The Waldorf Astoria New York hotel, arguably one of the most famous in the world, has just over a month left before it closes for a massive condominium conversion. With that timeline in mind, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, on Tuesday, held a public hearing on the designation of some of the building’s interior spaces.
Located at 301 Park Avenue, it occupies the full block bound by Park Avenue, East 50th Street, Lexington Avenue, and East 49th Street. Expert hotel designers Schultze and Weaver, responsible for the Pierre, among others, are responsible for the 625-foot-tall, 44-story Art Deco skyscraper.
It was built between 1929 and 1931 and once boasted over 2,000 guest rooms. It was designated an individual landmark (or exterior landmark) in 1993.
It has been the lodging place for presidents of the United States and many foreign dignitaries. Its grand ballroom plays host to the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner.
The Hilton property now has 1,413 rooms and is owned by the China-based Anbang Insurance Group, which is why President Barack Obama ended the tradition of staying there. The new owner plans to convert the upper floors to 321 condo units, maintaining 840 hotel rooms from the fifth through 13th floors. The conversion could take three years.
The designation of the hotel’s interior spaces was calendared on November 1, 2016. As of the public hearing on January 24, 2016, the following spaces were officially slated for designation.
On the ground floor, the Park Avenue vestibules and foyer and the Lexington Avenue vestibules and foyer would be designated. On the first floor, the Park Avenue Lobby and colonnade, West Lounge (formerly Peacock Alley), West Elevator Lobby, Main Lobby, Main Lobby Hall, East Arcade, and the Lexington Avenue stairs and landing would be designated. That does not include Sir Harry’s or most of the current Peacock Alley space.
On the second floor, the Lexington Avenue stairs and landing would be designated. On the third floor, the Lexington Avenue stairs and landing, the Grand Ballroom and balconies, the Ballroom Entrance Hall (formerly Silver Gallery), Ballroom Foyer, Basildon Room, Jade Room, Astor Gallery, and the foyer connecting the Jade Gallery and Astor Gallery with Lexington Avenue stairs would be designated.
Also designated would be the fixtures and interior components of these spaces, which may include, but are not limited to, the wall surfaces, ceiling surfaces and floor surfaces, murals, mirrors, chandeliers, lighting fixtures, attached furnishings, doors, exterior elevator doors and grilles, railings and balustrades, decorative metalwork and attached decorative elements.
All of those who showed up at Tuesday’s hearing rose in support of the proposed interior designation.
“The timeless quality of the Waldorf-Astoria’s interiors, was, until recently, taken for granted by many New Yorkers as something that would always be there,” testified Barbara Zay of the Historic Districts Council. “Today’s hearing marks a significant step toward ensuring that these spaces will be protected in perpetuity – that their timelessness will remain – and HDC is thrilled to testify in support of their designation.”
“These interiors were designed to be the utmost in hotel opulence in the world. 90 years later, they still evoke this level of grandeur and they survive remarkably intact, in part thanks to a major restoration in 1983,” she added. “Though not included within the boundaries of the proposed designation, HDC and other preservation groups advocated for the protection of the Starlight Roof on the 18th floor of the hotel.” The space was closed in 1950, according to HDC, to accommodate HVAC equipment, but Zay hopes it will still be preserved.
Columbia University professor and noted architectural historian Andrew Dolkart spoke of the strategic design of the hotel and its lobby as a buffer between Park and Lexington avenues. He said his favorite space is the Basildon Room, with paneling and a frescoed ceiling taken from a British estate.
Three representatives of the Art Deco Society of New York (ADSNY) spoke. Among them was architect Lisa Easton, who called the hotel the “richest collection of modern classicist spaces.”
“The interior design of the Waldorf Astoria exemplifies a period of New York life that was extraordinarily important to the development and growth of the city’s image,” said ADSNY President Roberta Nusim. “ADS strongly believes that protection, preservation, and restoration of these important Art Deco interiors is a critical part of preserving New York City’s rich history of architectural design and style.”
ADSNY’s Meghan Weatherby said the loss of these spaces “would be a devastating blow.”
Jeff Kalfus, a steward who has worked at the hotel for 16 years, showed up to express his support for designation. So did Glen Umberger of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and an unlicensed tour guide named Gordon. He pleaded for the preservation of the ladies’ room in the Park Avenue lobby.
As for the building’s relatively new owner, it expressed its support late last year. “Anbang knows the Waldorf’s history is a large part of what makes this hotel so special. That’s why we fully support the LPC’s recommendation for what would be one of the most extensive interior landmark designations of any privately owned building in New York,” it said in a statement.
The commission could vote to designate these spaces as early as February.