22 April 2014

A place for Parkin

6/03/2013 10:47:00 a.m.


It’s now on Yahoo’s list of the world’s top ten hotels for art, but it once was a budget hotel, and only exists at all because of a wager. In his series on Wellington’s hotels, Niels Reinsborg looks at the Museum Art Hotel and chats with owner and art enthusiast Chris Parkin.

It could be said Chris Parkin moved lock stock and barrel to own his own hotel. In fact Parkin moved the whole hotel, all 3,500 tonnes of it. Yet the banker and foreign exchange consultant only entered the hotel business as a result of a bet with the Secretary of Internal Affairs after the department found itself the unexpected owners of an hotel.

The luxurious Michael Fowler Hotel (the former mayor once owned an apartment within its walls) had opened in 1987, only three weeks before the financial market collapse. In the early 90s it stood on waterfront land destined as the site for Te Papa. Now owned by the government, Internal Affairs had continued to run the hotel “very unsuccessfully”, according to Parkin. He says, “I bet him that if I ran the hotel I could get back the money he had lost, though at the time the only thing I knew about hotels was from staying in them.”

True to his word, and running the business as a budget hotel, Parkin was soon making money.

“I shared the profits with the government and they got back everything they’d lost. I did the taxpayer a favour.”

But Parkin always knew his hotel was destined for demolition, and in November 1992 the letter arrived.  Construction of the new national museum was to commence the following year. And that, it seemed, was the end of Parkin’s hotel until one day he was chatting with his next door neighbour.

“He was in the construction industry and he told me he’d just read an article in a magazine about how overseas they’d moved a large building along railway tracks. Remember those were the days before internet and Google, but it gave me this crazy idea.”

At 3,500 tonnes nobody had ever moved such a large building in New Zealand before. Parkin got his hands on some railway bogies that were about to be melted down as scrap metal and then managed to persuade Mainzeal to do the job on a success fee basis.

Eight sets of parallel railway tracks were laid from the hotel’s waterfront site to its new site 120 metres across the road, and in August 1993 the hotel was lifted onto the bogies and moved over two days, each a week apart. The only items removed from the building before the move was the bed linen.

“We basically turned the hotel into a railway carriage, and the Gods were smiling because everything just came together,” Parkin says. Nothing was damaged and his rescue mission led him to be named Wellingtonian of the Year.

Settled onto its permanent site Parkin began the hotel’s transformation.

“After three years as a budget hotel I realised the only way to make any real money was to go up market.”

Originally built as a luxury hotel the building already had qualify fittings. Parkin went about his conversion, his artistic tastes reflected in every room of the hotel, from the silver Art Deco wallpaper and the large glass chandeliers to the mirrored lifts. He added a $29 million nine storey expansion in 2006, a mix of hotel rooms and apartments, and opened the fine dining French themed Hippopotamus Restaurant a year later.

“Someone in sales decided we needed a flash name for this restaurant since we had this flash new French chef, Laurent Loudeac. We ran a radio competition and got thousands of entries, but when I saw the short list I thought they were all dreadful. I said, ‘This is hopeless, give me 10 minutes’. So I went away and thought about it and the name of this little gourmet burger bar I went to in Los Angeles flashed back into my mind. When I went back and said we were calling our new restaurant Hippopotamus it was off the wall and jaws dropped.”

It was this same attitude to branding and a newly acquired taste for contemporary New Zealand art that saw Parkin develop his idea of an art hotel.

“We could be the same as everyone else and compete on price and service, but I wanted to be different,” he says. “I started buying the odd work here and there to decorate the lobby and I’ve added to it as I could afford to.”

More than 100 works now decorate the hotel, an eclectic mix of paintings and sculptures by Nigel Brown, Robin White, Dick Frizzell, John Pule, Brent Wong and many more. It’s very different from the classical and impressionist styles he was familiar with in his youth. Aged three, Parkin arrived in New Zealand with his “ten bob immigrant” parents from the South Yorkshire town of Doncaster. His father was a farm labourer with aspirations to own his own farm in New Zealand. Instead he studied as an accountant, operating his own practice in Otaki for 25 years.

“My parents had classical educations so there was always classical music and art books around me. It wasn’t until 1970, when I saw a Brett Wong exhibition, that the world of contemporary art suddenly hit me. It was the way he captured colour and the New Zealand geography along with his futuristic monolithic structures in the sky and Space Odyssey was very big at the time.”

One particular Wong painting caught his eye. It was going for $60, more than he could afford at the time. He was able to purchase the painting in the late 90’s. It cost him $40,000.

At 64, Parkin’s happy running his boutique art hotel. He’s very much a hands on owner. As we talk in the hotel lobby a hotel employer with a duster has annoyed him. He excuses himself to speak with the young man, who immediately leaves the floor.

“You can’t get well trained staff anymore,” Parkin complains on his return.” Yeah It’s pretty much fulltime, full on here, but I do it because I love it. It’s hard for me to distinguish between what’s work and what’s a hobby.”

Harder perhaps since he also lives in an apartment in the hotel with his partner, Kathy Tipler, who happens to be the hotel manager. 

Yet Parkin does find time for things outside the hotel business. He’s earned his name as a patron of the arts, including donations to the Wellington Sculpture Trust and sponsoring the top student at Toi Whakaari.  Last year he announced a $20,000 top prize for a national drawing competition. He’s also chair of the New Zealand Affordable Arts Trust, Wellington Venues Ltd and Te Whaea Services (which operates the schools of dance and drama), and a trustee of the Hannah Playhouse (Downstage). He can often be seen off the beaten track, usually on a motorbike.

Nor is he content just to babysit the Museum Art Hotel. Parkin has plans for an even grander five star hotel, a 20 storey building on the corner of Tory and Cable Streets.

“Whether it will get the required consents remains to be seen because it will be well above the height limit, but I’d rather see a tall elegant tower there than a squashed ugly building.”
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