photo by Antigng
On May 9, 1916 the New York Hotel Record reported that the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's subsidiary, the Pennsylvania Terminal Real Estate Company, had announced plans "for [a] hotel to be erected on Seventh avenue, between Thirty-second and Thirty-third streets...to be known as the Hotel Pennsylvania."
The Pennsylvania Railroad had completed its monumental Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead & White, six years earlier. Across from the station on Eighth Avenue was the Post Office, also designed by McKim, Mead & White, and completed in 1913. The proposed hotel would be an extension to the grand plan.
McKim, Mead & White had been called back to design an architecturally harmonious structure (most notably in its six three-story Ionic portico columns). The firm put architect William Symmes Richardson in charged of the design. Like the Post Office, the hotel would be connected to Pennsylvania Station with underground passes, "so that patrons of the hotel can then travel in all directions, inside or outside the city, without going from under shelter," said the New York Hotel Record.
As construction was underway, in its August 4, 1917 issue The Hotel World reported that the Hotel Pennsylvania "will be the world's largest hotel--2,200 rooms." It was purposely designed to be "200 rooms larger than any hotel now in existence, or under construction."
Because stores were not included in the street level plans, shops were located in the basement level. Also on this level would be a grill room, a lunchroom, and a barber shop. The ground floor held a men's café, "buffet-lounge," and the main restaurant, described by The Hotel World as "the largest dining room in New York City." Also on the main floor were a "supper room," a tea room and an "elaborate soda grill." Elsewhere in the building would be ballrooms, the largest of which was 72 by 144 feet, assembly rooms and private dining rooms.
The railroad had contracted "one of America's most prominent hotel men--E. M. Statler," to operated the Hotel Pennsylvania. He promised The Hotel World, "We are going to the limit; we are going to build a hotel that is the 3qual, or the superior, of any hotel in the world, built to satisfy the very best people who travel, the most exacting and most critical."
With a construction cost of $10 million--15 times that much in today's money--the 22-story building was completed in 1919. Although not entirely finished, on January 25, 1919 the Hotel Pennsylvania opened. The New York Times reported, "Of the total of 2,200 rooms, 700 were ready for guests, and all were taken in a few hours. Three thousand visitors viewed the building during the day and evening, and 2,000 of them dined and danced in the main dining room."
The newspaper estimated the daily income of the hotel, upon completion, at up to $15,000 per day. Between 1,500 and 2,000 employees were necessary to run the massive operation. "Sixty girls will be required to operate the hotel telephone exchange, with its 200 trunk lines," said The New York Times. It added, "A few of the special features for the guests include a library of 4,000 volumes, Turkish baths, and swimming pools for men and women, and roof garden."
Guests entered through a foyer into the two-story main lobby that--following the ancient classical motif of Pennsylvania Station and the Post Office--was modeled after a peristyle court of a Roman period house. Its barrel vaulted stained glass ceiling was design by G. Rae & Co.
Visitors passed through the foyer before being awe-struck by the two-story lobby. The Architectural Review, 1919 (copyright expired)
Although the striking stained glass ceiling of the lobby was removed in 1942, the intricate terrazzo floors survived. photos from Architecture magazine, April 1919 (copyright expired)
The magnificent hotel immediately became a favorite venue for high-profile events. Two months after its opening a grand reception was held in the main ballroom for the Consul General of the new Polish Government. After having been controlled by other powers for a century, Poland had been liberated in 1918 by the Allied Forces. Along with more than 1,000 Polish New Yorkers, the reception was attended by Governor Al Smith and Mayor John Hyland.
The Hotel Pennsylvania attracted well-known international guests. In August 1920 British essayist and drama critic William Archer checked in. He had dipped his toe into play writing and his first work, War is War, was in rehearsals in New York.
Later that year, on December 28, well-known English suffragist Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, arrived at the Hotel Pennsylvania. She told reporters she "was here this time not to propagate suffrage ideas but to smite Bolshevism wherever and whenever it appears." She said, "I was astounded, in going about in your Southern States, to find this insidious doctrine of the destruction of society among the less educated people in those States."
A resident of those "Southern States," Mrs. Elizabeth Tyler, checked in on September 10, 1921. The New York Times described her as "one of the 'Big Three' of the Ku Klux Klan." She was known as the "Empress" of the Klan, but told the reporter "she had come to New York to shop and that official business of the Ku Klux Klan would be the lease of her worries."
Although presumably here to shop, she did defend the organization to The New York Times reporter. She said its purpose was to preserve "sacred principles and noble ideals of chivalry" and "American ideals and institutions and the maintenance of white supremacy." The article noted, "Mrs. Tyler, however, admitted that the organization was opposed to Jews and Catholics, as well as negroes."
In the meantime, guests in the café danced to Vincent Lopez's "world-famous" Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra. The band's renown was boosted by a 90-minute radio show each week. Lopez began each broadcast with "Hello everybody, Lopez speaking!"
On October 19, 1939 popular bandleader Artie Shaw and his orchestra began a three-month engagement in the hotel's Coq Rouge café. But, shockingly, a month later Shaw failed to show up. Calling him "one of the ranking younger swingmasters," on November 22 The New York Times reported that he "had been absent from the band stand for a week" and "has severed all connection with his orchestra and left yesterday for Mexico."
Tony Pastor, the band's saxophonist, had taken over, but the hotel management was understandably displeased. Reporters were told the "reorganized band" would be replaced within a week until Glenn Miller's band, scheduled to open on January 3, arrived.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra would return to the Coq Rouge repeatedly. Like Vincent Lopez, some of his performances were broadcast. When Artie Shaw abandoned his band, Miller hired Shaw's orchestrator, Jerry Gray. It was during a 1940 Glenn Miller Orchestra engagement here that Gray wrote Pennsylvania 6-5000, the highly popular song that took its title from the telephone number of the hotel.
It was in the Coq Rouge in November 1944 that the singer of Les Brown's band, Doris Day, introduced their new song Sentimental Journey.
The main dining room. Architecture magazine, April 1919 (copyright expired)
The wall fountain in the main dining room. The Architectural Review, 1919 (copyright expired)
The 1920's was a period of international political and social unrest. On October 28, 1925 political dissention boiled over at the Hotel Pennsylvania. The group Fasciati in America was celebrating the third anniversary of the Fascist march upon Rome in one of the rooms off the main ballroom that night. The New York Times reported, "Much of the speechmaking was over when there came shouts and jeers from the street just below the windows of the room. At first no attention was paid, but the shouts became louder as the crowd gathered strength."
The fury of the 400 anti-Fascisti protestors grew to a riot. Three times the mob attempted to break through a police cordon and enter the hotel. The article said that while the 25 police officers waited for back-up of 75 reserves, they "had a hard quarter of an hour repelling the attack." All the while the chants, "Down with the Fascisti!" reached the meeting room above.
In 1942 the hotel was given a make-over. A full-page advertisement in Time magazine on May 4 that year touted "Nothing Old-fashioned but the Hospitality." It boasted that all the bedrooms had been done over, "beautifully redecorated and furnished" with "scores of air-conditioned rooms, too." The ad proudly announced, "In fact, the entire Hotel Pennsylvania lobby has just had a brand-new beauty treatment." Included was the removal of the stained glass ceiling. The former Coq Rouge was now called the Café Rouge. "Here's the place to find that rare combination--delicious food, wonderful music by the nation's foremost orchestras, and a really spacious dance floor," said the advertisement. Single room rates started at $3.85 per night, doubles at $5.50 (the latter equal to about $87.50 in today's money).
In 1954 hotelier Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel, renaming it The Statler Hilton. It hotel continued to attract international figures, like Fidel Castro who checked in on April 22, 1959. To garner favorable public opinion following his Cuban coup, he hired a public relations firm, ate hot dogs, and held babies like a campaigning politician.
Castro signs a photograph for 19-year-old Gladys Feijoo. photo by George Lockhart, New York Daily News April 22, 1959
It was here on November 3, 1964 that former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy addressed his supporters after being elected to the United States Senate.
When the hotel was sold for $46 million in August 1983, it underwent a massive renovation, emerging as the New York Penta. Eight years later it retook its original name, the Hotel Pennsylvania. But trouble dawned in 1997 when Vornado Realty Trust purchased the hotel with Singaporean hotel developer Ong Beng Seng. In 2007 the owners announced plans to demolish the building to make way for a modern office building for Merrill Lynch.
In response, preservationists formed the Save Hotel Pennsylvania Foundation (later the Hotel Pennsylvania Preservation Society) In November 2007 Manhattan Community Board 5 implored the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the building an individual landmark. The request was denied.
In September 2021 International Content Liquidations, Inc. initiated sale of the hotel's contents in preparation for demolition. Chandeliers, furniture, the fitness equipment, and the historic guest rooms doors were sold. Once the grand dame of New York hotels, the Hotel Pennsylvania's doom is apparently sealed.
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many thanks to reader Andrew Cronson for prompting this post.