Friday

June 23rd, 2017

Insight

Last of the Grand Hotels to be Gutted

Greg Crosby

By Greg Crosby

Published July 1, 2016

And another one bites the dust.

This spring New York's classic Waldorf Astoria Hotel will be shut down for three years for an extensive overhaul by its present owner, China's Anbang, who acquired the property last year. The historic hotel will be gutted, and three-quarters of it will be turned into private condos. The last of the great world-class hotels will be no more.

Anbang Insurance Group Co.'s restoration plan calls for closing down the 1,413-room property in the spring, removing as many as 1,100 hotel rooms and eliminating hundreds of hotel jobs. The place will never be the same. No matter what they say, the Waldorf as we know it will be gone. The old-world style will be changed, the elegance and sophistication will be eliminated, the ghosts will be chased out, and the place will be adapted to suit today's modern tastes.

How do I know this? Easy, just look at what happened to the Plaza Hotel. The Plaza was sold in 2004 for $675 million (equivalent of $850 million today) to Israeli-owned Manhattan-based developer, El Ad Properties. El Ad bought the hotel with plans of adding residential and commercial sections, exactly as Anbang did when they bought the Waldorf. El Ad closed the Plaza Hotel on April 30, 2005 for three years to make extensive renovations, just as Anbang plans to do.

Beginning May 2005, the Plaza Hotel's contents were available to the public through a liquidation sale. When the hotel reopened on March 1, 2008, hotel rooms were reduced to 282 and 152 private condo units were for sale. Most of the condominium units are usually empty, used as pied-à-terres by their wealthy owners.

In November 2008 the Plaza Hotel unveiled an underground shopping mall, accessible by newly installed escalators, featuring luxury retail brands and high-end designers. Then they finally added the topping to the cake in 2010, when a Plaza food court opened in the underground mall. After all, what's a hotel without a food court, right? You can bet that the Chinese company will do a similar thing with the Waldorf.

When the Waldorf reopens, the hotel will only have around 300 or so guest rooms left. The remaining units will be sold as condominiums. The vast reduction in Waldorf hotel rooms will lead to the elimination of many room service, housekeeping and other hospitality jobs. The Waldorf currently has about 1,500 hotel employees. The redevelopment costs are expected to run to more than $1 billion, said people familiar with the plan. Anbang already spent $1.95 billion to acquire the property last year, the steepest price tag ever for a U.S. hotel.

This marks a sad transformation for the 85-year-old institution that has been such a cultural and political fixture of New York and actually the whole world. So many historical events have played out within its walls that it would take volumes to write them all. For many years Guy Lombardo and his orchestra hosted New Year's Eve broadcasting from the famous "Starlight Roof." For those of us of a certain age, it wasn't a new year until Guy Lombardo played "Auld Lang Syne."

Every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed there, and it has been a New York home to celebrities such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Frank Sinatra, and the Duke of Windsor after he abdicated his throne to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson. Composter Cole Porter made the Waldorf Towers his home for 25 years. Conrad Hilton, who acquired control of the property in 1949, wrote on a photo of the hotel that it was "The Greatest Of Them All."

Some things you just figure will always be there, but everything in the world has a lifespan, an expiration date so to speak. Nothing lasts forever. Still it saddens me when another great institution passes away. Maybe it wouldn't bother me so much if the old charming and elegant places were being replaced by new places just as charming and elegant. But they never are, are they?

Classy department stores make room for box stores, elegant restaurants make room for themed eatery chains, and swank hotels make way for boutique hotels. So long, Waldorf Astoria. I'm glad I had the chance to know you when you were still grand.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. He's been a JWR contributor since 1999.

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