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When “Empire” Meant 5th Ave: Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Always at the Center of NY

In European cities the heart remains unchanged, but in Manhattan the dynamic zones where hotels will thrive is fluid: the story of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel

The first Waldorf Astoria on Fifth Ave and 34th Street

When I first arrived in New York, I was amazed by this city, but I still held my Eurocentric view of the world and believed that, after all, it was no Rome or Paris. I soon realized that the nickname of the State, “Empire State” was, in fact, well deserved in that, New York City is indeed the seat of such an Empire. No other city has evolved so much as New York City in such a brief period of time. That applies also to the magnificent and astonishingly diverse array of its hotels, with innovative and fast changing architecture, which has no comparison in the world.  While the rule of central location applies everywhere in real estate, in New York this can be tricky since the city is constantly changing and any hotel will last only as long as its location, its design, its appeal, “sells”; otherwise, gone! Next!

The Waldorf-Astoria now on Park Avenue

A fashionable location or design of today may not last until tomorrow, and sometimes, even within a few blocks, everything changes dramatically. We can learn from the past.  The iconic Art Deco Hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria, located on 49th street and Park Avenue, is not actually the original one.  The first Waldorf-Astoria hotel was built at a very different location, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd street.

Built in 1893 by William Astor, in a German Renaissance style, it was thirteen stories high and had 450 guest rooms. The hotel was named after a little town in Germany, Waldorf, the ancestral home of the Astors.  At the time, 5th avenue was an exclusive residential area for the ultra-wealthy, and the hotel was not a welcome addition.  It all began out of a feud between William and his aunt, Mrs. Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor. She was the matriarch of the Knickerbocker New York social set, the Old Dutch established “aristocracy” of the city, and the arbiter of who should and who should not be a member of New York’s social elite. She was the gatekeeper and commanding general of the old guard fighting against the new moneyed, arrivistes or “nouveau riche “, awash in immense wealth and seeking to claim their place in post-Civil War New York. In fact, she devised the famous list of the “400” who defined who was accepted in that rarefied circle. She was known simply as “Mrs. Astor” and there could be only one “Mrs. Astor”.

Meanwhile her nephew, William Waldorf Astor, believed that title rightly belonged to his wife. A public fight ensued as she refused to socially recognize his wife. He lost the first round. In retaliation, William demolished his own mansion, and to overshadow Mrs. Astor’s mansion located across the street, built the massive Waldorf Hotel. His aunt, outraged and humiliated, remarked, “There’s a glorified tavern next door.” And as a matter of fact, at first, the hotel was indeed considered not suitable for the New York elite and the neighborhood.

Mr. William Waldorf also convinced his cousin, Mr. John Jacob Astor, to persuade his mother, Mrs. Astor, to leave her mansion and relocate uptown and afterwards had her mansion demolished and another hotel built in its place: “The Astor.” Facing each other, the hotels were subsequently connected through the famous “peacock alley” to create the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The hotel became the largest in the world with 1,300 rooms and it was also the first hotel to offer electricity and private bathrooms in each room. In those days, no major social event could happen without Ms. Astor’s imprimatur therefore, in order to circumvent her blackballing the hotel, Mr. William Astor organized a fundraising gala, which was an absolute must to attend for those who wanted to be the “in crowd,” in the spectacular hotel ballroom, stunning all of his high society guests for its luxury and grandiosity. The hotel was also the first public space in which women were admitted without an escort.

However, much like today, competition was looming and new hotels were opening everywhere, offering guests updated design and new services. It became hard for the Waldorf-Astoria to compete with the new Astor (a beautiful Beaux-Arts hotel in Times Square, unfortunately demolished in 1967) the St. Regis, The Knickerbocker and the Plaza. In 1929 the Waldorf- Astoria was demolished to make room for the Empire State building. In only a couple of decades the location was no longer considered appealing and the heavy German Renaissance style not …in style.

Not everything was lost. In fact, while having Sunday brunch, we should thank Oscar Tschirky, maître d’hôtel of the Waldorf-Astoria, for creating the famous Waldorf salad, eggs benedict and thousand island dressing. Also, today’s motto of corporate America “the guest is always right” was actually attributed to hotelier George Boldt, one of the co-founders of the Waldorf-Astoria.

Fifth Ave and 34th Street today

The City of New York was rapidly growing and the “center” of the city was moving north. Hotels and also famous stores had also to relocate or perish in order to survive and be successful. Renowned jeweler Tiffany, for example, opened in 1837 at 259 Broadway in lower Manhattan, then in 1870 opened in Union Square only to move again in 1906 further uptown to 5th avenue and 36th street, in a new building inspired by the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca in Venice  (the building is still in existence) and was only a few blocks up from the original Waldorf- Astoria hotel. Finally it moved again in 1940 to its current location on 57th street and Fifth Avenue. To survive and flourish, you have to follow the 80’s TV sitcom, “The Jeffersons,” and keep “moving on up.”

Hotels in the historic center of any major European city have been virtually the same for the past hundred years: same location, same design: same-old-same-old. In Post-Revolutionary New York, the “center” was in what is today’s Financial District.  It then moved to 14th Street and Union Square, and subsequently up towards Times Square and then Central Park.

In the past 30 years the change has been even more dramatic with hotels opening up in areas never thought possible; from the Meatpacking District to Hudson Yards, to the Lower East Side. Meanwhile hotel design went through Colonial, Neo-Classical, German, Renaissance, Gothic, Cast-Iron, Beaux Arts, Tudor, Italianate, Art Deco, International. You name it! We have it.

As Europeans, we cherish our architectural patrimony. My hometown of Verona is a jewel of perfectly preserved historic edifices. The grand and gracious hotels in Verona have not changed much in the last century, and I hope they never do. But as a New Yorker, I celebrate the Gotham of infinite potential, of this city in flux.

Always consider where your hotel is located and take the time to enjoy its history.  As a general rule, today’s five-star luxury hotels are positioned around Central Park; corporate in midtown; and trendy in SoHo, lower east and meatpacking district. But that too is evolving again. And as I suggest to my clients, selecting a hotel in New York is not just finding a room where to sleep; it is choosing an experience, and lifestyle statement.

While I mourn the loss of so many architecturally marvelous New York hotels over the years, I also learned to appreciate the astonishing changes that will always keep this city and its hotels ahead of the game. Remember there is always a “new kid on the block” who keeps moving and changing, so be prepared to do the same. In 1931 the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, an art deco masterpiece, opened its doors on 49th street and Park Avenue, and it was the beginning of era of glamour.

William Waldorf Astor moved to UK and was made a Viscount, John Jacob Astor died in the sinking Titanic as the richest man on board (worth 2.3 billion dollars in today’s money) and as for “the Mrs. Astor,” well the last reigning doyenne of Gotham, Brooke Astor died at 105 in 2007. Her son was accused of stealing her fortune and was imprisoned, causing a great scandal. As good New Yorkers, they made history until the very end and went out, maybe not in style, but for sure with a bang.

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