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City Journal Spring 2006.
Spring 2006
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The Plaza’s First Century—and Its Second?
David Garrard Lowe

The matchless grandeur of Gotham’s great landmark

For almost a year, New Yorkers have worried that the Plaza Hotel, one of the city’s most cherished buildings, might suffer irredeemable alteration. Since last May, when the hotel shut its doors for renovations, we have watched nervously as the net-shrouded structure, its elegant furnishings removed and auctioned off, became a construction site. The first alarms sounded in January 2005, when the Israeli real-estate company Elad bought the 99-year-old hostelry for $675 million. Elad swiftly announced plans to transform most of the Plaza’s 800 guest rooms to luxury condominiums, reserving just 150 rooms on the less desirable 58th Street side for a small hotel and converting many of the building’s beloved public spaces to retail use. Rumors spread that the magnificent Oak Room would soon be a dress shop, and that escalators would drive through the ballroom where Jack and Jackie Kennedy once tripped the light fantastic, though the company had reassured unhappy preservationists and the general public that it would preserve these glorious spaces, where generations of New Yorkers have danced, dined, drunk, and married.

The Plaza exterior, designated a New York City Landmark in 1969 and listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1986, has ample legal protection. The real threat, observers feared, was to the hotel’s matchless interiors, which had no such security. These spaces included, in addition to the Oak Room and the Grand Ballroom, such Gotham icons as the Palm Court and the Oak Bar. A number of organizations, including the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Municipal Art Society, and the Beaux Arts Alliance, began meeting with Elad officials and with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which in the summer of 2005 conferred landmark status on eight of the Plaza’s most important public spaces. Few New Yorkers would question the decision. The Plaza’s architecture, history, and superb location together embody the very meaning of the word “landmark.”

New York boasts sites where the combination of distinguished architecture and palpable memory summon up the awesome energy and notable personalities that have forged the metropolis. You find yourself thrust, as if by a time machine, backward into past eras. Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, stretching from 58th to 60th Street along Fifth Avenue, is unquestionably such a site. Position yourself near Carrère & Hastings’s high fountain, capped by Karl Bitter’s bronze Pomona (a gift from newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer), and New York’s history reverberates. To the south stands Buchman and Kahn’s Bergdorf Goodman store, an elegant 1929 proto-Deco composition beneath a restrained mansard roof. Bergdorf’s occupies the site of the 137-room château that George B. Post and Richard Morris Hunt erected for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice, between 1882 and 1892—the largest private city house ever constructed in the United States. Head of the New York Central Railroad, Vanderbilt went on to build the Breakers in Newport, the posh resort’s biggest summer “cottage.” The Vanderbilts’ daughter Gertrude, a sculptor, married the equally rich Harry Payne Whitney and founded the Whitney Museum. The Vanderbilts’ mammoth New York mansion came down in 1927, the victim of real-estate taxes that had soared to $129,120 a year.

Anchoring the Grand Army Plaza’s northeast corner is the shimmering white Tuckahoe and Vermont marble of the magnificent Metropolitan Club, modeled loosely upon the Palazzo Pandolfini in Florence. The club’s classical marble and copper cornice, projecting six feet beyond the facade, is one of the handsomest in the city. Financier J. P. Morgan and a passel of Vanderbilts, Goelets, and Roosevelts founded the Metropolitan for wealthy business associates—some truly diamonds in the rough—blackballed by the city’s stuffier clubs, the Union and the Knickerbocker. (When the Metropolitan opened in 1894, people immediately dubbed it the “Millionaire’s Club.”) With the building’s great marble hall, architect Stanford White created one of New York’s most dazzling interior spaces. The two-story hall, almost a cube—53 by 54 feet and 45 feet high—is sheathed in black-mottled white marble that rises to open galleries, supported by 12-foot columns with gilt Ionic capitals reaching up to a white and wine-red coffered ceiling.

In his 1907 book The American Scene, New York native Henry James, surveying Grand Army Plaza, wrote: “The best thing in the picture, obviously, is Saint-Gaudens’ great group, splendid in its golden elegance. . . . The refinement prevails and, as it were, succeeds; holds its own.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded equestrian statue of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, preceded by a female figure symbolizing victory, has indeed held its own since 1903, when first mounted on its Charles F. McKim–designed granite pedestal. The Sherman family had initially asked that the statue stand in front of Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb on Riverside Drive. But the Sherman and Grant families were not friendly, and the Grants, thinking that the statue would upstage the former president’s burial place, vetoed the idea. How fortunate the Shermans were, for this wonderful statue now rests on one of Manhattan’s supreme spots. Like some golden knight, the general seems to gallop out of the bosky expanse of Central Park, ready to charge south down Fifth Avenue, determined once more to burn Atlanta.

So much in such a confined space: Vanderbilts, Carrère & Hastings, Stanford White, Joseph Pulitzer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Charles F. McKim, William Tecumseh Sherman, and J. P. Morgan. But the structure that gives Grand Army Plaza its inescapable consequence is the eponymous Plaza Hotel. It presides over the square’s western side with dignity. Viewed from the northeast, the hotel is like a gargantuan crossroads signpost, marking the spot where the commerce of Fifth Avenue halts and the luxurious residences of the upper avenue and the semi-wild expanse of Central Park commence.

The Plaza Hotel has something of the ages about it, something both old and new, splendidly captured by its architect, Henry Janeway Hardenbergh. The viewer knows at once that the structure is from another era, but its elevations aren’t fusty or retrograde. The hotel subtly merges architectural modernity with just enough of a bow to the past to give a humane quality to its great scale. This brilliant balancing act has its roots in the style of Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts, whose aesthetics looked back to the classicism of ancient Greece and Rome and the Renaissance even as the school wholeheartedly embraced the new materials and techniques of the Industrial Revolution: iron, steel, plate glass, steam heat, electricity, the elevator. This dynamic combination of tradition and the up-to-date also gives Beaux Arts masterpieces such as the New York Public Library and Grand Central Terminal their elegant practicality.

To attract customers, Hardenbergh’s Plaza design made it clear that this was a hotel with state-of-the-art creature comforts, while adding to the design mix the necessary quotient of the historically familiar to make the edifice distinctive and alluring. To achieve this, he gave his hotel the tripartite form of a column, separating the three-story limestone base from the shaft with a bold stringcourse. The base’s rich embellishment of Doric columns, elaborate pilasters, and balustrades relates it at street level to the vanished structures that once bordered Grand Army Plaza—the Vanderbilt mansion to the south and the Savoy Hotel and the Balkenhayn Apartments across Fifth Avenue, on the site now occupied by the General Motors Building. This rich base also offered a warm invitation to enter the caravansary.

The nine-story shaft rising above this elaborately ornamented base, by contrast, boldly proclaims its architectural modernity. Its unadorned surface of creamy terra-cotta signals that this is no load-bearing wall but a curtain wall, a thin skin hung upon the steel-framed skeleton beneath. The shaft exemplifies the theories of the pioneer skyscraper designer Louis Sullivan, who summed up the essential attraction of the tall building: “The appeal and the inspiration lie, of course, in the element of loftiness, in the suggestion of slenderness and aspiration, the soaring quality as of a thing rising from the earth in a unitary utterance.”

Above the simple shaft, a luxuriant capital crowns the Plaza. Visually preparing for this grand finale are rounded tourelles, climbing from the base to the roofline, to end there beneath graceful domes. Aware that he was building on a site that provided unobstructed views of two facades—an almost unique advantage in Manhattan—Hardenbergh made the most of the opportunity, terminating his structure with an architectural ensemble that resembles a château set atop a high, white cliff. Indeed, the Plaza’s mélange of sharply pointed gables, innumerable dormer windows, and crested mansard roofs recalls the grandeur of some Renaissance French castle on the Loire River, such as Valençay or Chambord.

The area around the Plaza wasn’t always the elegant, carefully planned precinct we know today. It took decades for New York City to move up Manhattan Island to the neighborhood of 57th Street. When Edith Jones, later Edith Wharton, was born in 1862 on West 23rd Street, that location was as far north as anyone with even a modicum of social pretension could live. And when, five years later, her elder cousin Mary Mason Jones built a group of houses known as “Marble Row” way up at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, most people considered her wildly eccentric. In The House of Mirth, Wharton characterized the neighborhood as a place of onetime saloons, wooden greenhouses, and “rocks from which goats surveyed the scene.” And while Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began work on Central Park in 1858, it took nearly 20 years for them to complete it. In fact, the Plaza’s future site, reports Curtis Gathje in At the Plaza, was what New Yorkers generally knew as the Fifth Avenue Pond: “During the winter, this pond was reserved by the New York Skating Club for use as a private skating rink.”

But by the early 1880s, the choice locale was far too valuable to remain a mere amusement center. In 1880, a consortium purchased the site for a high-class apartment hotel. They hired as architect Carl Pfeiffer, who in 1875 had designed the brownstone Gothic Revival Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at the northwest corner of 55th Street. But after a series of catastrophic cost overruns and nasty lawsuits, Pfeiffer lost the commission, and McKim, Mead & White came on to complete the half-finished structure. The rather somber seven-story building—relieved by faint touches of Renaissance decoration—opened October 1, 1890. Though McKim, Mead & White tried to enliven its interiors with mosaic pavements, mahogany paneling, tapestries, and a Mexican onyx bar, this first Plaza lacked the glitter and grandeur that Gilded Age New Yorkers expected of their new hotels.

The negative reviews about its general appearance, as well as its uneconomically short height, sealed the Plaza’s fate barely 12 years after it opened. (Proposals had come up to enlarge the structure, but it turned out that the foundation couldn’t carry additional stories.) In 1902, the U.S. Realty and Construction Company, headed by Harry Black, bought the hotel for $3 million. A friend, financier Bernhard Beinecke, had urged Black to acquire the building because of its incomparable location.

Important financial backing for the purchase came from the legendary John W. “Bet-a-Million” Gates, who started out as a barbed-wire salesman in Chicago and became a millionaire by the age of 30. Gates was renowned for betting on almost anything. But his ultimate renown came from one August evening in 1902, when he won a cool $300,000 at Canfield’s casino in Saratoga Springs, New York. Gates liked to live well and had found no hotel in New York City that fully met his sybaritic standards. But Gates did like Saratoga’s United States Hotel, run by one of the most successful hotel men in America, Fred Sterry. It was Gates who insisted that Sterry become the all-important managing director of the new Plaza. When Gates approached him about relocating to Gotham, Sterry replied, “Build me the right kind of hotel and I will come.” The right kind of hotel was built. It would cost $12.5 million.

When the new Plaza opened in October 1907, it reflected the determination of Beinecke, Black, and Sterry to surpass the 1904 St. Regis Hotel that Trowbridge & Livingston had designed for John Jacob Astor at Fifth Avenue and East 55th Street, as well as Hiss & Week’s new Gotham at Fifth and West 55th, financed by Thomas Fortune Ryan and the powerful Ohio Republican senator Mark A. Hanna. Also in their sights: the 1,000-room Waldorf-Astoria, at Fifth and 34th Street—since 1893, New York’s most prestigious hostelry.

The Plaza trio chose Waldorf designer Henry Hardenbergh as their architect because of his excellent reputation. He had won praise as a creator of superb commercial buildings, like Western Union’s at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. He had also designed outstanding headquarters for cultural institutions, including the American Fine Arts Society at 215 West 57th Street, now the Art Students League. But his greatest acclaim resulted from his unfailing good taste in designing hotels and apartment buildings—not just the Waldorf but also the Dakota on Central Park West (the city’s first luxury apartment house, which opened in 1880), the opulent French Renaissance Martinique Hotel on West 32nd Street (1897), and the Willard, Washington, D.C.’s most lavish hostelry (1901).

To achieve New York hotel supremacy, the determined triumvirate paid special attention to the Plaza’s 800 guest rooms and 17 apartments. For starters, they provided an unprecedented 500 bathrooms. Further, they brought in one of the city’s leading decorators, Herter Brothers manager William Baumgarten, to design the palatial State Suite on the second floor, with its views north over Central Park and east over Fifth Avenue. Thanks to the high quality of its guest rooms’ decor and to its abundant modern conveniences, the Plaza quickly attracted prominent residents, including Enrico Caruso and John Wanamaker. Over the years, the hotel numbered among its residents Solomon R. Guggenheim, the founder of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who moved into Suite 223–225 during 1953, while overseeing the museum’s construction. Wright quickly banished the suite’s fussy decor and replaced it with furniture and accessories of his own taste.

The Plaza had yet another ace up its sleeve: the restrained opulence and rich variety of its ground-floor public rooms. In the words of the New York World, “Marble and gold and wonderful tapestries vied with each other at dazzling the sight.” These rooms offer an unrivaled history of taste in New York and in America over the past century.

The sequence of amazing chambers begins with the hotel’s 59th Street entrance, the original lobby. This Louis XVI–style space, enriched with Breccia marble pillars and pilasters embellished with gilt bronze, is a rare New York survival of the work of the renowned French decorating firm L. Alavoine et Cie, which opened a Gotham branch in 1893. This is the firm that, in cooperation with another great French decorator, Allard, crafted the interiors of Richard Morris Hunt’s Newport masterpieces, Marble House (1892) and the Breakers (1895). Alavoine’s job was to supply furnishings for the Plaza lobby, but the decorators probably fabricated important elements of the lobby itself in France and then sent them to New York, just as they did for the interiors of the house that Horace Trumbauer designed for the Strauses (of Macy’s fame) on East 71st Street.

The foyer—almost unchanged today, except for the lowered ceiling—would have made the Plaza’s first guest, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, feel right at home when he registered at 9 am on October 1, 1907. His parents were the Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II living right next door. Alfred Vanderbilt—who went down with the Lusitania, sunk by a German sub in 1915—took a five-room corner suite for himself and his wife and a single room for his servant. On October 7, 1964, 57 years later, the Beatles would register at the same desk during their first trip to the U.S.

Behind the lobby, the long marble corridor linking the hotel’s great public rooms has also changed little since 1907. Turning to the right and proceeding down the corridor, a visitor enters one of the supreme existing examples of the extravagant pre–World War I Champagne and Lobster Age: the Oak Room, originally known as the Oak Barroom. The only significant alteration of this room since the hotel opened was the Prohibition-era removal of the long wooden bar that once stood beneath the triple arches on its western side. This sensational 20-foot-high chamber, with its dramatic use of dark Flemish oak, is an architectural celebration of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America’s love affair with the Germany of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Wagner. It is also a reminder of the vast German emigration to America between 1883 and 1914, which filled New York and other cities with German restaurants and beer halls.

The Oak Room is a superb example of German Renaissance style, as its three paintings of castles on the Rhine and its chandelier decorated with a barmaid hoisting a stein emphatically proclaim. This staggering space recalls the two- and three-deck-high dining rooms that Johannes Poppe designed for German transatlantic steamers of the time, on which Plaza co-founder Bernhard Beinecke, a German immigrant himself, would regularly cross the Atlantic. Designed by Hardenbergh, with the help of Alavoine and the New York furniture maker E. F. Pooley, the Oak Room evokes an era before two world wars forever altered America’s view of Germany.

Among those who cherished the room: the glorifier of the American girl, Florenz Ziegfeld, newspaper scribe Damon Runyon, and New York mayor “Beau James” Walker. But no one became more closely associated with it than George M. Cohan. After the composer’s death in 1942, the Lambs Club affixed a bronze plaque to his favorite booth. It read: “Here in this corner, where he spent many happy hours, The Lambs have placed this tablet in the Oak Room in honor of the most brilliant versatile gentleman in the theatre of his day.”

If the Oak Room is Teutonic in taste, the Palm Court, originally the Tea Room, is emphatically Anglo-French. A sumptuous amalgam of mirrors, walls of exquisite Breccia marble, and a floor of gray Istrian marble—the marble of the Italian Veneto, favored by Andrea Palladio for decorative elements in his famous villas—the shimmering space encapsulates the period when Mrs. Astor ruled New York society and ladies in long Worth gowns, their magnificent hats confections of feather and tulle, nibbled cucumber sandwiches while sipping tea from eggshell-thin cups. The creation of noted New York decorators E. Spencer Hall & Co. (with Alavoine’s aid), the princely chamber remains mostly unaltered, too, except for the replacement in the 1940s of its glass dome, attributed to Tiffany & Co., with a flat ceiling. The excuse given for this act of vandalism: the need for space for a new air-conditioning unit.

Among the Palm Court’s most sensational elements are the caryatids, reputedly transferred from an Italian palace. If they aren’t originals, they’re excellent copies, undoubtedly supplied by Alavoine, which had an entire department that furnished antique architectural elements to European and American designers. The Palm Court is especially significant as New York’s sole remaining example of an amenity de rigueur in the nineteenth-century palace hotels of Europe. The Palm Courts of two London hotels—the Carlton (1899) and the Savoy (1889)—provided Hardenbergh with his chief models. Fred Sterry was particularly enthusiastic about including a Palm Court in the Plaza’s repertoire of rooms, since he reportedly missed the warmer climes of Palm Beach, where he had managed the Royal Poinciana and the Breakers for railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler. The Plaza’s Palm Court would gain worldwide fame as a favorite playground for actress and writer Kay Thompson and the impish Eloise of her famous children’s books, illustrated by Hilary Knight.

Next comes the 50- by 65-foot chamber at the Plaza’s northeast corner, designed in a North European style that owes much to medieval English precedents. Known first as the Grill Room and later as the Fifth Avenue Café, this space received in 1955 its current name: the Edwardian Room. During the Prohibition era, the chamber hosted late-afternoon tea dances, immortalized by the antics of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who at least once splashed about in the Pulitzer Fountain. (The Plaza serves as a key locale in The Great Gatsby.)

The Plaza initially reserved the Grill exclusively for males. The room’s oak paneling, rising to 12 feet, with artificial Caen stone above, does lend it a sober, “masculine” aspect. But the chief decorative element is the peaked ceiling, with its four double-beamed trusses. The ultimate inspiration for the Grill Room was the banqueting hall typical of English castles, such as Derbyshire’s Haddon Hall, dating from the fourteenth century. The Grill Room even boasts, like Haddon Hall, a minstrel’s gallery. Providing much of the room’s fine detailing were the McNulty Brothers of New York. Though the room underwent superficial redecorations during its various incarnations as the “Green Tulip” and “One CPS,” it remains essentially unchanged since its Grill Room days.

From the Plaza Hotel’s inception, its founders envisioned its expansion, and they purchased the necessary property on West 58th Street. In 1921, the great firm of Warren & Wetmore—Hardenbergh had died in 1918—designed a 150-room addition, melding with the original structure almost seamlessly. Senior partner Whitney Warren had made the firm famous by designing several of New York’s Beaux Arts masterpieces, including Grand Central Terminal, the New York Yacht Club, and the James A. Burden House on East 91st Street.

The Plaza addition entailed an important rearrangement of the ground floor, with the hotel’s main entrance moving from 59th Street to the Fifth Avenue side. Warren & Wetmore incorporated in the new Plaza lobby (which provided easy access to their addition) many important elements of the dining room that originally occupied the space. But the new entrance forced the closure of the Plaza’s popular warm-weather rendezvous, the Terrace, which had stretched along the Fifth Avenue front.

A mezzanine-level Terrace Room soon opened. The handsome space, designed in a restrained French Renaissance style quite different from the opulence typical of the Gilded Age, set the tone for new hotels across the country, such as Holabird & Roche’s Palmer House in Chicago (1927). The Terrace Room’s magnificent plasterwork and artificial stone was by P. J. Durcan, while the decoration, including the splendid Italian Renaissance–inspired ceiling, was the work of John W. Smeraldi. But the room’s true jewels are its five crystal chandeliers—copies of ones that once hung in the Palace of Versailles and that Emperor Paul of Russia bought after the French Revolution. The White Russian émigré Serge Oblensky, Plaza publicist in the 1940s, possessed photographs of the chandeliers and had Charles Winston, brother of famed jeweler Harry Winston, make the copies.

The Grand Ballroom of 1927, replacing the hotel’s much smaller original ballroom, can accommodate 800 for dinner and 1,000 for dancing. Like the neighboring Terrace Room, the Ballroom is in a French Renaissance style, drawing inspiration in particular from the François I rooms of the Palace of Fontainebleau, a special favorite of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts–trained Whitney Warren. It was in this magnificent hall, on November 28, 1966, that Truman Capote threw his legendary Black and White Ball. The guest of honor was Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, but the real reason for the party was the publication of Capote’s sensational In Cold Blood earlier in the year. The 500 attendees, including Frank Sinatra, Vivien Leigh, and Andy Warhol, wore, as instructed, black or white. The continued existence of this gorgeous chamber was one reason that the brilliant chronicler of New York life, Lucius Beebe, wrote in the April 1949 Holiday magazine: “Today there are still standing two superplush examples of hotel style of the 1900s: the Plaza and the St. Regis.”

With large, beautiful hotel ballrooms an endangered species in New York City, it is imperative that the Plaza’s Grand Ballroom and the Terrace Room remain public spaces.

One of the most impressive realities about the Plaza Hotel’s interior spaces is the outstanding quality of their design and decorative elements—in every era. Consider the Oak Bar, at the hotel’s northwest corner. When Conrad Hilton bought the Plaza in the 1940s, the brokerage firm of E. F. Hutton and Company occupied the space. True to his motto, “Make the space pay,” Hilton moved Hutton upstairs to a mezzanine office and transformed its former location into the present Oak Bar. In a stroke of genius, he commissioned the ideal artist to decorate the new bar: Everett Shinn (1876–1953) belonged to the so-called Ashcan School of painters, whose other members included John Sloan and William Glackens. They chose as subjects the banks and tenements, the trolleys and restaurants of New York City.

Shinn proved particularly adept in capturing New York’s streetscapes and the tinselly glamour of its music halls. In his long career, the painter worked for the architect Stanford White, decorated the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street for David Belasco, and drew wonderful illustrations for Vanity Fair magazine. Many consider his three Oak Bar murals, commissioned in 1944, to be his masterpieces. Perhaps no one has portrayed the city in its pre–World War I guise better than Shinn did in his moody nighttime mural on the Oak Bar’s east wall. Entitled Christmas at the Plaza 1907, it places the viewer on the steps of the hotel, looking eastward toward the vanished Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion. These Shinn murals rank with the city’s other great rare works of art created specifically for the structures still sheltering them, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture in the Villard Houses on Madison Avenue and John Lafarge’s mural in the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue. With its atmospheric murals, dark paneling, and comfortable leather chairs, the incomparable room embodies the ideal New York hotel boîte. The Oak Bar also has a place in the history of cinematography: Cary Grant’s kidnappers stole him away from its Table 2 in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller North by Northwest.

The official word is that the Plaza is now safe. But walking by the closed hotel and glimpsing empty rooms lighted by bare bulbs where formerly crystal chandeliers dispersed radiance, rooms where tea and cakes, martinis and chateaubriand once gladdened and warmed their hearts, New Yorkers cannot avoid a tinge of trepidation as to what the illustrious old caravansary will be like when it reopens later this year or early next. Let’s hope it’s back to the future.

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More by David Garrard Lowe:
The Houses of Worship That Hallow New York
Now They’re Deconstructing the Columbia Campus
The Man Who Gilded the Gilded Age
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