Long Famous But Not Quite Fabulous: The New Yorker Hotel

As Hudson Yards rises, the New Yorker upgrades to business class.

The Hotel New Yorker, at night. (Hotel archives)

The Hotel New Yorker, at night. (Hotel archives)

From the 39th-floor breakfast room of the New Yorker Hotel, one can see the whole of downtown and clear across the river to Brooklyn. It’s a master-of-the-universe view—East River glinting in the sun, Empire State rising above a jumble of lesser skyscrapers, clouds and sky and construction cranes—situated amidst the cheap carpet and generic furnishings of a budget motel: a titan’s perch occupied by tourists and business travelers munching boxed cereal.

Welcome to the New Yorker: aging Art Deco behemoth, former destination of machers and movie stars, prize fighters and politicians, now a redoubt of budget-conscious tourists, class B office tenants, and 600 college students who dwell in a block of dorm room conversions.

The Hotel New Yorker was a relic of a bygone era even before the first guests checked in. Conceived and constructed in the final, feverish years of the 1920s, the hotel didn’t open until January 2, 1930, a few months after the stock market crash, leaving more than a million state-of-the-art square feet, three ballrooms, bars, restaurants, barbershops, an indoor ice rink and 2,500 rooms to fill at a time of anemic leisure budgets. Legend has it that on one night during its first year when the hotel was virtually empty, the general manager ordered every light turned on and all the curtains opened. New arrivals were told there was no vacancy and escorted to arch nemesis, the Hotel Pennsylvania. Maybe not that, but something, certainly, worked. The place was soon packed with the kinds of people who made the papers, if not necessarily the society section.

The 39th floor breakfast room, quite possibly the loveliest place to eat a complimentary continental breakfast in New York,(Michael Nagle/the Observer)

The 39th floor breakfast room, quite possibly the loveliest place to eat a complimentary continental breakfast in New York. (Michael Nagle/the Observer)

Barbara Stanwyck dined and danced, Benny Goodman played the Terrace Room nightclub and Muhammad Ali recuperated in one of the suites after losing the fight of the century. It was also a favorite of Mickey Rooney, that satyr of the studio system, as well as Joan Crawford and Joe DiMaggio.

Nikola Tesla died in his rooms on the 33rd floor, where he spent the last 10 years of his life, sheltering injured pigeons he found in parks and falling in love with one pure white specimen, of whom he wrote: “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.” He died before the hotel switched its electric system to the alternating current he invented.

But like Tesla, the hotel never quite reconciled its grand intentions with reality. It was often the kind of place that saw famous names pass through in the wan afterglow of faded stardom, a place forever a little bit at odds with itself.

The largest hotel in the city and the second largest in the world, possessor of its own power plant, its name emblazoned in glowing red letters affixed to its roof, the New Yorker was always something of a social upstart. “Even the name, taking the name of the city and putting it in such a prominent place in the architectural composition; there’s a kind of braggadocio in that,” noted Rick Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“Once a favorite of congressman,” The New York Times noted when the hotel closed its doors in 1972, its location across from Penn Station having shifted from being just about the best place a hotel could be to just about the worst.

It always had a way of seeming more glamorous than it was over the years and as the corrective of first-hand experience faded away, it became common to read about the New Yorker as though it had once been the peer of the Plaza or the Pierre. Time can be as kind as it is cruel.

Muhammad Ali recovering in a suite after losing the fight of the century. (Hotel archives)

Muhammad Ali recovering in a suite after losing the fight of the century. (Hotel archives)

There were, too, the years when the hotel wasn’t a hotel at all, but housing for followers of the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon—the Unification Church still owns the hotel through a subsidiary—many of whom were betrothed in its grand ballroom and married en masse at the nearby Madison Square Garden.

Down at the heels but never quite derelict, the New Yorker has spent the last two decades “bootstrapping itself back into existence” in the words of its chief engineer and historian Joe Kinney.

“I always saw the hotel as one step away from a youth hostel. Booked this hotel for a business trip by mistake through my assistant. However, it was far better than I expected,” reads a typical comment on Yelp, where the hotel is rated a respectable three stars.

It became known as a place for has-beens who’d never quite been had. Phil Donahue filmed the last years of his show there, after he went out of syndication. “You know, when there was still a market for him, but not the market there had been,” Mr. Kinney said.

But now, with Hudson Yards rising to the West, the hotel is angling to become the kind of place that a prosperous businessman might stay on purpose.

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The hotel's lobby, in the middle of its Art Deco revamp. (Michael Nagle, the Observer)

The hotel’s lobby, in the midst of an Art Deco revamp. (Michael Nagle, the Observer)

“I’ll tell you how it’s going to change—top-flight corporate accounts, once Hudson Yards comes to fruition,” said John Yazbeck, the New Yorker’s director of sales and marketing, when we met with him and hotel general manager and president Ann Peterson on a recent morning. In anticipation of the influx of higher-end clientele, management is increasing the number of rooms from 986 to 1,149, maybe more if enough top-flight accounts come knocking.

“The integrity of the Art Deco look will be maintained, but with a business slant,” Ms. Peterson explained.

To that end, Wyndham has supplanted economy-minded Ramada as the hotel operator and a major renovation is underway: rooms are being revamped, old cast-iron tubs exchanged for gleaming shower stalls, espresso machines installed and ceilings gussied up with new light fixtures. The pub off the lobby has been upgraded to a trattoria and soon the coffee stand in the lobby, an oversized muffin kind of place, will be replaced with something “Starbucks caliber.”

“It has to be efficient, high-tech, business-traveler-friendly. In the newer rooms, the plugs are everywhere you go,” Mr. Yazbeck enthused.

The lobby is also undergoing an aesthetic scouring, with ersatz Art Deco elements displacing most remaining traces of an ill-advised late 1970s faux Victorian makeover, according to architect Paul Taylor of Stonehill and Taylor, the firm in charge of the building-wide renovation.

“The lobby has a bit of an identity issue. There was really nothing original left, so we decided to return it back to Art Deco and play up when it was the largest hotel in the U.S.—or at least in New York. Anyway, it was a major hotel, or at least it was more grand,” Mr. Taylor said. “The elevator doors are original and there is some wonderful Art Deco bronze work. But we didn’t have the money to continue the beautiful bronze work, so it’s plastic laminate.”

The coffered ceiling, a piece of late-’70s Victoriana, has been painted gold for a passably Art Deco look and the original marble floor unearthed from beneath old green carpet. The Tick Tock Diner, open 24 hours a day and the closest thing the hotel has to room service, will also get a makeover.

The lobby furnishings, meanwhile, has become, a little bit more “boutique-y”—“Not just like a bunch of tables and chairs, but taking some cues from the lifestyle hotels,” he continued. “The problem is that it’s been so popular with the guests that they’re sitting out there all the time. They’re not necessarily the most attractive people. It drives the staff crazy.”

One afternoon last week, the place was indeed packed in spite of the easy listening elevator music and the over-bright fluorescents. Bored Europeans took advantage of the newly abundant outlets to charge their iPhones, older couples sunk back wearily into sofa cushions and a trio of women regrouped before heading upstairs. “Look at the mezzanine,” one said, pointing at the floral tempered glass—one of the Victorian hold-overs—a half-hearted attempt at awe or maybe just making conversation. The other women glanced up without interest.

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An ice skater performs on the indoor rink, a popular place for ice spectaculars in the 1930s and 40s. (Hotel archives)

An ice skater performs on the indoor rink, a popular place for ice spectaculars in the 1930s and 40s. (Hotel archives)

“Surprisingly, the New Yorker hasn’t weathered the years that badly. But personality? I don’t think it has much personality at the moment,” opined Andrew Dolkart, the director of Columbia University’s historic preservation program. “A lot of New Yorkers know it because of the sign, but I don’t think they associate it with anything.”

Whereas other mid-tier establishments like the Hotel Carter—drug busts, murders and warring family members—sunk into destitution, the New Yorker plodded on, surviving a hospital conversion attempt and homeless shelter plan before the Moonies picked it up for $5.6 million in 1976. At that time in the city’s history, an interlude with a religious group that championed family-centric, drug- and alcohol-free living was just about the best thing a shabby skyscraper could hope for.

“It makes sense that Reverend Moon would buy something iconic, he was so into being iconically American,” said Lisa Kohn, who spent her pre-teen years playing in the halls with Reverend Moon’s kids after her mom joined the church. (Ms. Kohn, who has since left the religion, has written a yet-unpublished book about growing up Moonie).

Leaving aside the faux Victorian re-do on the first four floors, in its early years of stewardship, the church didn’t undertake any major repairs—rooms requiring pricey refurbishments were simply closed off, according to Mr. Kinney—but it kept the major components in more or less working order.

“I have memories of how dilapidated it was—of course, I didn’t realize it at the time— the carpets weren’t kept up, the paint was old, the rooms were cold,” recalled Ms. Kohn. “But it was a wonderful place. I remember sliding down the escalator railing and we used to run up and down in the halls. It was like a building that you knew should be more formal, but we’d get to do things you’d never get to do in a real building—hanging out in the kitchen, exploring the bowels, playing in the old barbershop, other people’s suites,” she said.

One of the renovated guest rooms. (Michael Nagle, the Observer)

One of the renovated guest rooms. (Michael Nagle, the Observer)

It’s true that the rooms are small and that cafeteria smells sometimes waft through the halls. But somehow, the students in their underwear sharing elevators with office workers on their way to the laundry room, the small rooms, even the smells feel as of-a-piece with the New Yorker as its iconic sign. There’s a kind of cheerful perseverance that seems to be built right into its solid masonry walls, walls that make it near-impossible to rewire anything, according to Mr. Taylor, accounting for the unfortunate over-the-bed placement of the light fixtures. Something slightly second-tier clings to the place and probably always will.

But it’s also unexpectedly lovely, all the more so in a city where every other new or newly-remodeled building promises to yield some form of unrivaled luxury in which to check email and brush one’s teeth. Even the most ungenerous lodgers grudgingly admit that the place is clean and the views stellar. A lot of the tower rooms even have massive terraces, though they lack niceties like furniture and plants.

“A nice place to have cham-pag-ne as they say in The Stooges,” declared Mr. Kinney, when he showed us around one of the big, empty terraces. “I don’t think there are many hotels in the city where you can have this view.” It’s true—most other grand old hotels have converted all the higher floors to condos, reserving the choicest cuts for buyers.

Mr. Kinney’s own office, a spacious room cluttered with hotel ephemera, is located in one of the hotel’s many basements, close enough to a subway tunnel that it’s periodically rattled by passing trains. He’s spent the last 18 years working to preserve both the hotel’s legacy—collecting old photos, Terrace Room menus, programs from ice skating revues and snippets of social history—and its Depression-era mechanicals, many of which he’s merged with modern facilities. (He also lived at the hotel in the 1980s—“one of the church folks.”)

A chef with a cake model of the hotel. At one time, the New Yorker's kitchens also provided all the in-flight meals for LaGuardia flights and ran two restaurants there: the Aviation Terrace and the Kittyhawk Lounge. (Hotel archives)

A chef with a cake model of the hotel. At one time, the New Yorker’s kitchens also provided all the in-flight meals for LaGuardia flights and ran two restaurants there: the Aviation Terrace and the Kittyhawk Lounge. (Hotel archives)

“You look at the modern hotels where everything is squeaky and new and we’re headed in that direction, but yet the way this hotel was built and the nature of it, those other hotels will reach the end of their life and the New Yorker will keep going,” he said. “The name implies that it’s a citizen. There’s the Plaza and the Waldorf and the St. Regis but this is the only one that’s a participant. But unlike people who only age in one direction, the building can be modernized.”

And unlike those elite hotels, the New Yorker has always been quintessentially of the city from which it draws its name, a fundamentally democratic sort of establishment that didn’t have the kind of wealthy patrons or social register clout—the debutante balls and the charity benefits—to protect it from the rough patches in the city’s history, or the luxury of being situated in more rarefied parkside environs like the Carlyle or the Ritz. The New Yorker’s always been right in the thick of things: dollar pizzerias, McDonalds, electronics shops, fabric wholesalers, Madison Square Garden, the Moonies.

“I think that the New Yorker always managed to draw people from different life experiences, different walks of life together,” said Mr. Bell. “The New Yorker was New York. And I’m speaking in the past tense, but I think it could be again.”

The hotel will never be five-stars, Mr. Kinney admitted. “We did the business plans and it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.” The rooms aren’t big enough, the neighborhood’s not right “and this never was a five-star hotel in the first place.”

“You have to be true to what you are,” he reflected. The New Yorker Hotel, he said, “was meant for business people, not the King of Siam.”

Long Famous But Not Quite Fabulous: The New Yorker Hotel