We went looking for architects, brought in Space out of Copenhagen and mixed it up with a little New York, a little art -- not too much art. We created a really energetic, beautiful gem that is very quiet; it's very tranquil. That's the goal. You don't walk into our lobbies and find music blaring and people screaming. We're not the NoMad. There's nothing wrong with the NoMad, it's just not how I think hospitality should work. You want to come in and just calm down. New York is so noisy, so loud, so energetic that when you step into a hotel you have to go from 100 miles to 2 miles, and I think we get that. I think we do the same thing with the Gramercy; it's something we do with all our hotels. We are really trying to take the speed out of things. We try to give service and give the look, and that's where our focus is. A design that lasts, service that's friendly and respectful, not too intrusive; those ingredients work for SoHo. We're basically undercutting the market against the other hotels: The Mercer, the Crosby. That was the goal; to go under them, do the right thing, stay clean and stay timeless. That's why we're doing this here in SoHo.
Did you have a mentor?
I had a lot of people that I looked up to because of what they do and how they do things. My father was someone I looked up to because he was very straight and honest. He was almost too honest. He was very black and white -- there was no grey. I liked that about him; I picked it up. Is it bad if I say I don't have a mentor?
No. Did you ever work for anyone else?
I worked once in Germany for a law firm right after I finished law school. I was in on a Monday at 9 o'clock, and I brought in a friend who helped source a legal issue he was having with contaminated land. By 11:30, I helped him make a shitty investment into a great investment. I apparently made him 20 million bucks in a half an hour. I charged $110 for my work, and he made 20 million bucks. By noon, I told the lawyers, "I'm leaving." He said, "No, the lunch for the employees is at 1 o'clock." I said, "No, I'm out of here." Three days later, I was in New York.
That's a very non-German, very New York story.
That is because I've always loved New York and didn't know why the hell I would stay in Germany. I didn't like being a lawyer, and when I saw the time it took to make that guy that much money, I said, "I can do that for myself." I did that for myself anyway before I became a lawyer. I took over my father's business when I was 18. My father had a heart attack, then had a second heart attack three months later, so he said, "I'm out of here, this is all yours, have a nice time. I take the cash, you take the real estate." And that's what I did.
Was there a moment when you thought, "Wow, I'm a success"? Like a deal that was a billion dollars or when you bought Lever House or something.
There's always a break point in everybody's career. My break point was when I bought Lever and then a year later I bought the Seagram Building. When you have the ability to own two of those masterpieces -- architecturally historic real estate -- you know that you've made it somewhere, somehow.
Which is good, cause it means you have very good taste.
Yeah, it's good stuff. I work so hard on the Seagram and on the Lever. I want to make it a place for people to work, have food and entertainment. To put a restaurant in Lever, we took an outdoor café and patio and made it into a really nice place. I'm changing the Four Seasons, as you know and which I got a lot of heat for.
I invite confrontation because I want to change things. I'm a really big believer that you can't go stale, you can't go comfy. You've got to go and reinvent yourself. Those people had a shot to do it right, and over the years they let it go. They let it physically go; it's really run-down and tired. They let it go by not bringing the right people in. It's very old, very clubby, very tired, very male-oriented, no diversification and everybody is wearing a suit and a tie. There's nothing wrong with a suit and a tie, but that can't be your entry card to a restaurant. A restaurant should be democratic, it should be open to a lot of people, it should be heavy in variety and mixture and it should be open from 6 to 12, 1 o'clock at night. They're serving food from 6:30-8:30 and then everybody goes home. It's the same with lunch; it's a one-lunch seating, it's the same crowd and the people have been sitting at the same tables for the last 20 years. It doesn't work like that. You become stale and irrelevant. I basically said, "You change, or I take it over." I gave them two years to change, to come up with an idea or a new design, to raise money and clean up that place, cause it's really run down. After 60 years of running something in a certain way and not putting money back into it, it's tired even if you want to do the right thing. So we're closing in July, and I brought in Annabelle Selldorf for the restoration, brought in Bill Georgis for the interiors, brought in Peter Marino to redesign the Brasserie space. It will be very fun, very energetic.
Will it be 24 hours?
We are going to try to do it 24 hours and see how it goes.
Can you change a lot of stuff?
No, we can't, but we're basically bringing back the materials that look beautiful. They didn't change the lighting for the last 30 years there, so we brought in a fantastic lighting consultant from Paris. This thing is going to glow. We're doing new furniture: [It's] the old furniture, but instead of stainless, we're going to do dark bronze. When you walk in, the Grill Room will be very elegant; meat with side cart servings. It will be like the good ole days. We're bringing back the menus from 1958, but tweaked. There's going to be a lounge.
Have you ever had a big failure professionally?
Professionally, here and there. I've been doing things now for 35 years. I did hundreds of things; one or two never worked out.
Did you learn anything from it? They say you learn more from your failures than from your successes.
Yeah, but I learned that I should not take them too seriously, and I have to move on and do more. You have to lick your wounds and you have got to move on. I'm really good at that. I go into it and think, "What the hell did I do here, why the hell did I do this? Was it ego, was it too much money, did I misunderstand something, did I misjudge something, did I rely on other people too much?" I'm a big delegator because I do a lot, but sometimes you delegate to the wrong person, so it's easy to blame that person. But you have to blame yourself first, because you're the one who chose that person. So yeah, there were some failures. There are personal failures. I got divorced; that's a personal failure, when you fuck up a relationship and you have got to move on. But then you fix your problems and you remarry someone who's great, and then you say that was a part of my life, that wasn't a screwup.
What sign of the zodiac are you?
I'm a Taurus. I'm May 16.
Tauruses supposedly see the promised land and will not stop till they get there. It's a little exhausting for people who work with them, but you're wonderful leaders.
You asked me what I see myself as, and I can see the end of the movie with a lot of things I do. That's my advantage I have. I can really see how things will be and how things will come out. So when I bought a house, and everybody looked at me and said, "Are you crazy buying this beat-up old house?" I said, "I know exactly what I'm going to do, I'm going to move this and that." Then it comes out well, and they're all like, "You must have seen that." You can only know that 30 years later.
Location: 11 Howard