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The Dean, Providence

The city of Providence, Rhode Island, in the northeastern United States is home to some of the region’s most prestigious colleges, including Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Paying tribute to the city’s collegiate history with a clever ‘old school meets new school’ approach, The Dean hotel is a boutique dwelling that marries tradition with contemporary touches. Housed in an elegant old building built in 1912 as a rescue mission by the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island (and later becoming a strip club), the rooms of these designer digs contain treasures found on expeditions to antique markets in France, alongside newly fashioned furniture and fittings by local designers.

“For a long time, I went to bed early” is the typographical uttering spread across the side wall of The Dean hotel. The words of Marcel Proust – the opening line of his tome Remembrance of Things Past – suggest that this particular dwelling is not for those who like to turn in early.

Aside from the literary pronouncement on its exterior flank, however, and a bulb-lit sign that merely reads ‘HOTEL’, The Dean announces its presence with very little fanfare. Sitting a block away from one of Providence’s main pedestrian stretches, the four-floor red-brick building is rather modest compared to the enormous hotels in the near vicinity. At a mere 52 rooms, this particular dwelling is focused more on cultivating a niche community than catering to the masses.

As I enter, the lobby feels instantly welcoming, with a throne-like red-velvet chair sitting below a bookshelf, as if beckoning me to sit down immediately and immerse myself in the pages of a literary tale. I resist the temptation – at least until after I’ve checked in – but I survey the spines of the books lining the shelves, mentally earmarking one for later.

It’s clear that the lobby is not intended to encourage transience. Long couches, plenty of reading material (there are also art and design magazines aplenty), and a roomy communal table all encourage you to linger and socialise with your fellow travellers. Or with the locals who have stopped by for their daily espresso at The Dean’s in-house cafe, Bolt Coffee Co. The mosaic tiles of the community gathering space are well worn, but charmingly so, a sign of having borne the footsteps of many a traveller. Antique curios including a leather pommel horse and an ageing wooden ladder (now holding today’s newspaper) make the space even more cosy. And a stern portrait of a bespectacled man, representing ‘the dean’ archetype, watches sombrely over the space – each room in the hotel is home to a similar portrait.

I make my way to the petite lift at the back, and pull open the heavy windowed door. A tiny stool sits in the corner of the intimate space, as if symbolising the days when the lift might have been occupied by an attendant, politely ferrying guests between floors. When it bounces to a halt at the third floor, I squeeze back the accordion gate (another whimsical nod to the days of old) and step into the narrow hall lined with vintage Persian rugs.

Roosted on the wall midway down the hallway is a bright red, rotary-dial telephone. Etched on the wall in ruby-red cursive and ebony sans-serif is a simple direction: ‘Telephone to desk,’ it encourages, in lieu of individual phones in each room. This particular design quirk enhances the community feel of the hotel, and I imagine a queue of immaculately pyjamaed folk waiting to use the telephone (though I never actually see anyone engaging the service during my stay).

Typography of all sorts is a constant presence throughout the hotel. Thoughtful messages adorn low-hanging ceilings cautioning you to ‘Watch your head’. Neon signs (the work of students from the local Rhode Island School of Design) offer words of encouragement – ‘Time for another’ one urges, another subtle hint against letting your head hit the pillow too early. And delicate gold-leaf numerals embellish long mirrors on the stairwell, heralding your arrival on each floor under the glow of a glamorous chandelier.

The ambience of my room is modern yet classic. Except for the discreetly wall-mounted television, I feel as though I could almost be in a time decades earlier, and my worn, leather gladstone bag fits right into the setting. Black venetian blinds filter the afternoon radiance to cast a cinematic silhouette across the floorboards (the originals from the building, lovingly rehabilitated for the current incarnation). Industrial yet elegant light fixtures bookend the bedhead, while the bathroom maintains the classic ambience, with a brass accordion mirror and old-fashioned cross-handelled faucets adorning the vanity.

A dapper leather folder welcomes me to the hotel and offers all manner of tips and locales for truly integrating myself with the locals and culture of Providence. But then there’s also the option to stay right where I am, as The Dean is also home to its own restaurant, cocktail bar, and a karaoke locale named The Boombox. Perhaps a late night is in order after all.