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At Home in Boston's Back Bay at the Colonnade Hotel

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

David Colella was in a reflective mood. It was the morning after we’d checked into the Colonnade Hotel, and we were having breakfast with David, who is its managing director. At some point, the conversation turned from the Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory the night before and the imminent parade of the champions to homecomings, and he began telling us about the trajectory that brought him to this glamorous, neo-modern property in Boston’s Back Bay that has recently undergone a $26-million renovation.

“I was at U Mass Amherst majoring in French,” the distinguished-looking hotel exec said. “My thought was I’d go back to my prep school after I graduated and become a French teacher and lacrosse coach. But after two years, I realized that was not exactly what I wanted to do and transferred to the Isenberg School of Management. Now my ambition was to become a VP with an international company, utilizing my French. Somehow, however, I took an interview with a hotel company and really hit it off with the corporate VP. They made an offer. It certainly wasn’t that lucrative financially, but it seemed to be more ‘me’ so I tried the idea on. That was 35 years ago.”

He smiled, sipped his coffee, and continued. “Flash forward a couple of decades. I’m managing a hotel in Philadelphia. My wife, our two kids and I are happy in Philadelphia, but we’re considering moving back to Chicago where I’d previously worked, managing the Ambassador East Hotel. Chicago is such a great city…sophisticated, yet the people there still have this Midwestern aura.

“Out of the blue I received a call from the owner of The Colonnade Hotel inquiring as to my interest in returning to Boston. ‘Just take the train to New York, meet me at the Harvard Club,’ he said. ‘We can meet for an hour, then you can get on the train to Philly.’

“A few days later, he called again. ‘Come up to Boston for the Labor Day weekend. I want you to meet my team here, and you can visit your family.’

“I came up, met the hotel family, saw my own family. A few more meetings followed.”

David paused and leaned back in his chair. “I was convinced. And you know what? It has been the best decision I have made. I am running one of Boston's premier hotels and working for a wonderful company.  I’d been away 15 years. I have been able to re-connect with friends with whom I attended high school and college. My children got to spend time with their grandparents, attend public schools in Norwell, a wonderful south shore town we moved to, and then on to the Hospitality Management School at Cornell University. Now they’re both in the business.”

And so is their father, now into his twentieth year at the hotel that was twenty years old when he arrived in 1991.  “The neighborhood was very different in the 1970’s,” David Colella told us. “It was hardly the first place you’d think of building a luxury hotel. But with the gentrification of the brownstones along Mass Avenue and St. Botolph, Back Bay has become upscale. It’s a connection between Beacon Hill and the Fenway area; the historic area is at the foot of Back Bay.

“It’s the backbone of Boston hospitality. You can walk to Fenway Park and to Symphony Hall from the hotel. Some of the biggest shopping venues: Newbury Street, Boylston Street, the shops at the Prudential Center are close by – many have grown up around the hotel, and the Mall at Copley Square is practically next door. The Hynes Convention Center is across the street, the Christian Science Museum a block away. It’s a terrific area, an exciting part of the city for both day and night life.”

Funny – we’d been to Boston so many times but only now as David Colella described it were all the parts falling into place. It was like seeing a jigsaw puzzle with many disconnected pieces finally being put together. We’d known Fenway Park and the B.U. neighborhood from way back; we’d been to Jamaica Plain where our family lives dozens of times as well as Faneuil Hall and the seaport. But for some reason, the whole middle section of the city remained a blur until after we unpacked our bags at the Colonnade. 

An elaborate waist-high semicircular model of Boston standing in the center of the spacious lobby proved a great visual aide. One can walk around the curve and see marshy areas turn via landfills into livable space, roads and avenues come into existence, and neighborhoods form as one of America’s major and most historic of cities evolves before your eyes.

It is a fitting construct and rightfully placed in the Colonnade both for the hotel’s locale and for its position which – together with an adjacent high-rise apartment house -- stretches across an entire block of Huntington Avenue.  An urban version of condos being built alongside high-end resorts, this residential building of  99 apartments and four penthouses offers tenants the use of amenities offered by its luxurious  partner such as on-site parking, concierge and room service, hotel exercise facilities, and housekeeping. Since it came up eight years ago, the rental property  has filled a hole in the market, David Colella said, being geared to people who want an apartment in the city, usually a second or third home, but would rather rent than purchase.

Residents are free to join hotel guests in the Colonnade’s famous “RTP,” an enchanted expanse high above the city streets where the glass and steel towers of Back Bay skyscrapers seem close enough to touch. Its centerpiece, the only “roof-top pool” in a Boston hotel, is surrounded by a double-deck lounging area, planters overflowing with colorful flowers, and small dining tables shaded by green and white umbrellas. It is a “heavenly” site not only for lounging but al fresco dining from morning until early evening.      

Managing Director David Colella the Colonnade’s “RTP”

Alternatively, one can dine on ground level in the bright and sparkling Brasserie Jo. With a wall of windows along Huntington Avenue, a marble floor that gleams like a mirror, tables covered with crisp white tablecloths, and a Gallic ambience embodied in a largely French menu and floor-to-ceiling mural depicting a 1920’s Parisian gathering, this hotel dining room has the rare distinction of being, at the same time, one of Boston’s hottest restaurants.

“The original Brasserie Jo was opened in Chicago by ‘Lettuce Entertain You,’ a company that does concept restaurants,” David Colella had told us. “I wanted it for the Colonnade; there wasn’t anything like it in Boston.  We worked out an agreement where we license the name but own the restaurant and adopted the same architect and menu (which has changed over the years). The name ‘Jo’ is for a well-known Alsatian chef who comes out every couple of months, sees what we’re doing, works with us.”

An American take on the classic French Brasserie, Brasserie Jo is casual and comfortable. Free-standing, waist-high buffets, dining booths, floor-to-ceiling pillars and potted palms loosely carve intimate areas out of what could otherwise be a cavernous space. Different moods emerge in different sections: a 1940’s “Film Noir” sensibility in the rear dining area, a contemporary continental feel in the row of tables along the window wall both in- and (weather permitting) outdoors, an Art Deco aura in the long bar and cocktail table section. Famed for its variety of 12-ounce martinis, this popular watering hole is packed most evenings, yet those seated in other areas seem barely aware of its existence.

And then there is the food – from morning to the wee small hours, from eggs and pancakes to such “Plats Principaux” as Coq Au Vin - Alsace-style, Mussels Riesling Marinière, and the eternal Parisian Steak and Pommes Frites.  When we met friends in the middle of the afternoon – too late for lunch but too early for dinner -- we sat at a window-side table, shared a bottle of Chardonnay, and feasted on oysters and Littleneck clams.

A 285-room property, the Colonnade has an extensive F&B department. In addition to Brasserie Jo, “RTP” and 24-hour room service, there are year-round social and business events in the hotel’s varied public rooms. Although Nicholas Calias looks too young to shoulder such a range of responsibilities, the ebullient and charismatic chef has been overseeing the entire operation for the past eight years and manages to be a presence at every Colonnade wedding, bar mitzvah, benefit, and conference.  He knows his way around Indian cuisine, is expert at making Maki rolls (his sushi is in great demand at the RTP), and can handle any American preparation.  But his heart, it seemed to us, lies in “la gastronomie Française,” in particular such delicacies as roast bone marrow, duck confit, and escargots en cocotte. “In my eighth grade yearbook, it says my ambition is to be a chef,” he told us. “That’s still true. You gotta love what you do, and for me, it’s a passion.

“There is no one I would rather work for than David Colella,” he added, expressing a sentiment we picked up over and over again through our stay. From Jimmy Flanzbaum, longtime bell captain, to Jerry Good, the most detail- and service-oriented concierge we have yet to encounter, everyone we spoke to revealed an enthusiasm for the property and their role in it.

 Chef Nicholas Calias

Concierge Jerry Good

Bell Captain Jerry Flanzbaum

As for the managing director, he is convinced he made the right decision twenty years ago when he finally accepted an offer resisted at first but ultimately found impossible to refuse.

“They say you can’t go home again, but I did.” David Colella said. “What I discovered is you won’t find things to be exactly the way they were, but if you can accept that some things change, then you’ll see how many things have stayed the same. I was away for 15 years – in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Philadelphia again. And then I came back to Boston. I re-connected with my roots, and I’m home.”

The Colonnade Hotel
120 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02116

Phone:  617-424-7000

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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