In a PUBLIC Place

HE’s staff writer, Mary Kenney, takes a private tour inside the chic Chicago hotel

Aboveground, Ian Schrager’s Chicago hotel is a collection of soothing grays and beiges, of backward-ticking clocks, fireplaces, and soft golden lighting. But Gabriel Nieves does not start his daily walk aboveground. He begins far below the suites and conference rooms and lobbies, beneath concrete and marble and wide pipes. He navigates the underground maze of lockers, kitchens, and an assortment of other rooms devoted to the hotel’s upkeep with apparent ease. “I got lost a few times when I first got here,” he admits.

Gabriel Nieves, Director of Human Resources, Public Hotels. Photo by Sheila Barabad.
Gabriel Nieves, Director of Human Resources, Public Hotels. Photo by Sheila Barabad.

Nieves, the hotel’s director of human resources, joined PUBLIC hotel group in April 2014, nearly three years after PUBLIC Chicago opened in the former Ambassador East hotel. Owner Ian Schrager wanted PUBLIC to embody luxury and leisure at prices the average visitor could afford. Rooms at PUBLIC start at $150, ranging up to more than $1,500 for some of the penthouse suites. Nieves’s role is part of an extensive and varied network to make Schrager’s dream a reality along Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Nieves has always lived in Chicago, and slid seamlessly into the framework of the very Chicagoan hotel. He has more than a decade of experience in labor and human capital management under his belt. After threading through the locker rooms and kitchens, greeting workers by their first names, both in English and Spanish—“O-wen!” “How’s the baby?” “Que pasa?”—Nieves jogs up the stairs and into the main lobby. He takes a left into the Pump Room.

Not a utility room as its name suggests, the restaurant is one of the most historic spots in Chicago and a huge draw for the hotel. It echoes the colors of the lobby and library, but its white-gold and sage accents as well as its  giant, illuminated resin globes take guests back to the restaurant’s 1920s roots. When Schrager bought the space, he announced plans to completely redecorate, but he left the naming of the restaurant to the public. Once polled, Chicagoans overwhelmingly answered, “the Pump Room.” Schrager incorporated his idea of affordable luxury into the space by asking Jean-Georges Vongerichten to design the menu. For less than $100, a couple can share cocktails, pretzel-dusted calamari and local dishes like slow-cooked halibut and prosciutto-wrapped pork chop.

Ava Terrace Recently, the hotel hosted the cast of Chicago Fire here to view the season premiere. It’s easy to see why they chose this terrace out of any place in the city that would have been glad to have them.

Nieves heads back out of the Pump Room and into a small elevator. The staff members swirling around him blend into the background, but the fact that they aren’t dressed in stuffy pressed uniforms is notable. Nieves, himself, wears jeans and a tweed jacket. His strategy at PUBLIC is to instill a sense of service in all of his employees but with professionalism that is friendly and disarming rather than overly proper and ceremonial. Nieves carries a plastic card in his pocket—one that every employee owns­—that outlines PUBLIC ideals. The first of these: “I know that service matters most.”

The elevator pings as it reaches the seventeenth floor, and Nieves walks into Ava (seen above), one of the event rooms (all of the conference rooms are named for Schrager’s children—Sophia, Ava, and Louis. Several rooms bear their initials, SAL). Stepping out on to the outdoor balcony, the city of Chicago climbs up like the tiers of a cake, with buildings circling on all sides and one wedge that opens to the deep blue of Lake Michigan. Nieves takes a seat on a small couch overlooking the Gold Coast. If there is such a thing as Schrager’s dream of “simple chic,” this is it.