How a Sculptor Turned a Depression Era Hotel into a Cultural Haven

A lifelong sculptor and artist, James Knowles suddenly inherited and took over the reins of the Smith Hotel in the 1980s, transforming the property dating back to the late 1920s (and reaching acclaim in the Depression Era) into today’s eclectic and dynamic center of creative activity that we know as the Roger Smith Hotel. And it all started with silverware.


By the skin of his teeth, James Knowles got underway by meeting with union representatives to discuss the future for the Hotel right as he assumed management. Struggling to stay awake amidst the jargon and boilerplate ideas brought up during their initial gathering, Knowles discovered something far more important and had a revelation.


His attention turned away from the suits and towards to silverware which took on a life of its own. In his mind, the fork started melting – akin to Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory’ – with the butter knife twisting four times as the two utensils stretched and melted into a beautiful fusion.


Played out on the table, James dropped his napkin and left without saying a word. “I realized in that moment that the hotel business must be approached like art,” Knowles said. “Just like artwork, a hotel must be beautiful, surprising and interesting to survive.”


Knowles resolved then and there to transform the old business by treating the hotel like a giant sculpture. "I like to call it a hotel with an art bias."


And so it was that art, including Knowles’ own sculptures, became omnipresent at the Roger Smith. By championing the city’s rich artistry and the art of people expressing their creativity, Knowles led the Hotel to maintain a distinctive, authentic identity in the heart of one of the most constantly evolving cities in the world.


Like any successful artist, Knowles now recognizes that his creative approach must evolve for long-term success – ‘Roger Smith is an idea’ as the marquee says and also connoting the fact that ideas change.


The family-owned property has thrived as he passed down the chisel to two of his children, John and Phoebe, to continue sculpting the Hotel. Despite the pandemic, the Roger Smith has remained a beacon for all creatives, travelers and eclectic guests to call home. As the property wholly embraces its Artist-in-Residence Program and innovates with dedicated work-from-a-hotel spaces, the Roger Smith will continue to be a community to create and collaborate, just as James Knowles set up to accomplish over three decades ago.