Reimagining a Timeless Design

The past and present clash together at Crash Hotel.

Photography Adam Goudreau

When Al Gothjelpsen first walked into what was meant to become Crash Hotel, he knew he had walked into a place that had gone through hard times. The building has been purposed as a hotel and bar since its construction in 1904. Although it has been run down many times since then, he knew there was no other place to draw design influence.

“Our inspiration, though it wasn’t really planned that way, ended up coming from all the different eras the hotel had lived through, instead of just one,” he recalls. “We couldn’t ignore the ’30s or the ’80s, you know? There are 112 years of stories to tell within these four walls.”

The time-warping design of Crash Hotel can be sensed immediately upon arrival. Gothjelpsen, the managing partner and director of operations at Urban Sparq Hospitality Group (as well as unofficial event planner, janitor, handyman, concierge and interior decorator), wanted this effect. It was part of his plan to make Crash Hotel a part of travellers’ vacations rather than just somewhere to sleep. In order to do that, he knew he had to create an atmosphere like no other. This meant taking stylistic risks.

The main floor, for instance, pulls visitors into the early days of Hemingway. They might just feel as if they’re tucked away in a small European boutique hotel from the ’20s, meeting fellow guests over cocktails and sitting with them for late-night dinner. Mix that image with muted colours, low lighting, red laminate floors and a men’s lounge (sans cigars), and that’s the Crash lobby and bar.

From the custom solid wood doors meant to be replicas of the building’s originals, to the reception desk filled with antique suitcases, it’s the details that create the larger picture. The bar and restaurant pay homage to the building’s railway days, with lots of deeply-oiled wood surfaces. Black leather upholstery lines the bar, the retro booths and chairs to tie in the black tin ceiling. And a massive library filing cabinet – once meant to organize Dewey-decimal book cards – is filled with bottles of wine. Just pull on one of the mismatched knobs to find your favourite.

“There’s a lot more bravery involved when you want to do things left-of-centre,” Gothjelpsen says, sitting in the transitional bar-cafe-restaurant, speaking loudly over the collection of vintage speakers playing a mix of hits from the ceiling. “But people are looking for something different now. That’s what we wanted to do.”

Step upstairs to the guest room levels and the notion of Hemingway’s lounge is shattered by extra-wide, dimly lit corridors that make a person feel as if they are walking the halls of a wartime ship. Dark wood trim lines the floor and the ceiling and industrial caged light fixtures dimly light the way. The room numbers are stamped haphazardly on each door; not one is straight or centred.

“Once you get to your room it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure hotel,” Gothjelpsen explains. The rooms were truly a design-build; the internal team went in without plans and decorated room by room. As a result, not one is like another. Some feature large-scale graffiti, references to Star Wars, and entire walls made from suitcases; others have chunky Victorian lamps, classic black and white tile, and vibrantly coloured word-murals.

Gothjepsen says the trick to their interior design was not taking anything too seriously. He wanted Crash Hotel to be a social hub – “an experiential hotel” –  and the decor lends a hand in that. People are so enthralled by their bizarrely decorated rooms that they invite strangers in to take photos and look at the decor choices. 

Aside from wall-sized quotes about tacos or pugs, every room has a few small things in common, like Red Bull mini-fridges stocked with more than just single-ounce bottles of booze. Each tenant will find, at the very least, a mickey of Jgermeister, a full bottle of whiskey, a bottle of wine, hard cream soda and supposed hangover remedies. This might also be the first hotel that ditched clunky corded phones. At Crash, if you need something, just text the concierge.

In Room 202, one of the very first spaces that was decorated, the ceiling is lined with Edison bulb string lights illuminating one entire wall that’s covered in a calligraphy-adorned mojito recipe.

“Let’s face it,” Gothjelpsen says, “this is a party hotel and we wanted to remind whoever is staying in here how to get drunk on a well-made mojito.” And just in case the wall art actually inspires a minty-fresh bender, this room has all the necessary ingredients you would need, including a mortar and pestle, to mix your very own.

Room 228 is Crash Hotel’s first reinvigorated suite. The entertainment-centred living room is complete with a ’70s-inspired red striped carpet, a vintage leather dry bar and mid-century modern couches to lounge on. But, if you need, you can find some alone time through the bedroom/barn door on a king size bed beneath a graffiti mural of a chimpanzee wearing red shutter shades and holding a banana like a gun.

This suite sits above the corner entrance to the building, where the original structure once boasted a large private balcony. Gothjelpsen says the hotel is in the process of obtaining permits from the City to recreate it. For now, large corner windows look out onto what will eventually become a completed Ice District. 

In one of Crash’s mini-suites you’ll find a space that’s all about making noise. Room 219 has one whole wall constructed from over 50 different stereos, speakers and amps. It also has a RCA record player for the guests to use, along with a complimentary collection of vinyl. If that’s too old school for you, just use an aux cord to plug in your own tunes to blast over the speakers. Just make sure the noise won’t knock the Flintstones-themed art off of the walls.

Room 207 is inspired by ’70s-era pulp. Aside from the black velvet paintings of semi-nude ladies above the bed, two massive Victorian lamps stand tall on each side of it.

“Pieces like that are sourced from pawn shops and antique stores and Kijiji,” Gothjelpsen explains. “And we basically design the room around it.” He also claims that the decor team probably spent more money driving around and bartering with people for pieces than it cost to buy the items.

Coming soon is a Pan Am themed room, making use of colourful suitcases from the ’50s and ’60s along with other airline paraphernalia.

All in all, the hotel will have 72 rooms when it is completely finished.

“We created this hotel for the hip, millennial demographic that we expected to attract. But it has been so much more,” Gothjelpsen says. “That’s been my favourite part so far-seeing the people come through and love this hotel that I never would have thought would like it at all. It really is all about the experience.”

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