In New York, the skyline sometimes recedes, but it never disappears entirely. Height, like money and power, is among the city’s eternally recurring preoccupations, a kind of suspended totem of commerce, the skyline’s residual tic. The skyline, after all, is not viscerally experienced so much as occasionally glimpsed and secreted away, stowed as eight million portable New Yorks. We ferry them across space and time, piece them together according to lopsided memories, instinctively shield them from change. Which is why we take the skyline so personally: The remembered city follows rules more impenetrable than any municipal zoning code, more persistent than a thousand landmark preservation commissions.
In the remembered city, familiarity becomes its own mythology.
With the recent thousand-foot-plus skirmishes along New York’s contested contour–developer Vornado Realty Trust and cheerleaders of development on one side, defenders of the Empire State Building’s solo reign on the other–the Hotel Pennsylvania, which Vornado’s 1,216-foot 15 Penn Plaza will likely displace, has mostly been lost in the fray. Virtually all parties have more or less unanimously conceded the 90-year-old structure as a pre-mortem footnote to the inevitable saga of development.
But the hotel, once the biggest in the world (and whose switchboard, when dialed, still belts out the oldest digits in New York–Glen Miller’s rowdy “Pennsylvania 6-5000″), has long occupied a curious place in the city’s margins.
THE EARLY PART of the last century was a heady time for city dwellers. New York was lurching upward, metastasizing in plain view, quickening into a real estate free-for-all of glass and steel, sending up hundreds of tall buildings only to tear them down and replace them with taller ones. As the Empire State Building was preparing to cast aside a stocky old hotel of its own (the Waldorf-Astoria would move uptown), other contenders for the claim of world’s tallest building were busily at work, among them Edward L. and John A. Larkin, a pair of architect-developer brothers, who in 1926 proposed a 110-story paean to the new order of gigantism. The tapering Larkin Tower, which would plunk 950,000 square feet of rentable real estate on Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, at once established the brothers in the pantheon of modern-day Babelites and hastened the competition’s skyward race.
Biggest, tallest, best. The Larkin brothers, who had already affixed their names to a bevy of major real estate ventures, had a natural developers’ predilection for superlative marketing. Two years before announcing plans for the Larkin Tower, they filed suit against the Pennsylvania Railroad, alleging the railroad stole their idea for the world’s largest hotel, the Hotel Pennsylvania.
According to the Larkins’ account, in 1916 the Pennsylvania Railroad returned the brothers’ plans for a 30-story hotel across from Pennsylvania Station, contending that the network of tunnels running beneath the site would render the engineering all but impossible. Plans for the Hotel Pennsylvania were filed soon after.
It was the same year that New York’s original zoning provisions were signed into law, intended to temper the spasm of steel construction booming its way across the city grid. The Hotel Pennsylvania itself was expected to herald an influx of towers along Seventh Avenue, transforming the area into a commuter-office hub of prime real estate–a precursor, perhaps, to Vornado head Steve Roth’s dreams of a seamless glass-encased urban experience: part mall, part office complex, part civic center.
The hotel’s grandiloquently overstated interiors–the Turkish baths, the Café Rouge where Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey swung–have long been gutted, and its status as the world’s biggest hotel has long been surpassed. Its sole continuous heritage is perhaps its amenability to large conferences of the many obscure (linguists studying Pig Latin, assemblies of spiritualists, Mexican rebel forces) and not so obscure (Westminster Kennel Club dog show participants, Republican National Conventioneers) parties eternally descending on Manhattan.
The hotel was part of the Hilton chain for a period starting in the 1950s, coinciding with Conrad Hilton’s gospel of the hotel as Communist deterrent. Other owners have included Ong Beng Seng, the Singaporean billionaire and major stakeholder in Planet Hollywood International, as well as the eccentric tycoon and failed politician “Honest” Abe Hirschfeld. But for most New Yorkers, the hotel was something else entirely: just a familiar blur of columns and trumpeting flags christening the churning masses that rise and fall from Penn Station. No more, no less.
The Great Depression brought a quick cessation to the Larkin brothers’ bid for the skyline. Their tower was among the many abandoned projects left like craters in an alternate boom-time city. But who knows what architectural shudders it impelled, what towers it incited? A city is a microcosm of innumerable actors, tugging the skyline in unknowable ways. The compulsion to leave an indelible mark on New York, an act one would be hard pressed to match in hubris or ego, is also eternally usurped by the coming skyline, mediated by the city’s competing multitudes.
The blunt steely force of the tower soon likely to supplant the Hotel Pennsylvania has, at least for the moment, reanimated the collective charge, however often secreted, that the skyline sparks in its denizens.