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A Couple of New York Gems

Here is the story of two century-old hotels in New York City on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Stanley Turkel
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1. St. Regis Hotel New York
In 1904, Colonel John Jacob Astor broke ground for the building of the St. Regis Hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, in the most exclusive residential section of New York City at the time.

While the hotel was under new construction, Astor was unable to come up with a name for his new hotel. During Astor’s visit with his brother-in-law on a beautiful lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Astor’s niece offered a solution: “Uncle Jack, why don’t you call it after this lake – Hotel St. Regis?” After doing some research on the name, he found that the lake was named after a 17th century French monk named Francois Regis who was given sainthood in the 18th century and was known for his hospitality to travelers. So, Astor thought, what better name for his new hotel? Thus, the St. Regis name.

The architects were Trowbridge and Livingston. Arnold Constable did the interiors. The St. Regis was the tallest hotel in New York, standing at 18 stories high. The price of a room was $5.00 per day. When the hotel opened, the press described the St. Regis as “the most richly furnished and opulent hotel in the world.”

The construction of the hotel cost over $5.5 million dollars, an unheard-of sum at the time. Astor spared no expense in the furnishings: marble floors and hallways from the quarries of Caen, France Louis XV furniture from France, Waterford crystal chandeliers, antique tapestries and oriental rugs, a library full of 3,000 leather-bound, gold-tooled books. He had installed two beautiful burnished bronze entrance doors, rare wood paneling, great marble fireplaces, ornamental ceilings and a telephone in every room, which was unusual at the time.

The hotel had “modern” innovations including a central air-conditioning and heating system, a fire alarm system, mail chutes on each floor, a special installation for the “disposition of dust and refuse” which allowed the maid to attach a hose to a fixture in the wall of each room to “vacuum” up the dust.

After divorcing his wife, Ava Astor, with whom he had two children, Colonel Astor shocked New York society by marrying a 19-year-old woman, Madeline. He left New York for Europe. Unfortunately, his return trip was on the doomed Titanic in which he gave up his seat on a lifeboat for his young wife. He was last seen alive trying to free his dog from the ship’s kennels. At age 48, Colonel John Jacob Astor met his tragic death. His son Vincent sold the hotel to Benjamin N. Duke, who later built a two-floor addition and created the famous St. Regis roof and the Salle Cathay with its Chinese décor. Both spaces hosted some of the most celebrated and prestigious parties.

The “Old King Cole” mural by Maxfield Parrish, originally commissioned in 1902 for the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street and Broadway, was brought to the Racquet and Tennis Club during Prohibition. After Repeal, it went to the St. Regis where, in 1934, it looked down upon the Bloody Mary, originally called the “red snapper cocktail”.

Vincent Astor assumed ownership in 1935 through a mortgage default and - with the help of his brother-in-law, Serge Obolensky, and Mrs. Anne Tiffany - created the Maisonette Russe which became one of the most popular supper-nightclubs in New York. In 1927, the architects Sloan & Robertson designed an addition to the east end of the hotel, bringing the room count to a total of 540 rooms.

After World War II, the St. Regis underwent a series of other owners until the ITT Sheraton Corporation of America acquired it in 1966.

At this time, there were four restaurants in the hotel: The King Cole Grille, The Oak Room, La Boite Russe, and the St. Regis Room. For a late dinner and dancing, there was the exciting supper-nightclub, the Maisonette, which had a great menu and featured entertainers like Count Basie, Woody Herman and Kay Ballard. It was a favorite for celebrities, statesmen and world figures. Some of the well-known guests were Alfred Hitchcock, Bing Crosby, Darryl Zanuck, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Ethel Merman, Dustin Hoffman, Tony Bennett and the Apollo 14 astronauts.

In 1985, the hotel closed for the first time in 84 years for a complete $100 million restoration: state-of-the art electrical systems were installed, new meeting rooms were constructed on the 2nd and 20th floors, and the number of guest rooms was reduced from 540 to 365 in order to make them more spacious.

The lobby was restored and the floors were redone to recall the original 1904 lobby. In total, resources, materials and furnishings from over 15 countries were used in the restoration, including thirteen different types of marble. A new spa, fitness club, salon and business center were also added.

The hotel was declared a designated landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Foundation. In 1998, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide acquired the St. Regis and created the St. Regis brand.

After extensive redesign by Sills Huniford, Institutional Investor Magazine honored the St. Regis with the award for the Best Hotel in the World. In 2007, the St. Regis was voted the #1 Hotel in New York City by Travel & Leisure magazine.

The New York Times awarded Adour Alain Ducasse’s restaurant 3 stars. The St. Regis New York has been awarded the Mobil Five-Star Award and the AAA 5 Diamond Award for 14 consecutive years.

2. Peninsula Hotel New York (formerly the Gotham Hotel)

The Gotham Hotel was built in 1905 by the Hotel Holding Company as a residential hotel for wealthy patrons. It was blocked from obtaining a liquor license by the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church across the street.

Its design complemented the Italian palazzo design of the nearby University Club. Christopher Gray reported in his New York Times Streetscape article (January 3, 1999) that the architects Hiss & Weekes designed the Gotham in the shape of a C, “with the light court facing south over the University Club, insuring a protected view…. The Gotham was arranged with single rooms at the core and suites of apartment scale on the outside.”

The Gotham never seemed to find the favor it sought, in part because it was overshadowed by the subsequent openings of the St. Regis Hotel across Fifth Avenue and then the Plaza Hotel four blocks to the north. The Gotham was foreclosed in 1908 and had various owners until it was sold in 1920 to William and Julius Manger, proprietors of the Manger chain of hotels including the Martha Washington Hotel for women (now the Thirty Thirty Hotel). Subsequently, the Kirkeby Hotel Group purchased the property in 1944. Other owners were Mrs. Evelyn Sharp, Webb & Knapp and Wellington Associates.

In 1979, Swiss hotel owner Rene E. Hatt leased the Gotham and vowed to make the hotel (named the Nova-Park Gotham) the fanciest in the world with six restaurants, 10 bars and a nightclub. He installed a health club with a pool featuring a wave-maker, a rooftop bar with an ice rink and a presidential suite with bulletproof glass windows.

But the Hatt group ran out of money and the owners (Sol Goldman, Irving Goldman, Arthur Cohen, William Zekendorf Jr. and Steven Goodstein, along with the Southmark Corporation) announced a license agreement with the designer Pierre Cardin under the brand name Maxim’s de Paris. However, for the luckless Gotham, these plans never materialized. Finally, in 1988, the HongKong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd., the parent company of the Peninsula Group of hotels in Asia, bought the Gotham Hotel for $127 million and renamed it the Peninsula Hotel. At last, the Gotham got the owner it had needed since 1905. If you ever stayed at the original Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, you know what true luxury and service really feel like: complimentary fruit and champagne in your room while watching the Star Ferry cross the harbor outside your window; a Rolls-Royce for guest surface transportation; savoring a double espresso in the busy lobby bar while reading the International Herald Tribune.

The New York Peninsula Hotel has a 2009 AAA Five Diamond designation for the eleventh year in a row. Furnishings in the 241 rooms are traditional but luxuriant, with classic French furniture and handsome Art Nouveau headboards. The bedside control panel adjusts the lighting, television, stereo, air conditioning and the DO NOT DISTURB sign on your guestroom door. Merely by touching a button, one can learn the time in Dubai or Bangkok, adjust the thermostat or converse with the concierge in any of six languages. The Peninsula has one of the best and biggest hotel health clubs in New York, a spa, swimming pool and a rooftop Pen-Top Bar.

The old Gotham is an orphan no more.
Stanley Turkel
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Stanley Turkel, MHS, ISHC operates his hotel consulting office as a sole practitioner specializing in franchising issues, asset management and litigation support services. Turkel’s clients are hotel owners and franchisees, investors and lending institutions. Turkel serves on the Board of Advisors and lectures at the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management. He is a member of the prestigious International Society of Hospitality Consultants. His ...
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