The time machine I’ve walked into is no ordinary transporter—it’s actually pulling me in two different directions.
The soaring archways and Edison-lightbulb-filled chandeliers suspended from its 30-foot coffered ceiling draw me back to the Art Deco 1920s—a feeling aided by Philadelphia’s grand City Hall, which stands just outside. But the colorful curved lines that snake along its furniture and twist around its neon artwork hurl me somewhere north of the present day. Fortunately, this time machine also comes with a soothing, excellent Old Fashioned—one with an unexpected twist.
For now though, I linger in the light-filled lobby of The Notary Hotel, City Center’s sophisticated new addition that opened as a member of Autograph Collection Hotels after a year-long transformation. I’m drawn to this palatial space the same way people are enchanted by modern art in stately old galleries.
“I imagine looking through their eyes—a sepia-toned vision of excited locals in decade-appropriate dress lining up for their stamp of approval on the same marble floor, under the same coffered ceiling.”
Here, it’s easy to channel the hotel’s 1920s origins as an annex to City Hall. Philadelphians flocked here to notarize documents that signaled new beginnings—a birth, a marriage, a new business venture—under the watchful eye of carved cherubs, which remain etched in the walls. I imagine looking through their eyes—a sepia-toned vision of excited locals in decade-appropriate dress lining up for their stamp of approval on the same marble floor, under the same coffered ceiling.
Today, the hulking steel cabinets and torso-size ledgers have been replaced with an entrancing elegance. And it’s not just hotel guests such as I who fall under the spell. As I sit and type, the clickety clack of my keyboard may evoke an era of rowdy typewriters, but it’s in chorus with the industrious murmur of modern-day travelers and locals—property developers, lawyers, policemen, and newspaper editors. They barrel in from the nearby courthouse, ordering cherry Danishes and shots of local coffee, then claim a private nook on one of the many Art Deco-inspired sofas. Nearby, two women play chess beneath the towering arched windows and a boy sits cross-legged on a pin-button pouffe, which glows in the morning light like a stack of gold bars.
I can’t help but think that here, among the oversize herringbone and pinstripe cushions, decisions—and approvals—still happen, connecting past with present. That connection isn’t just a vision of my imagination. The dapper concierge who checks me in walked these halls as a teenager, seeking his birth certificate—a prerequisite for landing his first job. “I was so relieved when I got it,” he told me, beaming at the memory. “I spent that first paycheck on concert tickets for my childhood sweetheart.” He stamps my key-card sleeve with the hotel logo, and I smile, too, at this smart touch that evokes the past as it elevates a mundane task to the level of meaningful tradition.
Eleven floors up, I’m rewarded with a stunning view of City Hall’s famous gargoyles and more than 250 sculptures that adorn the building, as well as a dramatic expanse of skyline, which even a century ago must have proved a distraction for anyone filing documents. I luxuriate in the view, as well as the chrome lamps and lion headboard in my suite that pay homage to Art Deco.
Here, too, my time machine pulls my present into both past and future: The minibar emerges from what looks like old plan-drawers; and shelves display a rotary dial desk calendar and a bespoke library of contemporary novels sporting old-fashioned covers. I fall asleep watching the skyscrapers blink on and off like Christmas lights and wake the next morning as the elegant old stone buildings cast jagged shadows over the blank faces of glass skyscrapers.
“There’s something about this landmark building that sparks heavy waves of nostalgia. Guests literally stop in their tracks, transfixed by a swathe of boldly patterned carpet, a green-and-charcoal lattice, an interlocking frieze of Grecian gold.”
That evening, I don my pale pink blazer for dinner. It’s an outlandish sartorial choice post-Labor Day, but among the bronzed swivel club lounges, beaded chandeliers, and powder blue sofa, I feel right at home. There’s something about this landmark building that sparks heavy waves of nostalgia. Guests literally stop in their tracks, me included, transfixed by a swathe of boldly patterned carpet, a green-and-charcoal lattice, an interlocking frieze of Grecian gold. What place, what home, what younger self does it remind me of? I have spent half my stay lost in a kaleidoscopic reverie.
At The Notary’s tapas restaurant, Sabroso+Sorbo, the executive chef provides yet another connection to the past. A much-younger version of this man visited the building when his parents applied for their marriage license, a harbinger of his current calling in cuisine-creating. After chatting, he returns to the kitchen to prepare a procession of tapas that includes the most perfect ceviche—mandarin crescents no larger than grapes with fish marbled to the texture of terrazzo—and spicy paprika meatballs made with beef and pork. In this modern era, of course, all the plates must be ready for their social media moment, and every single one is a delight to behold.
“You can always make a mark. You just need to give it some time—and plenty of heart.”
Later, when the evening crowd filters in, I move to the adjacent bar for that Old Fashioned, watching with quiet fascination as my bartender melts The Notary logo into an ice cube. Surely this small piece of wizardry requires heat or electricity, or a little of both? My bartender shakes her head knowingly and presents me with a hefty brass stamp. “You can always make a mark,” she says. “You just need to give it some time—and plenty of heart.”
—By Adam McCulloch
Explore the possibilities that can come from staying at any of the Autograph Collection Hotels—where you’ll find experiences and stories that are exactly like nothing else.