Landmark Hotel Pennsylvania Needs Big Dose of Lysol

As a present for her husband Gary’s 60th birthday, Diane Farnham, of Bath, England, booked a four-night getaway in the heart of Manhattan at the start of the summer tourist season.

Ms. Farnham, 59, chose the historic Hotel Pennsylvania—the showpiece built in 1919 by McKim, Mead and White for the Pennsylvania Railroad, across Seventh Avenue from the firm’s soaring Penn Station. Old Penn Station is just a rueful memory and a cautionary preservation fable, but its companion is still in business; the phone number immortalized by Glenn Miller in 1940, PEnnsylvania-6-5000, still rings the front desk.

The Farnhams did not, however, find Swing Era glamour. As the couple headed up to their sixth-floor room from the hotel bar in the wee hours of a Wednesday night, Ms. Farnham took a moment to describe the accommodations. The room was filthy, she said, with bits of paper littering the brown carpet and pieces of loosened enamel cluttering the bathtub. The mini-fridge was so covered with dust balls that Ms. Farnham said she had to “blow the fluff off.” The windows? “They are black,” she said. “We’ve got no view as such. They are absolutely black.”

“I did say to Gary, ‘This is the worst hotel room we’ve ever stayed in,’” Ms. Farnham said.

Gracious lodging, it’s not. The hotel’s own proprietor, the New Jersey–based Vornado Realty Trust, described the building in 2005 as “a placeholder, sort of like a parking lot.”

So as it sits, awaiting likely redevelopment of the whole Penn Station and Madison Square Garden region, New York’s fourth-largest hotel serves as a different kind of historical reminder: a vestige, amid the gleaming tourist-friendly new Manhattan, of the old, intimidating big city, where out-of-towners face a stiff dose of grime, disorder and decay.

For Manhattan, the hotel is also relatively cheap. Every year, a few hundred thousand travelers flock to the 1,700-room building. The hotel draws so many guests that management in 2002 officially trademarked the phrase “World’s Most Popular Hotel.”

“The location is key,” said hotel spokesman Jerry Grymek. “People coming in for work find us convenient, if they have to stay over, because they’re right next to Amtrak. And we get a lot of people coming for sporting events.” The Hotel Pennsylvania is also popular with large tour groups, and for years it has served as the official host hotel for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Those guests may find a dangling door handle, stray crumbs, footprints on the walls or more. A one-night stay in Room 1116 on Memorial Day weekend cost $119, or $138.42 with the hotel tax. The room featured a brown carpet, a yellow-stained bathtub with a rusty drain and a non-functioning alarm clock. The window, dirty but not opaque, looked out on Peep World on 33rd Street. A sign on the back of the door advised, “Cash and Valuables Should Be Stored in Vaults Provided Free at Front Desk.”

The hallways were dim, with bleach spots on the carpet and many of the room numbers scrawled in black marker. Globular security cameras stood sentinel.

“This is the grossest hotel,” said a woman in the elevator. She was wearing an Amtrak uniform and had a roller bag.

A late-night floor-by-floor search for a soda found one working vending machine among floors two to 18, and two more that had been unplugged and turned to the wall. In the morning, a steady stream of tour groups passed through the lobby.

A week later, over a drink of gin in the hotel bar, Kevin Glover, a cosmetics salesman from suburban Philadelphia, said he had begun his stay by checking for signs of bedbugs.

Mr. Glover found none. But in September 2005, two Swiss tourists, Ksenija Knezevic and Marlies Barisic, both in their early 30’s, came to the Hotel Pennsylvania for a seven-night stay. While there, they were bitten repeatedly on “their torso, arms, and legs,” sending both to the hospital, according to a lawsuit filed against the hotel in November 2005.

“That was an isolated incident,” Mr. Grymek said, adding that the hotel brought in exterminators who later declared the premises bedbug-free. “We did not have a problem before that,” he said. “We have not had a problem after that.”

“That’s 100 percent false,” said Stuart Jacobs, a lawyer representing the Swiss women, who said that other guests of the Hotel Pennsylvania have since come forward with similar stories. On June 26, four other alleged bite victims filed suit against the hotel, citing separate incidents in March, October, November and December of 2005.

In addition to the bedbug suits, Vornado’s attorneys have been wrangling with other negligence complaints.

A group of three women from Chicago sued the company in 2004, after being awakened by an intruder who allegedly broke into their room, exposed himself and assaulted one of them. The lawsuit blames the incident on “inoperative and ineffective door locks.”

In court papers, Vornado’s attorney, Richard J. Freire, denied the defective-locks allegation and blamed the incident on the “culpable conduct” of the intruder “over whom [the hotel] had no authority or control.” The plaintiffs’ attorney, Erik M. Roth, says the case is “in the process of being resolved” out of court.

The company is also challenging a wrongful-death suit stemming from a Korean Air pilot’s fatal fall from the 19th floor in 2001. While court records show that the medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, a lawyer hired by the dead man’s family—noting the lack of a suicide note—cast suspicion on the treadmills, which the lawsuit says were located next to large open windows on the top floor.

Vornado attorney Lisa M. Gibbons denied “each and every allegation” and asserted that “all risks … connected with the situation … were at the time and place mentioned obvious and apparent [to the deceased] and voluntarily assumed by them,” according to court papers. The case is scheduled for a Dec. 4 trial date.

Mr. Glover’s room was less alarming, but it did feature several puncture marks in the wall and an inoperative air conditioner. He said his bosses, in town with him for a cosmetics convention, had snagged the few rooms left at the luxurious Marriott Marquis, while he and other sales reps got stuck at the Hotel Pennsylvania. “I’ve stayed at Best Westerns, Red Roof Inns,” he said. “This is the worst.”

You wouldn’t know it from viewing the hotel’s Web site, which features photos of a sparkling lobby and neatly appointed suites. “What you see on the Web site is an illusion,” said Croatian tourist Hrvojka Skokovic, who recalled strapping nylon bags to her feet before stepping into a grungy shower during her June 2004 visit. Skokovic was so appalled by the conditions that she posted a scathing review of the hotel on the Internet, titled “Not for my worst enemies!”

In June 2002, newspaper humorist Dave Barry described a stay at the “Hotel Shpennsylvania,”— with walls made of “compressed grime” and faucets delivering “hot and cold running broth”—in a nationally syndicated column.

It’s hard to expect luxurious accommodations from a building that has two giant Bud Light ads on its façade. For many travelers, the hotel is “just a place to stay,” Mr. Grymek said. “People come to New York to shop, to go to shows; they don’t want to sit in their rooms.” Not everyone goes away with a negative impression, he added, citing “a lot of repeat business”—particularly the often picky Westminster dog folks, who are known for treating their pooches “like models, essentially.”

“I feel bad for those guests that did have problems with the hotel,” Mr. Grymek said. “They should definitely come up to the front desk and speak to the managers there.”

On Aug. 1, a group of eight travelers from North Hamptonshire, England, did just that. Shortly after checking into four reserved rooms—including one 16th-floor unit reeking of paint fumes and lacking A/C while temperatures outside topped 100 degrees—the Brits promptly requested four upgrades. Hotel receptionists happily moved the guests, they said, but also advised them to lower their expectations, citing the hotel’s old age and two-star rating. “Two stars isn’t an excuse for dysfunction,” said Ian, 35, who declined to give his last name.

The hotel is Vornado Realty’s only hospitality venue among more than 20 properties in New York. The company fully acquired the building in 1999. Though it acts as a “placeholder,” according to that 2005 report, it is a lucrative one, bringing in $22.5 million before taxes last year, according to Vornado. And its value is only “going up,” the company reported. In the report, the company boasted of receiving an unsolicited offer of $440 million for the property—more than twice its reported value in 1999.

Given its increasing worth, the hotel’s ongoing tradition as a less-than-stellar place to stay appears to be in jeopardy. Vornado’s report goes on to mention the property as “one of the few obvious office sites that could support 2.0 million square feet, it may be residential or mixed use.” The site is just one of several Vornado properties surrounding Madison Square Garden, which the company is also eyeing for acquisition. Vornado spokeswoman Wendi Kopsick declined to comment further on the company’s specific plans for the hotel. The report, she said, “really speaks for itself.”

Mr. Grymek downplayed the hotel’s potential demise as a frequent subject of speculation. “Four or five years ago, there was a rumor that the hotel’s closing down. But we’re still here and doing great numbers,” he said.