The heavy for the Plaza Hotel’s owner, Elad Properties, stood sentry outside the Oak Bar, turning away patrons who had come to pay their last respects to the venerable
“But we don’t need drinks; we’ll just have a Coke. We just want to spend some time here on the last night,” I explained. “No, I’m sorry, no,” he said, turning away my beau and I, as well as a number of others gathered at the entrance, all of us hoping to say a proper goodbye to the place that held so many memories, an immeasurable amount of history.
It was Friday night,
A year ago today, April 30, at
By all accounts, Elad Properties, which acquired the Plaza in 2004 for $675 million, began disassembling the storied hotel’s infamous rooms almost immediately and sold many treasured items. A letter posted in a thread at Wired.com’s
The pillage culminated with an auction at Christie’s on March 15 that garnered a whopping $1.8 million for 344 lots that included such irreplaceable items as Eloise’s ruby slippers, the oak corner humidor and a vintage Steinway Baby Grand piano from the Oak Room, a pair of Jean Honore Fragonard murals and a Louis XV-style blue- and clear-glass chandelier, according to a March 16 press release at Christie’s Web site (Christie's Honors The Plaza With An Auction That Realizes A Million More Than Pre-Sale Expectations). Elad and Christie’s whitewashed the auction with a lavish pre-auction party billed as an homage to Truman Capote’s 1966 Black-and-White Ball; naturally the party, not the ransacking of an historic landmark, grabbed all the headlines.
Elad had originally announced that it would maintain only 100 hotel rooms for the public, resulting in a projected loss of between 900 and 1,100 jobs, according to a statement by the NY Hotel Trades Council last year. The union waged a fierce campaign to save the hotel – and its jobs – and garnered involvement from Mayor Bloomberg’s office. The end result: The Plaza still closed, but Elad promised that it would maintain about 300 hotel rooms and would preserve key historic interiors. Those were to include – according to a Letter to the Editor from Elad’s CEO, Miki Naftali, published in the New York Times on
In the meantime, preservationists were as outraged as the union, and lobbied the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to bestow landmark status on a number of the Plaza’s interior rooms. The Plaza’s exterior was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986, but interior landmarks are a rarity: In New York, only a relative few interiors enjoy landmark distinction. (Note that I didn’t say “protection” – enforcement of the regulations surrounding landmark status seems rather soft, particularly when owners can apply for waivers; the enforcement process consists of a warning letter, an official Notice of Violation if the warning goes unheeded, a hearing, a second Notice of Violation and civil fines.)
Last July after a series of delays that drew the ire of Plaza supporters, the Commission granted landmark status to eight of the Plaza’s famed interiors, including the Palm Court, the Grand Ballroom, the Terrace Room, the Oak Room and Oak Bar, the 59th Street Lobby, the Fifth Avenue Lobby and Vestibule, and the Main Corridors, as well as some adjacent corridors, murals, chandeliers and decorative metalwork. At the same time, however, the Commission recommended approving a landmarks waiver that paves the way for Elad to create 39,000 square feet of commercial space and to make changes to the landmarked exterior – such as adding a new entrance to what critics expect will be an upscale mall.
The current Plaza Web site assures the public that Elad is “working with preservationists, architectural historians, and stained glass and lighting experts … to recreate a huge, 1,200-square-foot laylight” in the Palm Court and includes historic photos of the lavish dining area’s original stained-glass ceiling. This plan was, apparently, a concession to the Landmarks Commission to get the waiver on the exterior and permission to create the commercial space, which is expected to feature high-end stores.
The Web site makes only a brief reference to the Oak Room and Bar, saying “it will be restored and will remain in its original grandeur [sic].” But if Elad is planning on restoring the now landmarked Oak Room to its original grandeur, why is the company selling off the room’s legendary furnishings? Likewise, it says of the Grand Ballroom that it “also will be accurately restored to its original grandeur.” It includes no information on the Edwardian Room except a notation that it is, alas, the site of the sales office for the ultra high-end new residences.
Those are being offered for a total of $1.3 billion with individual sale prices ranging from $2 million for a one-bedroom overlooking a new, private internal courtyard to $40 million for an upper-floor three bedroom with park views, according to published reports. The private residences will consume all of the space on the north side of the building, facing
The uncertainty of what the Plaza Hotel will really look like when it reopens in 2007 was best expressed to me last April (2005) by a New Yorker in a position to understand fully the import of the Plaza’s closing. Curt Gathje, author of At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World's Most Famous Hotel (2000, St. Martin's Press), worked at the Plaza for 27 years, climbing the ranks from room service waiter to Director of Guest Services and official Plaza Historian. “I am not convinced that the interior public spaces are protected or are safe,” he told me when I interviewed him about the Plaza’s closing. “They might reopen, and the Oak Room could be a Barneys or god knows what. So, I am a little discouraged, and I am not convinced.”
Feeling that same sense of discouragement in the final week coming up to the closing last year, I threw budgetary caution to the wind and fulfilled a lifelong dream: I had a room with a park view at the Plaza Hotel. Ever since I saw Jane Fonda standing in the doorway of her bridal suite, wearing Robert Redford’s oxford cloth shirt and sending him off to work with a sexy goodbye in the film Barefoot in the Park, I had wanted to stay at the Plaza. When I woke up on the morning of Saturday, April 23, my first thought was: “This is it, my last chance Texaco. I have to do it,” and I called and got a room.
Following are excerpts of a journal I kept of my resplendent 21 hours at the Plaza Hotel on its final Saturday night as New York’s Grande Dame.
I’ve just checked into the Plaza Hotel, for the last Saturday night that it will be the Plaza as we’ve known it. The Oyster Bar is already closed, but the Oak Bar and the Palm Court and the truffle shop are still open, and I am here as a guest for my very first – and, alas, last – time.
This is the place I’ve come to use the lady’s room when stuck in midtown with nowhere else to go, to buy truffles, to have tea, but never, until now, to sleep. Thanks to a most accommodating reservations rep, who has sworn me to secrecy so I will refer to him only as the wind beneath my wings today, I have a 12th-floor park view, a free breakfast in the morning and a decent discount.
As I was falling asleep last night, it hit me: If I don’t do it now, I’ll never get to. Over 23 years in
Other than the absence of a monogrammed, white terry bathrobe in the bathroom, which I’d expected somehow, everything is just how I’d imagined it would be. I have park views – of the Duck Pond – from both the main room and the bathroom. The room itself, while not huge, is large enough with colonial blue walls and embossed satin wallpaper within picture moldings and a walk-in closet that’s just about the size of my first room in a share in Carroll Gardens circa 1984.
Tea in the
Michael, my waiter, has the most pleasant, musical, baritone voice and eyes that dance to go with the cadence. He has worked at the Plaza for 35 years, and plans to come back when it reopens in ’07.
“I don’t know how to feel,” he tells me. “I’m very attached to the place. But I want to come back to it when it’s good again. Not like the last four months,” when apparently even coming up with spoons for customers shelling out $35 for sandwiches, scones and pastry has been a challenge. “We have to hide them on the side,” he says. “You can’t tell a customer, ‘We have no spoons for you.’ They’re still paying the same amount; they should get the same service. But they tell us, ‘Do the best you can.’” They being, it seems, management.
“What will you be doing next weekend?” I ask. He smiles broadly, yet wistfully. “I don’t know. Fishing?” With a question mark at the end. “I’ve told myself, I’ll spend the summer fishing and the fall golfing, and then I’ll have to find a new wife because mine will throw me out.” And he laughs again, and then his expression changes to not quite solemn, but searching. “I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I think this time a week from now, I’ll be very upset.”
A couple from
The scones are small and light, for scones, and the clotted cream is, as well, like clouds of sweetness on top with the raspberry jam. I eat both of them and all of my sandwiches; the smoked salmon with scallion cream cheese and caviar on pumpernickel is particularly delicious. I finish off my last of three cups of English Breakfast tea – brewed in a white porcelain pot, which Michael refills with hot water for me – with a delectable mango mousse pastry, laced with a hint of raspberry. When I am done, I am sweetly sleepy, a pleasant carb overdose making me drowsy and dreamy and wishing I could be Eloise, eternally living at the Plaza. I leave Michael an extravagant tip.
The concierge, a tanned older gentleman with good skin, silver hair thick with a wave, and full lips – handsome – tells me no when I ask if 1215 is a smoking room; then he adds, “Oh, you can smoke. We’re closing. Just open the window.”
I buy truffles and return to 1215, fighting the impulse to nap. I pull my chair over by the window, raise it enough to let the smoke out, and look out at my park view. It’s actually a partial view, and I have to stand and stretch over the heating unit to see the Duck Pond, but that’s OK. I have a room, with a park view, at the Plaza Hotel, on its last Saturday night. The trees outside are the vibrant green they are only in spring, and the tops are skimmed by fog. It has threatened to thunderstorm all day, but the storm has restrained itself. Beyond the Duck Pond, I can see the paths of the park twisting and turning their way west and uptown, to my neighborhood. But for the fog, I think I’d be able to see Great Hill, although unlikely given the thick full trees, which have become that way seemingly overnight – turning from bare and stark to full-blown color. The cars go by 12 floors below and honk, and it’s
So after the rush of checking in, and the exquisite tea, and the purchase of truffles, what do you do in the Plaza Hotel when your beau is stuck editing with a crazy producer? Go see a French film at the blue velvet Paris Theater. Happily Ever After (Ils Se Marièrent et Eurent Beaucoup d'Enfants) seems like it was tailor-made for me on my special night, deftly combining an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (my all-time favorite film) with Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling in Love (perhaps my all-time favorite love song – at least by Elvis), and Johnny Depp – speaking French and looking so fine And then all the smoking, the fabulous French and their unabashed smoking.
As soon as I stepped back out into the cool, damp
Less than half an hour to checkout, and I wish I didn’t have to leave, because I know this moment will never come again. At the end of a really great vacation, a vacation that has seduced me, when I have fallen in love with the place and the time, I soothe myself with the promise that I will return, and it’s always a comfort to know that a return trip is an option. But that isn’t an option this time because I leave knowing that the Plaza will never be the same after next weekend.
So, I soothe myself with one last call to room service and enjoy a decadently expensive breakfast in bed.
My beau joined me just after
I’ve always felt like part of an eternal tradition when I’ve come here; it never occurred to me that could go away. Although Elad has conceded to preserve the Oak Bar, I fear that it will somehow be different. I tell myself that part of
After the Oak Room, we lingered at the jewelry cases in the lobby and then came upstairs for a
Photos by "my beau."
BONUS TRACK: Q&A With Curt Gathje
On Saturday, April 30, 2005, Elad Properties, the real estate developer that acquired the Plaza Hotel for $675 million in 2004, closed its doors for a controversial, two-year renovation that will convert about half of the property to condominiums.
Following a campaign to save the hotel, mounted by the New York Hotels Trades Council, and involvement from the Mayor’s Office, Elad’s management pledged to maintain some of the hotel’s historic interiors, including the Oak Room, the Grand Ballroom, the Palm Court and the Edwardian Room (see story above for details). Nevertheless, one New Yorker with close ties to the Plaza had his doubts about the illustrious hotel’s future.
Curt Gathje, author of At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World's Most Famous Hotel (2000, St. Martin's Press), worked at the Plaza for 27 years. He started out as a room service waiter, and worked his way through the ranks, finishing his tenure as Director of Guest Services and official Plaza historian. On April 29 last year, less than 24 hours before the Plaza’s 98-year reign as New York’s Grand Dame of luxury hotels drew to a close, Gathje spoke with me about the loss of a New York icon that he compared to the loss of the original Penn Station, and one that he measured as a personal loss, as well.
MSMANHATTAN: Why is the Plaza such an iconic symbol of New York; why do we feel so invested in it?
GATHJE: Certainly its location has a lot to do with it – Fifth Avenue and Central Park South is one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the city. And the grandeur of the building, that it’s part French chateau, part skyscraper, makes it a really spectacular building. And time helps in these matters – the more time it’s around, the more venerable it is.
At the same time, I think New Yorkers pay lip service to it being a top building, but they don’t really visit it, and that’s why, say, the Oak Room has had a tough time in recent years. It hasn’t made money. And, it’s one of my favorite places; it’s so sad.
MSMANHATTAN: What is your favorite story about the Plaza's history?
GATHJE: I was the archivist, and I took a lot of press tours around, and the story that people always got the biggest kick out of is the one about Harry Allen. He owned a fleet of taxi cabs in the early part of the last century, and on opening day [October 1, 1907] he brought his fleet up Fifth Avenue and parked in front of the hotel and gave all the patrons free rides.
Well, he got a lot of publicity for his taxi fleet, and he made horse-and-buggy drivers in the neighborhood very upset. There was a story that he was having breakfast in the Edwardian Room, and he was shot at. He was unpopular because he was a harbinger of things to come, and we know what happened. But, the Plaza is still one of the few places in town where you can hail a handsome cab, so Harry Allen never quite got rid of all of them.
MSMANHATTAN: What was the most surprising or unusual thing you uncovered about the Plaza as its historian?
GATHJE: I think it’s surprising that it managed to maintain its reputation as a great oasis of luxury throughout the last century, because it has certainly gone through a number of hard times. In 1943, when it was sold to Conrad Hilton, it went for $5 million less than it had cost to build it in 1907. It cost $12.5 million to build back then, and he paid $7.4 million for it.
That’s not atypical of what happened with a lot of hotels after the Depression. But certainly there have been very long periods where the Plaza was O.K., but not this shining emblem, and yet it maintained a reputation throughout the century of being this high-class, super-deluxe place. And having worked there many years on the inside, I can tell you that there are areas that are super-deluxe, but many that don’t fall into that category. So, I marvel at the way the place has soldiered on through good times and bad, and has still managed to convince people that it’s a high-class affair. That’s not easy to do.
MSMANHATTAN: Can you share any anecdotes about your own personal experiences at the Plaza – a favorite memory, for example?
GATHJE: I worked there off and on 27 years, and when I left, I was director of guest relations, which is essentially the VIP office. The market segment that I was responsible for was the high-profile, high-end business, which are not necessarily the same thing. High-profile people don’t want to pay high-end prices, but they pay by way of their presence. You’re on the elevator, and the doors open, and the Queen of England walks in, and you go home and tell everyone, “I was on the elevator with the Queen of England,” and then they all want to come stay at the Plaza, too, because maybe they’ll get to be in an elevator with the Queen of England. So, celebrities have their value. And most do not pay – there’s an unwritten celebrity discount in this world.
So, I met a lot of VIPs, and that was always interesting to me; I met a few people who were personal heroes of mine – Keith Richards and Gore Vidal were two.
One of things I did was meet-and-greets for a lot of guests, and I walked a lot of well known people through that lobby. And the one person who got biggest reaction of all was Colin Powell, and this was long before he was a Cabinet member. With maybe the exception of Keith Richards – people started screaming when he walked in – Powell got the biggest reaction [from the patrons]. People just froze. I was really surprised because I got used to seeing celebrities walk through and how people reacted to them, but that was electric.
The preparations for VIP guests were always very interesting, too. Now I’m an editor in the guidebook business, and it’s a very different life. That was very exciting – one phone call could totally rock your world, and it’s something that I miss and, at the same time, I don’t miss.
MSMANHATTAN: What was your most unusual advance request from a celebrity?
GATHJE: That might have been Shirley MacLaine. She needed total quiet, and we had to install a lot of those white noise machines in her room, and a lot of things like that. And you’d have things like rock stars with demands for blackout curtains, and no red M&Ms in their candy. But that was more room service’s problem than mine.
MSMANHATTAN: How did you become the historian for the Plaza?
GATHJE: I started out as a room service waiter, and worked my way up. I was always interested in the history of the city, and when I became director of guest relations, I would go to sales meetings and give the "Plaza Minute" – a little speech on one story from the hotel’s history, because the history was one of its biggest selling points. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there is a magic that makes people want to come there. So, I was encouraged to research the history, and when I took people around, I could note [historical anecdotes] about certain rooms or places in the hotel.
MSMANHATTAN: In addition to the reduction in hotel room availability and the loss of jobs, on a more symbolic level, what does the Plaza's closing mean for New York City?
GATHJE: It’s the end of a kind of tradition that I think we keep slipping further and further away from. Instead of Conrad Hilton, we have Paris Hilton, and that really sums it up for me.
In the case of a lot of us who worked there, it’s our youth gone by. And I think it’s the same way for any New Yorker – we are used to seeing a landmark, and we identify it with our lives, and when it’s gone, we feel like we have lost a part of ourselves. And the number of places in New York with that kind of tradition and history is rapidly shrinking. It’s the most famous hotel in the world because of the movies, and to have it go away is really... I don’t know if is says something about the state of New York City, but I do think the building has always reflected what going on in New York – it had an art deco bar, there was a Tiki Bar for a while, and now that it’s turning into condos, it’s not that far of a stretch. It just seems more drastic than a Tiki Bar.
The truth of matter is, I think it was too large to be a true luxury hotel; it has 800 rooms, and that’s a lot of rooms to keep luxurious. So maybe shrinking it to 350 rooms, ultimately, might make it more of a luxury hotel.
I'm not convinced of [Elad Properties’] statement that they will keep intact the special rooms and that they’ll retain more hotel rooms. They say the Ballroom and the Oak Room – the most historically intact rooms in the building – will remain the same, but it doesn't make sense to me. I don’t understand how the union can (ensure) that. What I wonder is, where is the Landmarks Commission at this time, because there was talk of landmarking the interior, and that’s unusual in the city. Interiors typically don’t get landmarked.
I feel the press has sort of taken the announcement that the union has made this agreement as the end of the story. I had written an Op Ed piece in The Times in January on the Oak Room and the Ball Room, and The Times did its own opinion piece at the beginning of the month – “Save the Plaza,” – and the guy who edits the letters column called me to fact-check a lot of things in the letters, and then the announcement came, and they killed all those letters. It was as if, “Oh, O.K., the building is saved; on to the next story.”
I am not convinced that the interior public spaces are protected or are safe, and the Plaza closes at 2 p.m. tomorrow, and what happens after that, I don’t know. I don’t know how the Landmarks Commission works. I had heard that there would be hearings on landmarking the interior, and until then the new owners can’t alter anything, but I feel that once the doors close, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
And when reopen – they say it will be the end of next year, but I think it will be 2007 – it could be a fait d'accomplis. They might reopen, and the Oak Room could be a Barneys or god knows what. So, I am a little discouraged, and I am not convinced.
MSMANHATTAN: It sounds like you feel the Plaza will never be the same, and this is an era that’s coming to an end.
GATHJE: I went to a party there last night and saw people I have known many, many years. It was supposed to be a party celebrating that the union saved the jobs and the rooms, but it didn’t feel much like a party; it felt more like a wake.
I’m just not convinced that the hotel is saved. And I’m not convinced that the new owners really understand the significance of this property to New Yorkers, and to America for that reason. They are a foreign concern, and they’re new on the scene in New York, and they have very deep pockets, and I don’t think they had any idea of the furor that would be caused by their plans. My impression is that it took them by surprise.
They asked me to consult, and I considered because it looked like the place was going down without a struggle, but I opted not to work with them. I never got the sense that they really understood the importance of that building in the city landscape and what it means other than 400,000 square feet on the park. They are real estate developers – how else would they look at it?
I do feel this is an era coming to an end. There are a lot of unanswered questions. I don’t think it’s far away from the loss of [the original] Penn Station. “Icon” is a word that’s used a lot these days for things that are not always iconic, but that is a very iconic building in New York, and I am kind of astonished that there has been this sort of vague concern, but I never felt there was any out-and-out outrage.
I spoke to some bellmen last night, and they were surprised that the hotel hadn’t been full to capacity in the last few weeks with people who wanted one last hurrah. Last night there only 30 percent occupancy … and everyone was surprised that there wasn’t a big show of former guests.
But, this is the way life is and, again, the Plaza has always reflected the city’s mood. So, I don’t want to be too downbeat about whole thing, but ultimately I’m frustrated that the things that matter most to me – the Oak Room and the Ballroom – their fate is still up in the air, and people have dismissed that and want to think everything is going to be alright, but they’re not looking at the facts.
For more information on the Plaza Hotel’s history and about what’s been going on at the hotel over the last two years, check out these articles:
The Plaza Lives! A Hundred Years of Stories From New York’s Most Storied Hotel
The Plaza: How It Was Sold
The Real Deal, December 2004
When Eloise Met Norma Rae
$480M Revamp for the Famous Plaza Hotel