Saunders Family Fills the Boston Skyline
by gary walther
Once upon a time in America, well before Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and The Ritz-Carlton draped their luxury chains across the country, every major city had its landmark hotel—the place to stay in town, whether the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, The Brown Palace Hotel and Spa in Denver, or the Mark Hopkins San Francisco. Each of these properties is now a chain link, owned by Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International, and InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, respectively. The independent luxury city hotel is nearly extinct.
But not in Boston.
“I’m an independent,” says Roger Saunders, founder of the Saunders Hotel Group and the city’s visionary hotel maverick, having created a local luxury lodging empire in a business dominated by international brands. (The name “Saunders” appears on none of the family’s hotels.) And he says it quietly: None of the words—czar, baron, kingpin, mogul—that usually attach to real estate legends apply to Saunders, a limber, bantamweight octogenarian. He is soft-spoken and understated yet quietly confident—and when something pleases him, his entire face melts into a smile. (“This is a guy who wouldn’t know how to toot his own horn if you gave it to him,” says Claude Erbsen, a 43-year veteran of The Associated Press and a cousin of Roger’s first wife, Nina, who died in 1991.) “I never even thought of affiliating with a national hotel brand,” Roger adds. That’s a mark of his stature in Boston, because when it comes to hotels, banks prefer to finance a logo, not a building.
Back Bay is Roger’s turf. “He put it on the map,” says Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president and executive director of the Back Bay Association. He has owned and operated the Copley Square Hotel and The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers; he still owns The Lenox Hotel and holds the ground lease on The Back Bay Hotel. His eldest sons—Gary, 58, and Jeffrey, 56, who now run the Saunders Hotel Group—are on the verge of another coup: erecting 40 Trinity, a proposed 33-story hotel-and-condominium development on the site of the John Hancock Hotel & Convention Center, which the Saunders family bought in December 2011. It’s a capstone for both the family—the most ambitious project the hotel group has ever undertaken—and the city, as it will add the missing high-rise vertebra to the spine that Boston city planners envision running from the Prudential Center tower to downtown.
From their entrée into the business in 1939 with a single property, the Metropolitan Hotel, the Saunderses have risen to become the “Hub’s First Family of Hoteliers,” as the Boston Herald put it in 1983. Today the Saunders Hotel Group has about 450 employees and manages hotels with $47 million in revenue. Its flagship is The Lenox, which Roger and his four sons consider a family legacy. “The Lenox will never be sold,” says Jeffrey, who is president of the company and oversees hotel operations. The hotel group also operates three franchised hotels in New England and the Middle Atlantic states.
Serendipity rather than vision steered Roger’s father, Irving Saunders, a commercial real estate investor, into the hospitality business. Over lunch at the family’s crown-jewel Lenox, Roger—a dapper, old-school gentleman dressed in a blue blazer, check shirt, and elephant-print tie—tells me that in 1939 his father received an out-of-the-blue call from a banker asking him to take Boston’s bankrupt Metropolitan Hotel, which stood at the corner of Tremont and Broadway, off his hands.
“My father was a real estate dealmaker, not an hotelier and certainly not an operations guy,” Roger points out. Perhaps persuaded by an interestfree $50,000 loan, Irving went for it anyway. In 1948 he leased the Copley Square Hotel, purchasing it in 1953, and in 1976 Roger would use Irving’s playbook to buy the Statler Hilton. When I ask why his father was on bankers’ save-us-from-receivership shortlist, Roger simply says, “Boston is a small town. Relationships count. They trusted him.”
Like father, like son. In 1963, Theodore Berenson, then owner of The Lenox, called Roger and said bluntly, “I’ve been watching you steal our business. How would you like to be my partner?” Berenson was referring to the Copley Square Hotel, which Roger was running at the time. He sold Roger 36 percent of The Lenox (which was the equivalent of what Berenson had paid for it in 1948)—and didn’t even demand that he relinquish management of the Copley Square. In 1996, Roger and his sons bought out Berenson.
The Lenox is the family’s flagship because of its historic significance. When it was built in 1900, The Boston Post called it “the Waldorf-Astoria of Boston,” a nod to its then-owner, Lucius Boomer, who had been a director of that hotel. The Lenox still recalls that era—although no longer as keenly as when Roger arrived. “When I got here, there were tubs on legs, pullchain toilets, and open elevator shafts,” he recalls. But the hallways still have grand-hotel width (you could drive a car down them), and the lobby is unabashedly old-fashioned—wainscoted and wing-chaired, a gracious, dentilated, acanthus-leafed space that hasn’t been “designed.”
Over the years, The Lenox has acquired a barnacle layer of great anecdotes. In 1907, famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso arrived in his private railway car and took an entire floor. In 1920, Mayor Curley’s son settled his father’s outstanding bill by giving the hotel portraits of George and Martha Washington. Judy Garland holed up here in 1965 for a couple of months. “She would entertain people off the street,” Roger recalls, “people down on their luck.” (The room she stayed in, which formerly housed Roger’s—and then Gary’s and Jeff’s—office, was later named the Judy Garland Suite.) Ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-floor rooms have expansive views of the Charles River and Back Bay, which is probably why Boston Celtics coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach lived in Room 900 for 13 years. “He ate pistachios like they were going out of style,” Roger says. Among the A-list guests over the years: George H.W. Bush, Tony Bennett, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Travolta, John Kerry, Adam Sandler, Andy Garcia, Marc Cohn, Patti LuPone, Anne Hathaway, Hunt Slonem, Dr. Jane Goodall, Helena Bonham Carter, and Katie Couric.
While The Lenox may be the star property today, it was the Statler Hilton purchase, in December 1976, that put the family firmly in the big leagues of Boston real estate. Roger bought the Statler, once one of the city’s premier hotels, on a handshake, with no cash and a relatively small mortgage, and went on to make a success of what was regarded as a corpse. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. I was $1 million ahead,” says Roger, who renamed the hotel The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers. The Statler purchase showed a side of the company—its penchant for deals with a civic benefit—that has been a hallmark of the Saunders Hotel Group ever since. Roger saw value in the property, but he also bought it to save a Boston landmark and hundreds of jobs, he says. “I don’t like to give him credit, because he’s on the other side,” says Domenic M. Bozzotto, then president of the Boston local of the Hotel, Restaurant, Institutional Employees & Bartenders International Union, “and he’s a tough cookie, but for the hotel industry in Boston, he’s been very good.” How could he succeed when Hilton couldn’t? asked sour skeptics. But Roger, who had written a report for Hilton a few years before on how to revive the Statler, did just what he said should be done: invest in the property, build new restaurants, and turn it into two hotels—hence the “towers,” which were more luxurious than the main building.
The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers is a leviathan: a 1-million-squarefoot building with more than 1,000 guest rooms, 7,000 doors, 200 miles of molding, two acres of glass—and the first hotel in America to have radios in every room. It is where Roger’s son Gary, now chairman of the Saunders Hotel Group, cut his teeth in the business. He started in the engineering department. “I learned about chillers, boilers, and sewage ejection pumps,” he says. His face still lights up at the memory—and the fact that his desk was in his father’s office. “That was the best education I could have had.” At the same time, his brother Jeffrey was the shift manager at The Lenox, and the two competed vigorously. “Jeffrey had the best occupancy rate,” Gary says. “I had the best revenue per room.”
Roger’s two younger sons, the twins Todd and Tedd, 52, also found their careers at the Park Plaza. Todd went into hotel renovation and was in charge of almost all the renovations at the Copley Square, the Park Plaza, and The Lenox, and Tedd, now chief sustainability officer for the company, discovered his life’s inspiration in, of all places, the basement.
“I saw bales of cardboard and volumes of stuff that was being discarded,” he says, and that started him on the green road. His brothers admit that in the late 1980s, none of them really understood the point of Tedd’s green thinking, but the family signed off on his initiative and never looked back. He cut the Park Plaza’s laundry water use from 8 million gallons to 4 million by recycling the last rinse cycle. He found a recycling center to take the hotel’s thousands of old phone books, instituted a sheetand- towel reuse option, and not only installed low-flow toilets but also located a construction company to take away the old units and grind them up into roadbed. Then he took his crusade to The Lenox—remanufactured soy-based ink ton er cartridges, filtered water and ice on every floor, the first electric-vehicle charging station at a Boston hotel, the landmark sign refitted with LED lights—and when he was done, The Lenox became the first third-party-certified climate-neutral hotel in the US.
The Saunderses’ close involvement with the various properties made it difficult for them to sell when circumstances dictated. They sold the Copley Square in 2007 because, Roger says, “I had never seen real estate prices like that.” Nonetheless, the family found the decision “very emotional.” “It was like we were selling him,” says Roger, referring to his father (the Copley Square Hotel was the last property in the company’s portfolio that Irving had bought). The Park Plaza went to Starwood in 1997. The sale made the company liquid in a way it had never been. But the Park Plaza still exerts its gravitational pull on the Saunders family: In 2011, Donald, Roger’s brother, purchased a 55 percent interest in the building.
Preserving the Legacy
The sons have avoided the acrimony that characterized Roger and Donald’s relationship after they earned a shared interest in the Saunders real estate empire in 1976. All four sons attribute their rapport to the “family roundtable,” which Roger started in 1983. Jeffrey says that while it was great that their father gave them the opportunity to do whatever they wanted in the business, he and his brothers weren’t always ready for the jobs they assumed. “There were reporting issues,” he says, “you know, when one family member is reporting to another.” The roundtable became the arena in which to hash things out.
There were rules: Each monthly session began with an “appreciation period,” in which the brothers would commend each other for recent accomplishments and empathize over difficulties. The last person who showed up had to be the secretary, and the chairmanship changed monthly. “He created a setting where each of us had an equal voice and vote,” says Tedd, who credits the forum with allowing him to proselytize for green initiatives. “We learned how to listen carefully, hear different perspectives, communicate effectively, and work cooperatively. From early on, Dad would let the four of us work through issues to reach a consensus. I don’t remember him ever stepping in to take sides or force his opinion.” Says Jeffrey, “Any time we had pebbles in our shoes, we had a forum to voice them.” Their business relationships have become so harmonious that the meetings now occur only quarterly, with some participation by the latest generation of Saunders children.
Roger is now chairman of The Lenox. Though he spends half the year in Florida, he’s quick to say, “I haven’t given up my Massachusetts citizenship.” It is Gary and Jeffrey who are steering 40 Trinity to completion. By this fall, the designs and prices of the 15 floors of condos, which will have floor-to-ceiling windows, should be finalized. The Saunders Hotel Group will run the hotel, which will feature a sky lobby on the 17th floor and a ballroom and conference facilities on the 18th. In January, Alex—Jeffrey’s son, who has worked for three other hotel companies—became GM of the existing hotel, now called the Boston Common.
Boston is underserved by luxury hotels and condominiums, and there’s not a lot of room to build. “You can walk from the waterfront to Back Bay in all of about 20 minutes,” says Jeffrey, and much of it is a historic district. Since the hotel boom of the ’90s, there has been more hotel reflagging than construction. “We could get a 50 percent return today on the [Lenox] site, but that’s not what our family is about,” he adds. “We’re long-term holders.”
Photography by Joel Benjamin; VIRTUAL TOURIST (EXTERIOR), COURTESY OF THE LENOX HOTEL (IRVING, ROGER, SUITE); Corky Buczyk (Key), Courtesy of the Lenox Hotel (Postcards), Mark Karlsberg/Studio Eleven (Family Portrait)