The Saguaro in Scottsdale Gets a Fresh Coat of Paint and Some Cool Touches -- But It's Still No Ace Hotel

​When the Sydell Group in New York announced last year that it had purchased a hotel property in Scottsdale, Manhattan could probably hear the squeals of delight coming from New Times' Phoenix office.

Sydell owns the New York and Palm Springs properties managed by the Ace Hotel chain -- the gold standard of boutique (read: funky, affordable, cool) hotels -- and we loved the thought of having our own Ace in Scottsdale. (Sydell's also behind the buildings Ace manages in Palm Springs and Manhattan, and Ace has two more locations in Portland and Seattle that operate in buildings not owned by Sydell.) 

Alas, it was just an idea. 

Sydell was horrified at the suggestion -- no, no, no, we were told, this property would not be an Ace. Last week we got a tour, and while the place has its charms (mostly thanks to Iron Chef Jose Garces, more on that in a minute) Sydell was right: The Saguaro is no Ace. 

If the Ace (specifically, its Palm Springs and Manhattan locations) is the Banana Republic of the Sydell empire, The Saguaro is definitely Old Navy, owned by Sydell and managed not by Ace, but instead by Joie de Vivre, a boutique hotel chain out of California. (And if you don't believe our Banana Republic Old Navy theory, consider that Joie de Vivre is opening a Saguaro less than a mile from the Palm Springs Ace later this year.) 

The Ace is the stuff that super-popular riffs on hipster culture are made of. Literally. The Portland location was featured in an early episode of IFC's Portlandia. So make fun all you want (and it's easy -- with working turntables in rooms; the snobbiest of coffee purveyors serving drinks; and lobbies filled with taxidermy and photo booths), the Ace is the place.

And it's not just that this place has a lower price point (thus the boutique definition). We get that. We're not expecting the Sanctuary, but doesn't metro Phoenix deserve something affordable that's a little better than the Clarendon with its funny-smelling, fading lobby (or, seriously, the bathrooms)?  

If any place should find success in this town as a boutique hotel, it's this one -- with a prime location on the Scottsdale Mall, which also houses the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and longtime favorite bar/restaurant, AZ88

And yet, no one's found success here -- yet. 

Originally a lower end chain motel, a Chicago-based company bought the spot around 2003, named it The James after its Chicago property, slapped some bright colors on it and called it a boutique hotel. We spent one uncomfortable night there during a summer special, got a spa treatment in a hot, saggy, stained cabana and stared at the popcorn ceilings that night, thinking, it takes more than a coat of paint to make a boutique hotel.

The James took a dump in 2006, selling to the company that owns The Mondrian in LA (and a few other spots), which attempted to play off the allegedly glam Scottsdale club scene. Along with (another) fresh coat of paint, The Mondrian draped itself in a lot of pink feathers and lured in an Asia de Cuba (think Sex and the City but with no customers -- even in scrunchies -- at least on the few times we visited).

​The Mondrian's party ended in 2010 with foreclosure proceedings. Enter Sydell. Our excitement dampened over the Ace misunderstanding, but we still looked forward to our tour last week of The Saguaro, about to celebrate its grand opening. 

The first thing we noticed: a fresh coat of paint. Very fresh. A lot of super-bright orange, chartreuse and purple. These, we were told, are the colors of desert wildflowers, as interpreted by Stamberg Aferiat Architecture, a New York architecture firm. (Which, again, is odd, since it doesn't appear that anything more structurally significant than a new sign above the registration desk changed about this place. Did anything architectural actually take place here?). 

To be fair, there are some cool ideas: copies of vintage Arizona Highways and huge bubble lanterns in the lobby; a rainbow effect on the hotel's exterior; and custom-made striped blankets in the rooms, which also feature plush robes, a water bar (with high-end tonic, club and still waters to keep guests hydrated -- and spending money) and neat vintage cameras. (Note: if you're looking to steal one, most of them don't work, we were assured.)

The pool looked just as it did during the James and Mondrian days. It's still pristine, but with new colors (and damn it, that's who bought all those orange Ikea patio chairs we were looking for last summer!) and slightly hipper music. It's a surface remodel, for sure; even the lobby chairs looked like they'd just been painted. 

​By contest, Jose Garces' three concepts -- a take-out coffee spot, bar and restaurant, all housed in the hotel and designed by Jun Aizaki of Brooklyn's Crème Design Collective -- were showstoppers: creative and luxe, with a whimsical, big(ish) city feel. 

The cubbyhole of a coffee spot, Garces Trading Company, was cozy and wood-paneled; the genius bottle lighting alone in Old Town Whiskey put the hotel lobby's decor to shame. And Garces' homage to Mexico City, Distrito, was adorable -- with tables covered in oilcloth and glitter, Mexican crafts on the walls, a movie-like marquee advertising tequila drinks and creative menu ideas at all three locations. 

The Saguaro seems to have its heart in the right place, with creative events like an Awkward Christmas Party last month, a fashion show devoted to the history of the little black dress, and promises of featured work by local artists. 

Hey, it's no Ace, but we'll work with the hand we've been dealt. We're used to it.

Note: This post has been updated since its original publication.  

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