Need to Know

Can Cat-Friendly Design Be Chic?

Take lessons from the human—and feline—friendly renovation of the lobby of Manhattan’s storied Algonquin Hotel
An orange tabby cat stands in a catfriendly design shelf
Hamlet VIII, the lobby cat of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, is arguably the longest-standing resident of the legendary auberge. So when a recent renovation of the property came to pass, Stonehill Taylor applied concepts of cat-friendly design to ensure that he and the inn’s more temporary guests could live in harmony.Courtesy Stonehill Taylor

Enter the lobby of The Algonquin on West 44th Street in New York City, and right away you’ll notice that a fresh redesign by architects Stonehill Taylor has ushered this warmly sophisticated literary haunt into its second stylish century. There’s sumptuous, velvet drapery, clever lighting design that recalls the hotel’s theatrical heritage, and an art installation made from old guest books that seems to float above the reception desk. There’s even a cozy complex of hiding places, portholes, and irresistibly scratchable surfaces for the pleasure of the concierge.

We should pause here to clarify that the concierge in question is a cat.

You probably know The Algonquin from tales of the claws-out witticisms of Dorothy Parker and the “vicious circle” of writers, actors, and musicians who frequented the famed Round Table—this is the spot where Harold Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, established The New Yorker magazine, in 1925. But if you’ve yet to make your first visit, you may not know that the hotel has had an official Resident Cat on and off since the 1920s. The cat that currently occupies the post—an affectionate, orange, tabby rescue named Hamlet VIII—is the 12th in the hotel’s history.

Some of the less feline-centric furnishings in the lobby of The Algonquin.

Photo: Eric Laignel

New lighting in the 1902 Beaux Arts hotel.

Photo: Eric Laignel

So recently, when it was clear that the grand 1902 Beaux Arts landmark was due for an update, the needs of its furry mascot were not ignored. In fact, architects Stonehill Taylor reconceived the reception area with elements designed for the comfort of humans and felines alike, all the while conveying the story of The Algonquin’s rich theatrical and literary history. 

Willis Loughhead, the hotel’s general manager, says that Hamlet VIII spends about 40% of his time “checking in guests” at reception, which is now furnished with a cat house. Sara Duffy, a Stonehill Taylor principal and the lead designer on this project, summed up the unique challenge this way: “My first goal was to design something really great for the hotel—that’s always our goal, we want to be inspiring, but how do we design this so it doesn’t look like a pet store? We wanted it to feel sophisticated.”

Photo: Eric Laignel

Pet lovers who frequent the aisles of mega-marts in search of stimulating toys or cozy beds know this problem all too well. Apart from the deluxe, minimalist offerings of companies like Tuft and Paw (think of them as the Room & Board of the cat furniture space), most products that are designed to delight pets introduce flashing lights, squeaky noises, feathers, corrugated cardboard, and electric-hued plastic into our homes. Could Hamlet VIII thrive in a setting that was appropriately elegant, sensitive to the hotel’s rich history, and even glamorous? It turns out he can—and much of the time, guests might not even realize he’s enjoying his new digs just over their shoulder.

When Loughhead began his new job at the hotel in 2021, the news that he would be “adopting Hamlet” came as a bit of a surprise, but he diligently researched the property’s history—and scrolled through The Algonquin Cat Instagram feed—to get a sense of how this unusual arrangement would work. Duffy notes that in previous generations, oversight of the hotel cat was somewhat laissez-faire—she even remembers this from visiting the hotel as a child: “He wasn’t always [in the lobby]. He was around, but they couldn’t find him. Originally, the cats were able to roam freely and you’d see them in the elevator, but the current Hamlet has a collar.”

According to Algonquin lore, there has been a semiofficial hotel cat living in the lobby since the 1920s. In 1932, the hotel’s owner, Frank Case, rescued a local stray. The actor John Barrymore, who was starring in a Broadway production of Hamlet at the time, insisted that the cat adopt the Shakespearean name, unwittingly starting a tradition that has now lasted for nearly a century. Seven Hamlets have preceded the hotel’s current concierge, and female Algonquin cats are named Matilda. (So far, there have been three.)

Photo courtesy Stonehill Taylor

For the kitty’s own safety—and the peaceful dining experiences of guests in the Blue Bar—Hamlet’s caviar dreams will never come true: an invisible, electric fence keeps him in feline-designated zones, like the front desk area, the lounge, and the cat door—accessible private space where his food, water, and litter needs are met away from the bustle of the lobby.

One reason Hamlet is thriving is that his space follows the principles of cat-friendly design. According to Alan Breslauer (better known as The Catio Guy, owner of one of the country’s top design-build firms for catios in the U.S., and whose clients have included Hannah Shaw, the Kitten Lady), there are two key features that make cats feel secure: three-sided enclosures, and heights. “People always think in terms of humans, they want these huge catios, but I encourage people to think vertically rather than in terms of square footage,” Breslauer tells AD PRO. With too much open space around them, cats can “feel like sitting ducks.” They like settings that allow them to simultaneously “hide, and keep an eye on things,” he says. This may explain why Hamlet loves his reception desk cathouse so much.

Loughhead anticipated that Hamlet would be a “fancy, filet mignon–eating cat,” but, in fact, he was rescued by a humane organization in Florida who responded to a national search and flagged the orange tabby as the perfect fit: “They said ‘we have your cat,’” Loughhead says. “This cat is incredibly bossy, direct, funny, the man in charge of every situation, but on top of that he’s pleasant with everybody. He’s happy to see everyone.”

Photo: Eric Laignel

But the pièce de résistance in the lobby is the lounge area, which Hamlet adores. “We redesigned how you interact with the hotel,” Duffy says, “and we’ve created this lovely area where you can wait for someone or wait to check in, and it has bookshelves by the window. These are [Hamlet’s] spots because cats love a window. He has these cutouts and steps which you wouldn’t necessarily notice.” So Hamlet can perch and climb, watch passersby or construction workers on 44th Street from one of his cozy shelves, and keep tabs on guests checking in, all while keeping out of sight (and even catching a few sunrays). And according to Shaw—the aforementioned Kitten Lady—sites for vertical exploration are key features for a cat-friendly space. That’s a lesson that applies to homes as much as it does to a place like The Algonquin. “Anything that creates vertical space is the most important consideration when it comes to architectural design for cats, because no matter how large or small our homes may be, we can always expand them upwards and really utilize the square footage to best support and enrich our arboreal, feline friends,” she explains.

An Al Hirschfeld illustration harks back to The Algonquin’s vicious circle heyday.

Photo: Eric Laignel

And in the case of The Algonquin, this cat-friendly shelving is also an ideal place for visitors to admire treasures from the hotel’s rich history. “There are all these beautiful historic things that we found: a lovely antique typewriter, original forks and knives engraved with The Algonquin mark, beautiful printed cards that people would get when they checked in, and Algonquin Christmas ornaments that people have kept over the years. Illustrator Al Hirschfeld was a huge part of the hotel’s story too, so some of his work is on display here.”

Cat lovers with personal upholstery struggles will want to know: How does the fabric in the lobby stand up to Hamlet’s “curiosity”? Duffy notes that there’s a term of art in the fabric world, “double rubs,” which refers to the test that determines how much traffic a fabric can withstand before it begins to fray. All the fabric in The Algonquin is 100,000 double-rub rated, which makes it as Hamlet-resistant as possible. And he’s probably too busy with his professional responsibilities to focus on the furniture, anyway. “He supervises the bags and the bellman, most of my notes are signed by me and Hamlet,” says Loughhead. “If I send something to a guest, I put Hamlet’s name first.”

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