Comcast Corp., which owns the Flyers, Wells Fargo Center, local cable systems, a new arena for esports, and NBC10, will notch another Philadelphia franchise on Monday: a high-end hotel with unmatched views.
The 500-employee Four Seasons on the top 12 floors of the new Comcast Technology Center will open after a “soft launch” in recent weeks, with hotel employees and guests using an entrance and elevators at the opposite side of the tower, at 19th and Arch Streets.
In what Four Seasons calls the “highest elevation” hotel in America, front desk employees on the 60th-floor lobby check guests into their rooms. Guests reach those staffers through one of three glass-enclosed elevators that traverse the outside of the building — rising roughly 1,000 feet — in less than a minute (my iPhone timed two trips at 52 seconds).
The opening comes as Comcast faces a tough time in its cable-TV franchise because of cord-cutting. It has invested in other businesses seeking growth, including Universal Parks & Resorts with a big expansion of hotel rooms and plans for a new theme park in Orlando, Fla. Last year, Comcast acquired European pay-TV operator Sky for $40 billion and in 2020 has plans to launch an advertising-supported streaming service through NBCUniversal. Analysts say Comcast has to keep growing its internet broadband business as it sheds cable-TV subscribers.
Comcast hasn’t talked about plans for a stand-alone hotel business but putting the Four Seasons Philadelphia on top of the 10th-tallest building in America gives it a strategic advantage — some would say another local monopoly on the views — in the modest Philadelphia luxury hotel market.
“The one thing that hotels can sell and what people will buy is the view,” said Ceridwyn King, chair of the hospitality program at Temple University. Comcast is “completely leveraging the fact that they are so far up,” she added. "It will be extremely difficult to replicate.”
Taking five years and $1.5 billion to finish, the Comcast Technology Center opened in late 2018 to a steady flow of 4,000 often jeans-clad employees and contractors who enter the tower through 18th and Arch Streets to toil away on the building’s lower 48 floors.
At 1,121 feet, it is taller than what previously had been the city’s tallest building: the Comcast Center, at 974 feet.
Comcast owns 80 percent of the building and its partner, Liberty Property Trust, the remaining 20 percent. Now comes the final act for the project: the hotel.
With rates that top $600 a night, the 219-room hotel will have a touch of celebrity with chefs Greg Vernick and Jean-Georges Vongerichten running restaurants there (also opening Monday) and Los Angeles-based florist Jeff Leatham planning the flowers.
Leatham made the gossip mags when he hung 20,000 carnations from the roof of the Hotel Bel-Air in California for Khloé Kardashian’s baby shower in 2018 and arranged a million white roses for a wedding between a Nigerian oil billionaire and an Iranian model at Britain’s Blenheim Palace in 2017. He remains based in Los Angeles but oversees an eight-member staff on site and holds the title of floral director in Philadelphia.
“We have turned a typical hotel on its head,” said Christian Clerc, president of worldwide hotel operations for Four Seasons who will come to Philadelphia on Monday for the official opening. “You get an incredible view that’s completely unexpected.” He added that “you could pick up this hotel and put it anyplace — New York, London, Paris, or Bangkok — and it would be the best hotel in town.”
Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts announced the project in early 2014, just as Comcast was about to launch an unsuccessful bid for Time Warner Cable. Federal regulators would not let the deal go through over concerns about Comcast/Time Warner Cable’s market power in the high-speed internet business even as construction advanced.
The Comcast CEO considered options for a second Comcast tower — the Comcast Center headquarters opened more than a decade ago — and decided he didn’t want a smaller or same-sized building such as Liberty Place One and Two. Liberty Two was shorter. Some whisper, though, that Comcast “cheated” on the height by attaining its tallest building in Philadelphia with a lighted lantern atop the 60th floor.
British architect Norman Foster won the Comcast competition for the new tower, partly for the design and also after he told Roberts that he would be personally involved in the project. Foster’s most distinctive — and daring — building is 30 St. Mary Axe in London, informally known as “the gherkin” for its pickle shape. Foster’s firm Foster + Partners also designed the Star Trek-looking Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.
Roberts himself has purchased a floor of three condo units in the new tower, an indication of how the hotel could be reused if it doesn’t work as a luxury hotel. Four Seasons itself operates residents-only buildings, opening one in London this year.
“It’s really a super building,” said David E. Brownlee, a historian of modern architecture and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Comcast has managed to build a building that is better than the first.” He added that it’s a “whopper” of a building but it doesn’t "overwhelm this city of narrow streets and energetic pedestrian traffic. I like how it adds to the skyline without overwhelming it.”
And Brownlee said that “they have given the public the best space, the penthouse” with the hotel lobby and bar.
Less enthusiastic was Witold Rybczynski, emeritus professor of urbanism at Penn and the author of the recent book Charleston Fancy. He said that he thinks the new Comcast skyscraper "is very boxy. I am an admirer of many projects that Foster does. I don’t think this is one of his best projects. It looks like a bunch of boxes assembled together.”
Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron said in her review in January that people debate whether the building’s mast “resembles a vulgar hand gesture or looks more like a cigarette being extracted from its box.” But more important, Saffron observed, “the new tower is the rare, globally produced, corporate behemoth that speaks directly to its hometown, intimately, with affection. You can almost hear the c’mon and the jawn echo from the lobby’s end-grain wood tiles, reclaimed from old factories. Where Comcast soars is on the ground and in the numerous public spaces that weave through the building, syncing the tower to the rhythms of Philadelphia.”
Through the 1980s, the city’s developers heeded a gentleman’s agreement that building heights would not surpass that of the Billy Penn statue atop City Hall. At the top floors of the Four Seasons Philadelphia, diners at Jean-Georges, or overnight guests in rooms facing east, can look down on Billy Penn.
Four Seasons, which closed its Logan Square location in 2015, has recruited employees from around the globe to staff the new hotel, though many have local roots.
Ben Shank, 41, is a Lower Merion High School graduate and the general manager of the Four Seasons. He was dressed in a white shirt, Burberry tie, and navy suit about 10 days before the official opening, dealing with the final preparations. It was a Friday about 5 p.m. and people were checking in.
But the hotel still had to roll up the metal fencing around the drive-in entrance at 19th and Arch Streets. Also, the water fountain leading into the Jean-Georges on the 59th floor was spitting water sporadically. Something was wrong with the water pressure.
Shank said that they would be ready for Monday’s opening. “It’s cutting edge," he said of the hotel, “where you are literally at the top of the city and overlooking it.”
Four Seasons conducted 7,000 job interviews for its 500 employees, Shank said.
Gregory Viaud, 39, was raised in Saint-Tropez, France, between Nice and Marseille. The Philadelphia hotel’s manager, Viaud began his career at the 220-room Four Seasons in London with later career stops in Bora Bora, Maui (where he met Shank), Bali, and Los Angeles, where the hit movie Pretty Woman was filmed. “No, I had never been to Philly. But I had never been to Bali,” Viaud said.
And Verena Lasvigne, 39, the senior spa director at the Four Seasons, said that she wanted to work in a hotel even as a little girl, growing up in Germany. Before Philadelphia, she held positions at Four Seasons in Paris, Marrakesh, Morocco, and Seychelles, off East Africa in the Indian Ocean. She runs the 27-employee spa with massage rooms and a hair salon, which will be open to members of the public, who can take the glass-enclosed elevators to the 57th floor — those three elevator cars stop only at the 57th and 60th floors.
King, the Temple hospitality professor, said she believed that Philadelphia could accommodate another luxury hotel. Among the higher-end hotels now are the Ritz-Carlton near City Hall, part of the Marriott chain, and the Rittenhouse Hotel.