Gregory Jones was welling up. “As of Monday, scaffolding went up around the hotel,” he said, pausing. “I get a little emotional,” he sobbed. “Friends of mine work at this hotel. It means a great deal to me.”
Mr. Jones, a big burly guy with a shaved head, a goatee and a soft spot for antiquated accommodations, was speaking to a panel of elders from the local community board last week about the fate of his cherished Hotel Pennsylvania.
Voracious developer Vornado Realty Trust, which owns the ancient lodge on Seventh Avenue—along with several adjacent lots—has threatened to demolish the 22-story Beaux-Arts structure, built in 1919, and erect in its place by 2011 an enormous office tower rivaling the size of the Empire State Building.
The smashing hotel redevelopment plan is merely part of a far grander scheme to reconstruct, reconfigure and polish to a Grand Central–like shine the entire surrounding area, from the old Farley Post Office to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station below to the Manhattan Mall.
As the first metal beams of a new construction shed went up around the hotel last week—a sign of forthcoming improvements, not implosion, if you believe the hotel’s Oct. 4 press release—Mr. Jones, 38, a nearby 30th Street neighbor, rushed to lobby local officials: Tell Vornado, he pleaded, leave Hotel Pennsylvania alone!
“How much more do we have to sacrifice in our history for progress?” asked Mr. Jones, who has formally requested an historic evaluation of the McKim, Mead & White–designed building by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“If we can get this building landmarked,” he said, “they can’t touch it.”
That’s a pretty big if.
Decades ago, legendary preservationist Jane Jacobs spearheaded massive demonstrations to protect another McKim, Mead & White creation, the original Penn Station, which once stood stoic across the street. That didn’t stop developers, who ruefully razed the beloved hub in 1963.
Mr. Jones’ neo-Jacobsian revival, titled “Save The Hotel,” hasn’t generated quite the same level of public outcry.
“I have been talking to a lot of people and gotten very little interest in the Pennsylvania Hotel,” noted community board member Joyce Matz, who nonetheless volunteered to research the hotel’s history and report back to the neighborhood advisory group next month. “I don’t honestly know how worthy it is to save.”
ONCE A GLAMOROUS DESTINATION where jazz standouts Count Basie and Duke Ellington performed in the grand ballroom—a place immortalized (along with its phone number) by the Glenn Miller tune “Pennsylvania 6-5000”—the 1,700-room hotel has since devolved into a cheap, decrepit tourist trap more commonly associated with reported bedbug attacks than big-band nostalgia.
Preservationists citywide have responded to Vornado’s proposed demolition with a resounding “Eh.”