On a sticky June afternoon, The Plaza Hotel’s gold-embellished marble lobby was filled with visitors flitting about under sparkling crystal chandeliers. A cheerful doorman, wearing the requisite gold-embroidered black jacket and matching cap, welcomed guests up its red-carpeted stairs and into The Palm Court for tea. The space, which like the hotel opened in 1907, had around a dozen of its mirrored tables filled, where guests settled in the yellow-and-green overstuffed chairs. A coordinating canary-yellow-and-mint-green carpet draped atop the marble floors, and even the back-lit stained-glass domed ceiling has a green tinge. Afternoon tea at The Palm Court ranges from $70 to upward of $110 per person, while a special $50 “Eloise” tea—a tribute to the hotel’s most mischievous fictional resident—is offered for children.
As we watched a waiter, dressed in the still-formal black suit and tie (it’s a bit more relaxed than the Palm Court of yore), obligingly take a photo of three girls clinking champagne flutes and surrounded by shopping bags, one of the many members of The Plaza’s staff stated the obvious: the room was mainly full of tourists.
Meanwhile, the private lobby for The Plaza Residences, located through the entrance at 1 Central Park South, gets less action. Though somewhat similar in appearance to the hotel lobby, with an intricately designed marble floor and gold detailing, the plethora of staff, including doormen and concierge, were the only people making an appearance—not a soul stepped out of the gilded elevators. But no matter where one was on the first floor, there was little hint of the most recent behind-the-scenes machinations that have lately rocked the fabled building.
Indeed, since its partial condo conversion nearly 10 years ago, The Plaza has gone through an extended, awkward transition, marked by changes in hotel ownership, a shifting clientele and lagging re-sales for the private condos. And then, in March, rumors began to circulate that Simon and David Reuben, the billionaire brothers who bought the mortgage at 768 Fifth Avenue from Back of China last year for $800 million, were planning a foreclosure auction for April 26. The auction was subsequently canceled, followed by news that an anonymous member of the Saudi royal family is in talks to purchase the hotel for $352 million.
While talk of new ownership can make anyone involved with or affected by the transaction a tad nervous, in this case, it might actually work in The Plaza’s favor—few are sad to say goodbye to the current owner, India-based Sahara India Pariwar, the company that paid Elad Properties $570 million for a 75 percent stake in The Plaza in 2012. Sahara’s founder and chairman, Subrata Roy, has been sitting in an Indian prison since 2014, awaiting trial on charges of defrauding investors. His bail is a cool $1.6 billion, which is why Sahara has been attempting to sell the hotels.
“Going forward, it only bodes well for the future of the building,” Stribling broker Elizabeth Lorenzo, who was on the original sales and marketing team for the condos when they were first being sold, mused of the potential new owner. “Various members of the Saudi royal family stay there on a regular basis, and they really love the hotel. Of course, the hotel management never talks about those things,” she said with a sigh. “It would be to me, the optimal owner, that really loved that building and that hotel.”
It’s just the latest chapter in The Plaza’s ownership saga, but many are still surprised that this fate befell the once-glamorous hotel—a hotel where F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles all once stayed, Truman Capote partied and Kay Thompson’s 6-year-old fictional heroine lived “on the tippity-top floor.” The possible foreclosure auction or sale has powerful ramifications not just for guests, but also for the real-life, adult Eloises—the owners of the private condo residences at The Plaza.
The condos share a physical space with the 20-story Plaza Hotel, but the 180 private residences, which have their own lobby, elevators, doormen and residential management, are technically a separate entity; they can access the hotel’s amenities, but are not under the financial or management control of its owners.
“The apartments, with the address 1 Central Park South—the condo owners own the building,” Lorenzo informed the Observer. “It doesn’t matter which player around the globe actually owns the real estate, the building or hotel!”
Still, prior to the foreclosure auction being canceled, some parties, understandably, felt more than a bit uneasy. “Some people called me panicking, ‘What’s going to happen to the apartments with foreclosure?’ ” Stribling founder Elizabeth Stribling told the Observer. “I said, ‘No, no, no! That’s a completely different entity.’ ”
The Plaza’s private residences themselves are the result of a 2005 decision to embark on an estimated $400 million partial hotel-to-condo conversion by then-owner Elad Properties. It resulted in 130 hotel rooms, 152 hotel condos (owners of which may use the hotel condo suites for up to 120 days a year—the rest of the time, they are part of The Plaza’s rental management program, where they operate as income-producing properties), as well as the 180 private residence condos. (Miki Naftali, then Elad’s CEO, has since left Elad to found his own development company and declined, through a representative, to participate in this story.)
As the conversion neared completion in 2007 (a year that also marked The Plaza’s centennial), Elad called upon Stribling to take over sales and marketing of the private condos. Wealthy buyers flocked, and records were broken. Yes, in 2011, a $48 million closing at The Plaza was the biggest condo sale in the city. Oh, how times have changed.
“I felt like Eloise in those days,” Stribling recalled. “When I was lucky enough to close out The Plaza, I got a fabulous lithograph signed by [Eloise illustrator] Hilary Knight,” she said excitedly. “In this particular, marvelous lithograph, she’s going up the stairs, on the red carpet, and The Plaza doormen there are looking just like he does today, and he’s saluting there. When I walked in The Plaza in those five years, they saluted me. When I go to balls in the ballroom now, they all know who I am! It’s a great feeling.”
For both the hotel and the private residences, The Plaza’s mythic allure, Eloise included, has served as one of its greatest marketing aspects.
“I always thought I wanted to live in a hotel—that the next chapter of my life would be Eloise,” recalled Barbara Hemmerle Gollust, who purchased a home at The Plaza seven years ago.
For Gollust, who was moving from a townhome on 82nd Street between Fifth and Madison, the services and amenities that came with living in the iconic Plaza helped seal the deal. “If you want to have a party, they’ll do everything for you! The concierge, the florist, everything,” she told the Observer.
“As a private resident, you have a door from the residents’ lobby to the hotel, and you have access to all the hotel amenities—they are not separated, and that’s a great thing,” added Corcoran broker Charlie Attias, who has lived at The Plaza himself.
For Attias, The Plaza’s unique history and status is one of its biggest draws. “Eloise, Home Alone [its sequel was set at the hotel], all of that—all of that impacts people’s memories, and they like it,” Attias opined. (There’s also slightly more mature-themed films that kick into the nostalgia—perhaps the image of Katie and Hubbell meeting outside by the fountain in The Way We Were is better suited. Or, maybe Carrie and Mr. Big semi-recreating the scene in Sex and the City.)
“People like the location, the park views, the hotel services are great, 24-hour staff. You are really treated like royalty there. It’s very New York,” Attias added.
Despite the classic nature and appeal of The Plaza, there have been a number of changes, which were perhaps less adored when first installed—like the downstairs food court. But for some, newer additions have actually created a welcome, youthful side to the hotel.
“[Todd English] Food Hall has actually changed the entire mood of the building,” Gollust said. “It became very busy downstairs! There’s Lady M, and La Maison Du Chocolat,” she added.
“The major issue is always the same with these hotels—the service isn’t always what you’d like it to be, and it’s very touristy for tea,” Gollust noted. Particularly so on this reporter’s recent excursion, when a waiter at the Palm Court requested that we move from our table in the nearly empty restaurant unless we order the rather extravagant tea—we were directed to sit at the circular bar at the center of the room instead.
Less touristy parts of the hotel include the Rose Club, which a member of the staff recommended for a Wednesday night. “It’s the best there—they have live jazz every Wednesday, and it’s a very…different crowd,” he said carefully, glancing around the Palm Court. Fancier still is the Grand Ballroom, where Truman Capote hosted his famous Black and White Ball, and which also served as the location of the 1993 wedding of then-owner Donald Trump to Marla Maples.
“The ballroom is gorgeous, and it’s the most expensive venue for an event in New York City,” Lorenzo informed the Observer.
“The hotel has done a good job in terms of the public spaces,” Gollust opined. “I like it, and the fact that they have Assouline at the mezzanine! It makes it a little more elegant,” she added.
“Even though the hotel portion is separate, it is such a significant element of living in The Plaza,” pointed out Douglas Elliman broker Roger Erickson, who has worked on a number of deals at The Plaza, and sees it as both an advantage and a drawback.
That very point is part of the reason some are concerned about the impact of the hotel’s sale on the private condos. While the hotel’s amenities are enjoyed by many of the condo owners, the current state of The Plaza Hotel has made the link between the two a bit shakier. Finances, management and lobbies aside, The Plaza Residences do share the amenities, location and history of the hotel—in the public mindset, the entire structure is often thought of as one.
That news isn’t exactly music to the ears of those attempting to part ways with their Plaza properties. Original sales at The Plaza might have broken records, but those have since been far surpassed, and re-sales for the condo owners haven’t gone over so well.
“The value of the apartments hasn’t kept up with some other buildings,” Erickson said. “There are over 30 apartments at The Plaza on the market right now, which is a lot,” he acknowledged, though he remains confident the glut is temporary. “Presumably, the new owners are going to make it new and greater than it is today,” Erickson declared.
But despite the ongoing uncertainty over the precise nature of The Plaza’s future, people remain loyal to the hotel, the private residences and the mythic nature of the building. There is something about the building that keeps the same high-society crowd running toward it—no matter who the name on the hotel deed is signed to.
“The Plaza has changed names during my stay here, but it doesn’t affect us,” Gollust declared. “I don’t notice any difference from one ownership to the next.” The glitzy allure of The Plaza still far outweighs any potential tarnish to its reputation—at least for now.
“A few weeks ago, I was at a benefit at The Plaza, for El Museo del Barrio,” Gollust recalled. “It was a big black-tie event, and everyone was in long dresses—we decided we wanted to go downtown, but Fifth Avenue was closed, so traffic was crazy. We decided to just go to to Palm Court around 11:30—it was so nice,” she said happily.