“I haven’t slept in forever,” a visibly traumatized Michelle Hopkins announced last week.
The teary, trembling, 21-year-old Fordham University senior couldn’t help but scratch as she discussed the “itchy, disgusting bites” that spread all across her body after just a few nights inside Manhattan’s ragged New Yorker Hotel.
Talk about a learning experience: “I never knew what a bedbug even looked like,” said Ms. Hopkins, who first checked into the old concrete fleabag at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 34th Street on Sept. 2.
Nor did she ever imagine the severe allergic reaction that would result from her painful introduction to the tiny blood-sucking insects.
Eighteen days and two hospital stays later, Ms. Hopkins, still sporting her in-patient wristband, appeared alongside her attorney in his downtown office, where an array of enlarged photos of her many oily, inflamed welts went on display for a whole room full of camera crews.
“This is a disgusting story,” grumbled WCBS-TV correspondent Brendan Keefe.
Bad timing, too, for the New Yorker Hotel, which is desperate to shed its run-down reputation.
The 40-story Art Deco-style building, erected in 1929 and owned for the past three decades by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, is undergoing a reported $65 million makeover.
“[R]enewing a once-tired product,” is how the hotel’s own publicists trumpeted the planned resurrection, which is scheduled for completion by August 2008.
More than 100 rooms on the upper floors have already been refurbished, boasting new high-tech heating and cooling controls, flat-screen TVs, wireless Internet and, perhaps most important to insomniac entomophobes like Ms. Hopkins, brand-new beds and bed linens.
“It has that new car smell,” declared Thomas McCaffrey, the New Yorker Hotel’s director of sales and marketing, as he took The Observer on a tour of the newly revamped 37th floor.
Golden-framed artworks adorned the hallway. The carpet, once a shabby, stain-spotted green, was now dark chocolate, lined with a shiny marble baseboard.
The marble actually isn’t new, Mr. McCaffrey noted; it’s been there for years, trapped under the drab old flooring scheme. Even the hotel’s head salesman agreed it was an odd cover-up: “Why would you do that?”
The lobby has long suffered from a similarly baffling marble-blanketing program.
Stripping that floor of its own downtrodden carpet is just part of the sweeping changes at ground level, which further entail the tearing out of an existing café and a newsstand to make way for more common-area seating. The chandeliers will be restrung with existing crystal and given a more modern design. The former lobby-level Italian restaurant, La Vigna Ristorante & Bar, will be relaunched as Cooper’s Tavern, complete with a new chef and a new menu.
The whole massive overhaul comes at a time of booming hotel construction in Manhattan, with more than 13,000 new and renovated rooms expected by 2010, and also at a time when the 860-room New Yorker’s closest competitor, the 1,700-room Hotel Pennsylvania, is slated for demolition as part of the planned redevelopment of the whole Penn Station region. With new office towers looming and the nearby Javits Center expanding, the New Yorker is repositioning itself to better cater to business travelers and conventioneers. “Certainly, our prices will go up,” Mr. McCaffrey said.
Yet even as the renovation crews continue their top-down improvements at the New Yorker, it’s clear the place hasn’t yet scrapped all of its raffish charms.
A large garish plush animal greets guests in the lobby, “Bear Wittus says: Join us as we turn the New Yorker into one of the premier hotels in NY City.”
You won’t find that at the St. Regis or Ritz-Carlton.
“We don’t want to be a four-star hotel,” noted Mr. McCaffrey, describing the place as more of a two-star hellbent on earning its third.
One thing clearly lacking from the many slated improvements, though, is any sort of bedbug prevention plan.
“Hotels have to have some type of inspection,” said attorney Alan Schnurman, who is representing Ms. Hopkins in her negligence suit against the New Yorker.
Mr. Schnurman predicted that the hard-to-rid critters’ recent resurgence among the city’s homes and hotels was “just starting” and that the epidemic may become so widespread that it could spin off into its own separate genre of litigation. He mentioned another recent case at a high-end hotel in midtown, where a television producer from Los Angeles, in town covering Fashion Week festivities, discovered “thousands of bugs” behind a shrouded headboard. That lawsuit is forthcoming, he said.
The New Yorker’s response to Mr. Schnurman perhaps best sums up the frustrations of bug-wary hotel operators citywide.
“You can’t really do anything in a preventative way,” Mr. McCaffrey said. “Mice, cockroaches—you can prevent those things from coming in.” Not so much the bedbugs. Guests unwittingly bring the itsy-bitsy insects with them, scores of future lawsuits crawling around inside their own suitcases.
Mr. McCaffrey asserted that housekeepers already check beds for signs of the bloodsuckers when changing linens in between guests. “You have to lift the mattresses, anyway,” he said, seeming rather well versed on the “insipid little beasts,” repeatedly adding to his remarks, “And another thing about bedbugs …”
Finding the flesh-feeding insects just isn’t that easy. “They can hide in the tiniest cracks and crevices.”
Mr. McCaffrey was quick to point out that Ms. Hopkins wasn’t technically a hotel guest during her “horrific” exposure to the bugs. She was staying on the 16th floor, which the hotel currently leases to a private student-housing operator for use as a makeshift dormitory.
That’s not to say the hotel proper is immune to the problem. When bedbugs have surfaced in the past, Mr. McCaffrey said, the extermination process is a multilevel operation, affecting rooms on either side of the infested suites, as well as the rooms directly below. “It happens,” he said. “It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.”
Redecorating now sounds a whole lot less daunting.