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Algonquin Hotel - More Than the Round Table

The 108-year-old NYC landmark hotel has an interesting and unique history. Here’s its classic story.

Friday, March 05, 2010
Stanley Turkel
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The Algonquin Hotel opened in 1902 and was originally planned as an apartment hotel with the idea of renting unfurnished rooms and suites on yearly leases to permanent tenants. When few leases sold, the owner decided to turn it into a transient hotel, which he was going to name “The Puritan”. Frank Case, the first general manager, objected and told the owner “it…contradicts the spirit of innkeeping. It is cold, forbidding and grim. I don’t like it.” When the owner replied, “You think yourself so smart, suppose you find a better name,” Case went to the public library to find out who were the first and strongest people in this neighborhood. He stumbled on the Algonquins, liked the word, liked the way it fit the mouth, and prevailed upon the boss to accept it.

The Algonquin Hotel was designed by architect Goldwin Starrett with 174 rooms. GM Frank Case assumed the lease in 1907 and then bought the hotel in 1927. Case remained owner and manager until his death in 1946.

The famous Algonquin Round Table was initiated by GM Case with a group of New York City actors, journalists, publicists, critics and writers who met daily at lunch starting in June 1919. They met for the better part of ten years in the Pergola Room (now called the Oak Room). Charter members included Franklin P. Adams, columnist; Robert Benchley, humorist and actor; Heywood Broun, columnist and sportswriter; Marc Connelly, playwright; George S. Kaufman, playwright and director; Dorothy Parker, poet and screenwriter; Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker; Robert Sherwood, author and playwright; John Peter Toohey, publicist; and Alexander Woollcott, critic and journalist. By 1930, the original Round Table members had scattered, but the so-called “Vicious Circle” remained alive in the mellow and pleasant memory. When asked what became of the Round Table, Frank Case would answer “What became of the reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street? These things do not last forever. The Round Table lasted longer than any other unorganized gathering that I know of.” Case continued, “I know of no other (group) where the percentage of success was so high. There was scarcely a man among them who failed to place his name high in the field in which he worked, and while perhaps I was rather casual, taking the whole thing for granted, I wasn’t stupid enough not to realize that it was a definite asset to the hotel in a business way, and a constant personal delight to me to be sure of good company every day. That, I think, is one of the pleasantest aspects of hotel keeping especially if your hotel be small: the good companions, good talk, and general gaiety of life. You don’t even have to make any effort; it is delivered fresh every day, charges prepaid.”

The hotel has had a tradition of keeping a cat in the lobby since Frank Case took in a stray in the 1930s. Male cats are called ‘Hamlet’, females ‘Matilda’. Current visitors can spot Matilda on her personal chaise lounge in the lobby or in one of her favorite places: behind the computer at the front desk or lounging on a baggage cart.

In October 1946, Ben and Mary Bodne of Charleston, SC, bought the Algonquin for just over $1 million. They had fallen in love with the hotel on their honeymoon. During their stay, they spotted Will Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Sinclair Lewis, Eddie Cantor and Beatrice Lilly. For the former Mary Mazo (Bodne), the Algonquin was the final address in an odyssey that began in Odessa, Ukraine, where she was the second child in a large Jewish family that fled the pogroms when she was an infant. The Mazo family emigrated to Charleston, where her father Elihu opened the city’s first Jewish delicatessen. When George Gershwin and Du Bose Heyward were working on “Porgy and Bess,” they were frequent customers. They would also discuss the creation of the show at dinners in the Mazo family home. Decades later, the Mazo tradition of hospitality would continue at the Algonquin. Mary Bodne cooked chicken soup for an ailing Laurence Olivier, and she babysat for Simone Signoret, who called her “one of my three truest friends.”

The Bodnes played host to a new generation of literary and show business celebrities - like the writer John Henry Falk, when he was blacklisted and exiled from Hollywood. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe made so much noise working on a new musical that other guests complained; the show was the hugely successful “My Fair Lady.”

Mr. Bodne, who died in 1992, said that he would sell the Algonquin when it needed self-service elevators. He sold it in 1987 to the Aoki Corporation, the Brazilian subsidiary of a Japanese corporation which installed self-service elevators in 1991. In 1997, Aoki sold the hotel to the Camberley Hotel Company which embarked on a $4 million renovation. The company’s British-born president, Ian Lloyd-Jones, hired interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud to update the public spaces without destroying the feeling and character of the historic Algonquin.

In 2002, Miller Global Properties bought the hotel and hired Destination Hotels and Resorts to manage and update its operation. For example, they installed a cutting-edge computerized check-in database that instantly retrieves the personal preferences of arriving guests. Following a $3 million renovation, the hotel was sold again in 2005 to HEI Hotels & Resorts, owner and operator of 25 other full-service properties. HEI embarked on a $4.5 million renovation to upgrade the lobby, the Oak Room restaurant and cabaret, the Blue Bar, the renowned Round Table Room and all suites and guestrooms. Gary Budge was appointed general manager in 2008 after serving as general manager for the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel, the Sheraton Russell Hotel, the Westin Central Park South Hotel, and as corporate director of food and beverage at Princess Hotels International and Hyatt Hotels Corporation. Budge earned a masters degree from New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.

The Algonquin was designated a New York City Historic Landmark in 1987 and National Literary landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA in1996. The Algonquin historic guest list is a Who’s Who in world culture: Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, William Faulkner, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Laughton, Maya Angelou, Angela Lansbury, Harpo Marx, Brendan Behan, Noel Coward, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Tom Stoppard, among many others.

More recently, the hotel’s Oak Room has featured Harry Connick, Jr., Andrea Marcovicci, Diana Krall, Peter Cincotti, Michael Feinstein, Jane Monheit, Steve Ross, Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap, Barbara Carroll, Maude Maggart, Karen Akers, among others.

When Frank Case, the first General Manager (and later owner) of the Algonquin wrote his memoir, “Tales of a Wayward Inn” in 1938, he asked 30 regular guests to write their recollections. The more famous were Jack Barrymore, Rex Beach, Louis Bromfield, Irvin S. Cobb, Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst, H. L. Mencken, Robert Nathan, Frank Sullivan, Louis Untermayer, Henrik Willen Van Loon. However, Frank Case’s wife Bertha had the last word. She wrote,

October 10, 1938

Dear Frankie,

The general tone of the letters to you from friends is scarcely what one might call a knock; in fact while reading them I think of the funeral where the friends of the deceased spoke so glowingly, so fulsomely, of the deceased that the (widow) seated among the mourners, leaned over to her young son, saying, “Tommy, run up now, take a peek and see if that is your father in the box.”

Please take note that Stanley Turkel, MHS, ISHC has just published “Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry.” It contains 359 pages, 25 illustrations and 16 chapters devoted to each of the following pioneers: John McEntee Bowman, Carl Graham Fisher, Henry Morrison Flagler, John Q. Hammons, Frederick Henry Harvey, Ernest Henderson, Conrad Nicholson Hilton, Howard Dearing Johnson, J. Willard Marriott, Kanjibhai Patel, Henry Bradley Plant, George Mortimer Pullman, A.M. Sonnabend, Ellsworth Milton Statler, Juan Terry Trippe and Kemmons Wilson. It also has a foreword by Stephen Rushmore, preface, introduction, bibliography and index.

Visit www.greatamericanhoteliers.com to order the book.
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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