Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Iconic Plaza Hotel

Just fifteen years after the original, first-class Plaza Hotel was opened, Fred Sterry announced on June 12, 1905 that it would be razed and a new Plaza erected on the site.

Sterry, who was from Hot Springs, Virginia, had big plans. “The new hotel will be about seventeen stories high and in width and depth pretty much the same size of the old one. The architect is J. H. Hardenberg, who planned the Manhattan…In general plan the new hotel will resemble the Carlton Hotel in London.

“It will be an exclusive and absolutely first-class hotel in every way. The two features which come to my mind now will be a driveway into the hotel from the plaza and an Italian garden in the rear. There will be about 700 rooms in the house.”

Sterry got the architect's name slightly wrong.  It was Henry J. Hardenbergh, who was responsible for the Dakota Apartments, the Waldorf and Astoria Hotels, and other distinctive structures.

The old Plaza Hotel was demolished the following month and construction began immediately. Things took an ugly turn when a year later, the George A. Fuller Construction Company hired non-union iron stairway workers to work on the building.

On the afternoon of July 12, 1906 thirty “muscular iron workers, members of the Housesmiths’ and Bridgemen’s Union murdered one special policeman and left for dead two others…” according to The New York Times. The gang used “iron bars, heavy wrenches and sledge hammers” to “beat them into insensibility.”

Despite the scandal and sensational trials that followed, construction continued and the opulent hotel was completed in September 1907. The astonishing $12.5 million cost of construction and outfitting the hotel necessitated the largest mortgage ever placed on a hotel property.

Permanent residents, among them Alfred G. Vanderbilt, George J. Gould, and Henry Fink, moved in on Monday morning, September 23 – a week before the public would be admitted, thus insuring privacy and discretion during move-in.

On September 29, 1907, a day after the grand public opening, The New York Times filled an entire page describing the new hotel. “One more institution will have been added to New York’s variegated social life,” the newspaper said. “The city will have gained another show place, the tourists on the rubber-neck automobiles will have an additional kink to put in their necks, and a few more descriptive paragraphs will have to be crowded into the all-around-the-city travelogue.”

Hardenberg had created a French Renaissance palace with corner towers, deep mansard roofs and steeply angled eaves reminiscent of his earlier Dakota Apartments. The interiors were lavish and breathtaking. French marble lined the walls of the Louis XVI-style main entrance. The furniture and carpeting of the main floor were all custom-made in France.

The Palm Court - 1907

The “tea room,” later to be known as the Palm Court, was modeled after the Winter Garden of the Hotel Carlton in London. Covered by a leaded glass dome, the walls were of Caen stone and Breche Violette marble.

“The rear wall of this room is made up of mirrors, above which are sprung arches, which are supported by four marble caryatides, representing the four seasons of the year,” reported The Times. “These caryatides were removed from a famous old Italian palace.”

Of the two main floor dining rooms, one was reserved for the permanent residents; each resident or family having his personal table, “to be free from the intrusion of transients or simple diners-out.”

The grand ballroom, a white-and-cream Louis XIV reincarnation, was designed to accommodate 500 people. The rear portion of the U-shaped balcony surrounding the room could be lowered by “simply pushing an electric button,” to be used as a stage or concert platform. The section could be then returned to its original position when the floor space was needed.

The Grand Ballroom - 1907

On the main floor a “cafe and restaurant for men” which would later become known as the Oak Room was paneled in dark, quartered oak wainscoting. Over the wainscoting was an Aubusson tapestry frieze made in France for the room. Beyond the Oak Room was “the barroom – unique among the countless elaborate barrooms of this city,” said The Times. In addition to the frescoes of German landscapes, the German Renaissance-style Men’s Bar (later renamed the Oak Bar) featured “Paneled woodwork in dull antique finish…High overhead is a vaulted ceiling, the arches of which are sprung from massive pilasters.”

The well-heeled guests would expect to pay as much as $2.50 per night for the luxurious accommodations.

The Plaza immediately attracted New York’s elite. Wealthy socialites who had previously thrown balls and dinners at Delmonico’s and Sherry’s were now patronizing the new hotel’s gilded ballroom. The Palm Court was the afternoon venue in which well-dressed Edwardian women gathered to be seen.

The Plaza, with its extremely wealthy clientele, barely felt the Great Depression. Random House’s, “New York City Guide, 1939,” written for the Works Progress Administration said “The Plaza Hotel is patronized by the well-established older groups of society, though to a war generation it was a rendezvous of youth, as recorded in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby.”

Soon thereafter came the first of several new owners of the Plaza. In 1943 Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel for $7.4 million, spending another $6 on renovations. It changed hands again in 1955 when The Childs Company bought it for around $6.3 million.

That year Kay Thompson wrote the first of the children’s books about Eloise, a young girl who lived at the Plaza. Through her books the grand hotel became known to children and parents alike world-wide.

During this time Frank Lloyd Wright lived here for six years while designing the Guggenheim Museum. Further attention came when in February of 1964 the Beatles stayed here during their first United States tour; then again in 1966 when Truman Capote hosted his widely publicized “Black and White Ball” in the Grand Ballroom in honor of Katharine Graham.

It was here, in September 1985 that the Plaza Accord was signed by the finance ministers of the US, West Germany, France, Japan and Britain; an agreement that would bring the dollar more in line with those foreign currencies.

By the time Donald Trump purchased the Plaza three years later for $407.5 million, the hotel was showing its age. Nonetheless, Trump announced that “I haven’t purchased a building; I have purchased a masterpiece – The Mona Lisa.” The Plaza, after a $50 million refurbishing, gleamed again.

In 1995 Trump sold the hotel at a substantial loss to Troy Richard Campbell, for $325 million. Campbell resold the property nine years later for an astonishing $675 million -- $838,509 a room -- to developers El Ad Properties.

El Ad Properties had big plans for the Plaza; however because the building had been designated a New York City landmark in 1969 and a National Historic Landmark in 1978, interior and exterior alterations were closely scrutinized.

Architects Costas Kondylis & Partners were commissioned to renovate the structure. In a news release that made much of New York nervous, NYP Holdings, Inc. said “Once home to Vanderbilts and Hitchcocks, the 98-year-old hotel will shut its doors on April 30, after which the building will be remodeled into condominiums and retail space. Only about 80 of the Plaza’s 805 rooms will remain as a hotel.”

The renovated Plaza reopened on March 1, 2008 with 282 hotel rooms and 181 condominiums; as well as a shopping area. The historic public areas were carefully restored, including the glass ceiling of the Palm Court which was removed during World War II for security purposes.

The AIA Guide to New York reported happily on the three year, $400 million renovation, including interiors by Annabelle Selldorf. Calling it a “vestige of Edwardian elegance,” The Guide commented on the new Oak Room and Oak Bar:

“Selldorf designed new furniture but kept the oak paneling and murals intact. It’s a quiet retreat from the City, and despite what happened to Cary Grant there in the opening scene of North by Northwest, it’s highly unlikely you will be abducted by foreign agents.”

In 2010 condomiums at the new Plaza were offered at $1,150 million for a studio to $42,4 million for a 6-bedroom apartment; a far cry from $2.50 per night.

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