Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Waldorf=Astoria - Gotham’s Architectural Icon Shutters its Doors

Waldorf=Astoria - Mural of Life at Park Avenue entrance 

I’m bereft. As someone who pays homage to architecture, history, design, and culture -- I was devastated to learn the world-class hotel referred to as “America’s Palace” was closing its doors Wednesday. 
Is it karma that the Waldorf=Astoria gets assigned to the “ash heap” of history on Ash Wednesday?

It’s not the first time this storied gem has undergone a facelift -- after all, it’s no secret we all need a beauty makeover now and then… (read on for the hotel history).

But this time is different. Once this renovation is completed there will be no more “Meet you at the clock” because in its next incarnation, the Waldorf will be high-end condominiums -- private residences. Goodbye to all the swanky glamour of the public bars and restaurants -- and ballrooms, and hallways, and more.  

I have a kind of personal relationship to the Waldorf as well: I produced my first major press conference there, enjoyed the annual Women in Media awards shows - met the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and the PBS Newshour host Gwen Ilfill there. Where else but at legendary hotels like this one can regular folks like me meet such luminaries?

Hotels - especially grand ones - sport the sexiest, glamour-puss bars. There is something intriguing and just naughty enough (perhaps it’s knowing there’s all those beds upstairs!) that makes just sipping a cocktail or two in their dimly lit lounges palpably sensual - adding to the glamourous, transporting charm.

As with any cultural jewel, there are plenty of stories that contribute to the Waldorf’s legendary status.
And there are lots of food and drink chestnuts, as you might imagine, given all those bars and restaurants that are part of the Waldorf. My favorites are The Bull and Bear and Peacock Alley. (You know I adore any kind of peacock art…) Peacock Alley earned its moniker because all the hoi-polloi would come to the hotel and walk the corridor, and strut their stuff - like a peacock. The name stuck.

Here’s some more buzz -- about the hotel’s homegrown honey.

Bet you didn’t know there was a collection of beehives on the roof? Well there are.

In fact, The Waldorf is home to more than 36,000 honeybees .  Where will they move their residences to?
The Horticultural Society of New York has managed their landmark garden home -- with my hort friend, George Pisegna, Deputy Director & Chief of Horticulture of the Horticultural Society (and graduate of School of Professional Horticulture, The New York Botanical Garden) tending to the bees. He knows how to keep a pollinator happy!

Here’s a bit of foodie nostalgia: this palace hosted the first Pillsbury Bake-Off contest! “Over 150 women from all over the country gathered on December 12, 1949 in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel baking their best and most delectable recipes for a shot at the grand prize.”

The hotel even has a salad named for it...

I was told that Xavier Cugat and his Mambo orchestra played at the Waldorf in the Starlight Roof and that the Art-Deco ceiling opened up at night so that you could literally dance under the stars… ahhh… And there were plenty of stars who stayed - and lived at the Waldorf, including Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra - not to mention every president - until this one. There’s an underground security tunnel and private railway tunnel - that adds to the hotel’s intrigue.

The Waldorf offers a wonderful treasure-trove of historic menus at their (waldorfarchive.com)  Culinary historians, as well as home hosts and hostesses can learn a lot from these pearls: what food was popular, how was it served.  The menus are a delight.  My favorite is the "A Fete Fit for Librarian" - a wise-looking owl is a sweet graphic and the menu's footprint is a book mark size.  Creative!

The Waldorf Clock in the center of the lobby is made with nine feet of bronze - crowned by a little Statue of Liberty? What a dame. And what a classy meeting spot.

One Last Time 
It was time for a last visit. I couldn’t resist paying homage and respects to this glorious architectural gem -- and so scooted up on the subway yesterday just to bask in the heady design of this icon.

Her heart-clutching beauty is forever swoon-worthy.

I saw again the murals, the wood-lined elevators, the Art-Deco doors and heating grills,
crystal chandeliers, bas-relief sculptured moldings and walls, skylights, and rich carpets.
Minerals abound: there’s gold here, bronze there, and more.

And oh - that "Wheel of Life" mosaic on the Park Avenue entrance side. It’s made with 148,000 hand-cut marble tiles from all around the world; the work of French artist Louis Rigal, the mosaic depicts life from birth until death. So hoping it’ not the end for this architectural gem.

And then, there is the whisper of times past -- here there were memories made: a wedding, a gala, a rendezvous…

We will miss you Waldorf=Astoria. You made Gotham ever more elegant and glamorous…

Waldorf Construction History and Timeline
From the hotel’s website:
Millionaire William Waldorf Astor opened the 13-story Waldorf Hotel on the site of his mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, designed by renowned architect Henry Hardenbergh.
Four years later, The Waldorf was joined by the 17-story Astoria Hotel, erected on an adjacent site by Waldorf's cousin, John Jacob Astor IV.
John Jacob Astor IV died tragically on the Titanic on April 15, 1912 and William Waldorf Astor died on 18 October 1919 in England, where he’d relocated to in 1893.

Closing of the first Waldorf=Astoria. While the original was the arguably the grandest hotel in the world, in the 1920's, with so many new technological advances, it was becoming dated. So the decision was made to sell the site to the developers of what would become the Empire State building and to tear down the hotel in 1929.
The second Waldorf-Astoria hotel opened in its current location on Park Avenue on October 1, 1931, as the tallest and largest hotel in the world. President Herbert Hoover, in a radio broadcast from The White House, saluted the new hotel, "The opening of the new Waldorf Astoria is an event in the advancement of hotels, even in New York City. It carries great tradition in national hospitality...marks the measure of nation's growth in power, in comfort and in artistry…

In 1931, when the decision to build a new Waldorf Astoria Hotel was made, the managers of the new hotel were most emphatic that the atmosphere, traditions, and prestige associated with the old Waldorf Astoria be preserved and transferred to a structure that incorporated the innovative design and technology of the Twentieth Century. Architects Leonard Schultze and Fullerton Weaver realized that the Art-Deco style popular in New York at the time was the perfect way to combine traditional elegance with modern functionalism.

The hotel was constructed on an entire city block extending from Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue (west and east) and 49th and 50th Streets (south and north).

Conrad Hilton contracted to acquire control of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on October 12, 1949.

Monroe had formerly resided in the Waldorf Astoria’s $1,000-per-week Suite in 1955,

In 1993 The Waldorf Astoria became an official New York City landmark, joining other major icons like The Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge.

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