The legendary establishment opened at its Park Avenue location in midtown Manhattan in 1931 with more than 1,400 rooms, the largest — and tallest — anywhere at the time. It has hosted a stream of international political leaders, movie stars, tycoons and power players of all kinds for more than 85 years.
From Marilyn Monroe to Grace Kelly, US presidents Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama, as well as global leaders in town for the United Nations General Assembly every year, the Waldorf Astoria has been the place to be. The hotel is massive, occupying a full city block of prime New York real estate. Famous for its upscale services, the Waldorf says it invented the concept of 24-hour room service. The Art Deco style is carried through details down to the door handles in the lobby bathrooms. However, the grande dame is showing her age.
Guests have complained about dated rooms, peeling paint and issues with cleanliness. The hotel’s owner, Anbang Insurance Group, says it will close the hotel indefinitely for major renovations starting Wednesday. The Chinese company bought the historic gem in 2014 from the Hilton hotel chain for $1.95 billion.
Although it has released no official renovation plan, Anbang is expected to convert a large number of rooms into luxury apartments with boutique stores on the ground floor, leaving only a small part of the building as a hotel. The facade — which became an official landmark in 1993, joining the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge — is in no danger.
But the interior is not protected under the landmark designation, and some are worried that such treasures as the four-story grand ballroom and sprawling mosaic by the French artist Louis Rigal decorating the entrance will disappear forever, despite Anbang’s promise to consult preservation officials.
“I’m very, very sad,” said 70-year-old Donna Karpa from Washington, a regular from the age of five who was in town for the weekend. “I’d come every year as a little girl,” she said. “We would come with my family for Christmas and we’d see the Rockettes (dance show) and we would go ice skating at Rockefeller Center. It’s great and the location is wonderful!”
Sandra Thomson, a Briton from Birmingham, left enchanted after six days in the hotel with her family to celebrate her daughter’s 18th birthday. “We just absolutely loved it!” she said. “I love the architecture, all the Art Deco and also the history. It’s just an icon of America, isn’t it? And you want to experience it.”
Besides the guests’ many wows, the hotel’s employees — 1,400 of them in total — chiefly remember the rich, famous and powerful who have frequented the Waldorf every day. A stay by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt — one of Hollywood’s most glamorous couples until their breakup last year — is still fresh in everyone’s minds. But each has a favourite memory of a striking encounter.
Michael Romei, head concierge of the 42-story central tower known as the “The Towers”, which is a hotel-within-a-hotel boasting the most luxurious suites, has stopped counting the celebrities he’s met during his 23 years of service. His best memory: “Being blessed by the Dalai Lama.”
“This is such a great place to work!” said Paul Hopkins, who has been a bellhop here for a dozen years. “Right in the elevators, you can meet so many celebrities, all the different presidents, lots of CEOs, all the one-percenters!” Some criticise Obama’s break with decades of tradition in 2015 following Anbang’s takeover by deciding not to stay at the Waldorf and to no longer put up US diplomats here during the UN’s General Assembly.
Ivona, a hostess at the hotel’s Peacock Alley restaurant who declined to give her last name, called it a “slap in the face.” But just like many of the guests, the hotel’s employees agree that even if they adore the place, it’s time to refresh. “We love the nostalgia, but it’s kind of dated,” said Ron Ruth, an aircraft mechanic from San Francisco who came for his 23rd wedding anniversary. “The heating and the cooling, and the bathrooms are really small, too small for my wife!”