The Death of New York’s Grand Hotels

One New Yorker laments the passing of one of the city’s greatest offerings.

The Park Avenue entrance to the Waldorf Astoria. (Photo: Courtesy And Copyright Waldorf Astoria, 2017)

On the 28th of this month, the Waldorf Astoria, a hotel that has hosted every American president since Herbert Hoover, along with Hollywood stars, royalty, foreign heads of state, and many a lavish debutante ball, will stop accepting reservations. The next morning, the last of the guests will check out of the art deco colossus, which has operated at its one-square-block Park Avenue site in New York City since 1931, allowing its latest owners—the Chinese insurance conglomerate Anbang—to begin converting up to 1,000 of the hotel’s 1,413 rooms into condos.

For anyone who has been following the New York real estate market over the last three decades, this change is hardly surprising. It may even seem overdue. After all, the Sherry-Netherland converted a number of its rooms into co-ops back in 1956, and over the years, the rest of the city’s grand old hotels have followed suit—first the Pierre and the Carlyle, then the St. Moritz and the St. Regis and finally, of course, the Plaza. Only the Waldorf, whose fate was effectively sealed when Anbang paid a record $1.95 billion for the property in 2014, remains. The financial principles that made partial conversions prudent during economic downturns have, by the same token, made them incredibly profitable during boom times: A storied building in a prime location is worth far more sold off in pieces than rented out by the night.

From left: A room at the Carlyle. A view of the Pierre from Central Park. (Photos: Courtesy The Carlyle and Wikimedia)

This may not strike many as particularly heartrending. So what if a historic landmark is turned over to absentee investors and pied-à-terre owners? Grand hotels have always catered to the elite, and if the elite now prefer to keep a one- or two- or five-bedroom apartment sitting empty most of the year rather than paying by the night for a hotel suite, what does it really matter?

And yet, a condo and a hotel—even a condo-hotel hybrid, as many of these iconic structures have become—occupy vastly different positions in the emotional terrain of a city.

Even if you’ve never spent a night in one of the grand hotels, when you live here long enough, they somehow seep into your memories. In part because sooner or later, you turn up in their lobbies and bars, or at the very least in their bathrooms. And in part because visits to those places, even for dull conferences or awkward cocktails, linger in a way that those to the Javits Center and the Times Square Marriott Marquis never do. Grand hotels are not only for ball-goers and stars, after all, but also for strollers and snoops. As Texan socialite Lynn Wyatt once said of the Carlyle to WSJ. magazine, “You can sit in that lobby and see the world walk by.” Hotels belong to the city in a way that condos do not.

“There’s a participatory spectacle that you don’t have in a condo,” says Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which has pushed to have some of the Waldorf’s iconic interior spaces landmarked. “A hotel bar is very special. It’s a place where you can go to pretend.”

A banquet held at the Waldorf Astoria in 1906. (Photo: Courtesy and Copyright Waldorf Astoria, 2017)

This is true of hotels in most cities, of course, but especially of those in New York. We are a mercantile city and our finest hotels have always catered to money, whether it was new, old, or cobbled together for the occasion. And it is, in many ways, that mix of potentates and poseurs that lends the places their frisson. A grand hotel provides the kind of service to which the very rich are accustomed, and offers those who are not so wealthy the opportunity for an evening simulation: a staff of housekeepers, someone to carry their bags, Dover sole delivered to their room at 3 A.M. And for those who can’t or don’t care to pay for a night’s stay, a slowly sipped martini affords some of the best people-watching in the city.

Actually, you don’t even need to buy the martini. I once sat for several hours in the Waldorf’s lobby on a first date, sipping bad, brown-bagged coffee from a nearby sandwich shop and watching the parade of privilege tromp across the thick carpet. I can’t think of any other place in New York except a library where you can sit peacefully inside without paying for your time. There is a sort of largesse to a grand hotel that, along with their actual physical largeness, allows interlopers to roam.

“I used to go into the Plaza and walk down corridors, go down staircases, peer over balconies,” says Jeremiah Moss, the pseudonymous blogger at Vanishing New York. “You’d find things like a strange antechamber with a piano that seemed kind of odd and abandoned—there was this sense of access. I never stayed there, but if you’re a nosy New Yorker, you could just explore.”

Vintage postcards from the Waldorf Astoria 4
Vintage postcards from the Waldorf Astoria
(Photos: Courtesy And Copyright Waldorf Astoria, 2017)
Vintage postcards from the Waldorf Astoria

Vintage postcards from the Waldorf Astoria

Vintage postcards from the Waldorf Astoria

Vintage postcards from the Waldorf Astoria

Of course, part of what makes these spaces so charming is that they’re out of another era—a glimpse of an old New York that doesn’t really exist anymore. When the Plaza opened, at the turn of the last century, its interior was so ornate that the manager worried it might be too much even for the ultra-rich, and “ordered shellac applied atop the gold leaf decorating the lobby so that the guests would not be overly dazzled,” wrote Sonny Kleinfield, in his book Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plaza. 

These days, gold leaf seems as out of step with the times as white tablecloths and Waldorf salad, with its once-ballyhooed combination of grapes, celery, and mayonnaise.

“Hotels aren’t important in the same way they once were—the ones that are really important are the small ones in places like SoHo,” says architect Hugh Hardy, who once supervised the renovation of the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. “Great big ones are out, just as great big things are out. We’ve gotten jaded about that sort of thing. People used to cite statistics about how many light bulbs, how many rooms, how many people came to such-and-such event. You have to match the experience with the mood of the time.”

(Left to right) A daily menu at the Plaza, from the early 1900s. A vintage Plaza hotel postcard. (Images: Courtesy The New York Public Library Digital Collection. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.)

Opulence has become insular. Whereas the global elite once embraced the hubbub of a grand hotel, rubbing shoulders with one another as they passed through the great cities of the world, now more and more of them want to come home to a empty condo, preferably via an underground garage, so as to avoid any would-be gawkers. Real estate brokers speak of privacy with hushed awe, as though describing an immortality elixir. This, they insist, is what the wealthy want most, and can never get enough of.

It’s partially a factor of how the real estate market has changed. The advent of luxury condos in the ’70s cleared the way for the pied-à-terre and the emergence of such units as an asset class. And partially, it’s a shift in the preferences and expectations of elites and the power they crave.

As a result, what once existed as quasi-public, bustling universes unto themselves often become, post-conversion, empty, echoing, and at times even a little creepy (the empty hotel is, after all, a horror movie trope). In 1988, the Plaza had a staff of just over 1,300 people, according to Kleinfield. In a 2005 agreement with the union, Elad Properties, run by Israeli developer Miki Naftali, agreed to keep on 350 hotel staff to service 348 rooms—out of what had been 805.

After the conversion in 2008, a woman living on the 14th floor of the Plaza took a bag to the garbage room 10 feet from her apartment and got trapped inside for seven hours. All the other residents on her floor were out of town. According to the New York Post, she screamed as loud as she could, and “cut her fingers to shreds trying to claw her way out,” panicking that someone might make off with the Fabergé egg she’d left inside her open-doored apartment. The next morning a building worker heard her screams and came to the rescue.

“When these buildings undergo conversions, the energy shifts from this vibrating life that’s constantly changing, with characters moving in and out and through, to something much more static,” Moss says. “A kind of coldness.”

Justin Ferate, a historian who has given tours of the Waldorf for years, compared grand hotels to cruise ships—both all-inclusive experiences. This made a lot of sense to me, as a fan of classic Hollywood movies. Growing up, I understood from watching Top Hat, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Rebecca that hotels and ships were the perfect place to set a plot in motion. Combining all manner of strangers and acquaintances, an enormous staff, traveling socialites, and savvy locals in that hothouse atmosphere created potential—if not for transformation, then at least for excitement. Where else but in a grand hotel could Rebecca’s ingenue traveling companion to Mrs. Edyth Van Hopper, be expected to meet a man like Maximilian de Winter?

From left: A photo of the Plaza, circa 1900. Truman Capote and Katharine Graham at his black and white ball, held in 1966 at the Plaza’s ballroom. (Photos: Courtesy Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection/Library Of Congress. Mel Finkelstein/Library Of Congress)

One of the ironies of these condo conversions is that they capitalize on the magic of a grand hotel while simultaneously destroying it.

Yes, for buyers bragging about their purchases back home, the name of a famous hotel drops far more easily than even the most impressive address, but the Plaza as apartment house is not the Plaza. And the Plaza is not really the Plaza either, when a big chunk of rooms, including many of the best ones, are permanently reserved for the buying class. The Waldorf also intends to reserve the choice cuts for condo owners. According to the most recent plans filed with the Department of Buildings in November, the Waldorf, which declined to comment for this article, may now leave a little more than half the rooms as hotel keys, but will divide the building at the 14th floor, with the hotel below and the condos reaching to the 44th floor.

Besides in its liveliness, the charm of a place like the Plaza or the Waldorf lies in the illusion, at least, of access. The Park Hyatt is a top-notch hotel, but anyone who stays there can’t help but see 157 W. 57th Street—where the truly powerful are ensconced—looming above them every time they walk in the front door.

An entrance to the Plaza Hotel. (Photo: Tomas Fano)

As Kleinfield wrote of the Plaza, “For the earnest tourist or exhausted businessman, it somehow creates an atmosphere of unfolding possibilities.” A conversion breaks that spell, a shift that becomes apparent shortly after the first residents move in. While the first Plaza tenants paid among the highest prices in the city and the highest along Central Park South, resales have been sluggish and buyers stingy. The enchanted château was revealed to be just another beautiful building in a beautiful location where some rich people lived: the sum of its parts and nothing more.

“When the Waldorf was conceived, everyone understood that they had an active role in the hotel’s existence,” Ferate says. “To be there was to be in a special ether; it gave you the sense that you really were in a rarefied world.” The Brescia marble in the ladies’ corridor, he notes, was meant to capture the violet or the sapphire in women’s eyes. “Now it’s something to look at, not to experience.” The same, it sometimes seems, might be said of the city itself.

It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss when wandering through the Waldorf, but maybe its pending metamorphosis just reveals what’s already long gone. In which case, why resist it? After all, one of New York’s defining characteristics is its relentless appetite for change. But the most important characteristic is how the different eras and aesthetics, as well as people who live here, overlap and intersect. They collide and challenge one another, creating new things that are meaningful and exciting, not merely new for the sake of newness. It’s a reminder of how the city nurtures and reflects a diversity of desires and experiences, including, or maybe especially, the ones we don’t really have anymore.

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