You might expect a world-famous art collector and the owner of a chain of boutique hotels to be impervious to the charm of Charm City, but Mera Rubell is clearly in love. When Rubell Hotels—a family business run by Mera, her husband, Don, and their son, Jason—purchased the Lord Baltimore Hotel, formerly the Radisson, in 2013, they meant for the transformation of the now 86-year-old structure to be swift, authentic and done just right. Although the glamorous matriarch managed to travel to their home in Miami and other jet-setter destinations—from New York to New Orleans, Berlin to Basel—she spent most of the last year on-site, managing the redo. After
hundreds of detail-oriented decisions, including design and staffing, Rubell, whose late brother-in-law, Steve Rubell, founded iconic Studio 54, can name every bellhop and bartender in the place. And somehow, she still found time to hit local theaters, tour 36 artist studios (in the same number of hours!), curate an exhibition of Baltimore artists in New York and dine in more restaurants than this writer has tried in 15 years. Here, Rubell talks about living her life with passion. No surprise, it was her idea to be photographed in bed.
> My first year in Baltimore was all about selecting toilets and wallpaper. I didn’t get out much. To get a 440-room hotel done in a year took every minute of focus.
> When you believe when others don’t, there is a huge opportunity. When you look at real estate in Chicago or New York or Philadelphia, that opportunity has left the station. But in Baltimore you can still do this.
> When we bought the building that is now the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, people thought we were absolutely crazy. This was a section of Miami that was full of poverty and quite dangerous. Coming from New York, we understood that neighborhoods have a life cycle and things change.
> Hospitality is the last of the great human-interactive businesses. The Lord Baltimore is about fantasy, history, memory. It’s about a city coming back, believing in itself, taking pride in itself. We care about this place.
> We have four passions—art, tennis, food and family. We became partners with our children—and this has been a magnificent collaboration.
> Don and I just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. When we got married, he decided to go to medical school and I was a preschool teacher in New York. Our greatest entertainment was long walks on 8th Avenue in the ’20s—kind of like what Chelsea is now—and, in those days, artists occupied retail storefronts where they lived and worked. We found artists who welcomed us in. It became an extraordinary adventure.
> We didn’t set out to be art collectors. When we first started buying art, we only had $100 to spend a week, so we allocated $25 of that for art. Sometimes it was $5 a week to five different artists. The artists were happy to do this. And afterward, galleries were happy to do this. We found ourselves very motivated over these years to cover the beautiful addiction that we developed.
> When people say they can’t afford to collect art, I tell them anyone can do it. Regardless of your budget, you can find something. You may not find it in Basel where booths are $50,000, but you can find a $100 drawing in a smaller fair. Paying less doesn’t mean the artists aren’t talented.
> We never buy just one single work by an artist because we are all about telling a story. How do you tell a story with just one work? Each artist is a universe of ideas and talent, expressing the issues of our time.
> Art brought us to Baltimore. Our first trip was to visit the Cone Collection at the BMA, and we were blown away!
> In some families, one kid wants to be a lawyer and another wants to be an Indian chief. People always say, ‘I wish my kid would grow up to be this or that.’ I don’t wish for my kids to be anything other than who they are.
> A female friend once told me that once women become 60, they disappear. I started wearing the hats at that time, because it’s impossible not to stand out in them and you always make a statement.
> A bed is a powerful metaphor for life, death, dreams and naughtiness. A lot happens in the bed.
—As told to Cara Ober