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Originally published November 16, 2013 at 2:45 PM | Page modified November 16, 2013 at 7:59 PM

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Ace Hotel founder Alex Calderwood dies at 47

Alex Calderwood, a self-described “cultural engineer” who helped start Rudy’s barbershops and Seattle’s Ace Hotel, and then took his trendsetting aesthetic worldwide, has died.


Seattle Times staff reporters

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Alex Calderwood, a self-described “cultural engineer” who helped start Rudy’s barbershops and Seattle’s Ace Hotel, and then took his trendsetting aesthetic worldwide, has died. He was 47.

A spokesman said Mr. Calderwood died Thursday in London, where he had recently opened another of his Ace Hotels. The spokesman declined to specify the cause of death or comment further Saturday.

“It’s just too early to talk about it,” said the spokesman, Ryan Bukstein. “We’re all in mourning.”

In the Seattle area, where Mr. Calderwood grew up and started his career, colleagues recalled him as an influential force in the nightlife scene.

Together with partners like Wade Weigel and Linda Derschang, he worked on several of the city’s most hip businesses in the 1990s.

“Alex was an amazing connector,” said Derschang, a restaurant and bar owner. “He knew people from so many different worlds. He loved introducing his different friends and supporting them in their endeavors. He was very generous in that way.”

Mr. Calderwood, born in Denver in 1966, grew up on the Eastside. The son of a contractor and a newspaper columnist, he skipped college and became a party promoter and vintage-clothing seller, according to accounts he gave of his career.

Amit Shah remembers hiring a young Mr. Calderwood, just out of high school, to manage a clothing store called International News. The employee worked his way up to marketing director of the company.

“He saw what you could do with material that nobody else wanted,” using material from a Boeing surplus store to create fixtures, desks and other parts of a showroom, Shah said.

“He always had a desire to come up with something new that gave consumers value for their money,” Shah said. “He was an entrepreneur and knew how to entertain, but more than that, he was always willing to talk about what the new thing was. He knew how to get to folks in their 20s and 30s.”

Dave Meinert, a Seattle music promoter and nightlife-business owner, said Mr. Calderwood “brought a really cool style and design aesthetic to everything” he did in promoting music.

Style shone through in his personal life, too. He was an aficionado of graphic designers such as Lou Dorfsman and Milton Glaser and was often photographed in jeans, T-shirts and Converse sneakers, of which he even helped design a pair.

Mr. Calderwood’s career took a sharp turn after a lunch with Weigel in 1992, when the pair decided to risk $12,000 to open a rock ’n’ roll-themed hair salon.

Rudy’s was an instant success, profitable in its first year of operation. It now has eight locations in the Seattle area and nine more in Portland, Los Angeles and New York, according to its website.

Early in his career, Mr. Calderwood told an interviewer, “I’m just a barber and a tattoo pimp.”

But he wanted to be more.

In 1998, he teamed up with another Rudy’s partner, Jared Harler, to start the Capitol Hill dance club ARO.space. The club quickly became one of the most popular in Seattle.

Mr. Calderwood’s next project was even more ambitious.

He again joined with Weigel, who by then had worked to start the Baltic Room, with Derschang, and Bimbo’s on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Calderwood and Weigel turned to Belltown, converting a rooming house at First and Wall into what Mr. Calderwood called a “whole new hotel idea.”

The Ace Hotel — so named because the card is “the high and the low card in the deck,” and “we employ that high and low principle in our hotel models,” Mr. Calderwood said — recalled European hostels and bed-and-breakfast inns.

Mr. Calderwood was adamant the Ace’s vibe should convey Belltown’s gritty history in the face of Seattle’s gentrification by high-tech wealth. It opened in 1999 with stark white walls, low beds and cube-shaped lights.

Room art was done by Shepard Fairey, later renowned for his Barack Obama posters.

The then-pioneering blend of reclaimed furniture and touches like street art, turntables in rooms and low prices — $65 for a room with a shared bathroom — became Mr. Calderwood’s signature, and was widely imitated.

Mr. Calderwood and Weigel brought in two more partners, and the chain spread to Portland, then New York, Palm Springs, Calif., and London.

More are scheduled to open in Panama and Los Angeles.

The people who frequented the Ace Hotel in New York, according to The New York Times, thought of it as their club, a place “whose aesthetics and business model are redefining the overlapping worlds of drinking, dining, sleeping and shopping.”

Others, however, derided the hotels as a prepackaged pastiche of counterculture.

As the chain grew, Mr. Calderwood and his partners separated.

One of them, architect Jack Barron, said disagreements were not helped by Mr. Calderwood’s drinking. But Mr. Calderwood said in a 2011 New York Times interview that he had been sober for five months after treatment in a rehabilitation facility.

“You get to a certain age, and you get to a certain point, where you realize this is just, like, dragging me down,” he said. “It’s not fun anymore. I’m not enjoying it.”

News of Mr. Calderwood’s death surprised friends and colleagues, they said Saturday.

“Everyone is pretty stunned and shocked,” Meinert said.

Mr. Calderwood is survived by his parents, Thomas and Kathleen Calderwood of Seattle; two sisters, Donna Roberts and Tahnee Ferry; and a brother, Tim Calderwood.

Information from The New York Times and from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal



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