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Hotel History - The Plaza

Here's why New York's Plaza may just be the most famous hotel in the world.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Stanley Turkel
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The famous Plaza Hotel reopened in 2007 with a 100th anniversary celebration by its owners, the Elad Group and the Saudi-based Kingdom Holding Co. The $400 million renovated property contains 282 guestrooms and 181 apartments. When the Plaza opened on October 1, 1907, it contained 805 rooms, 500 bathrooms, large private suites, 10 elevators, a two-story ballroom and the Palm Court with a Tiffany leaded glass domed ceiling. On this same site, an earlier Plaza Hotel (designed by McKim, Mead and White) opened in 1890 with 400 rooms, but was demolished only 15 years later for the current 18-story Plaza Hotel.

In 1971, the New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, called it “New York’s most celebrated symbol of cosmopolitan and turn-of-the-century splendor, inside and out.” The Plaza is the beneficiary of the work of three significant early twentieth-century American architectural firms:

  • Henry J. Hardenbergh’s original design of 1905-07
  • Warren & Wetmore’s addition of the Fifth Avenue lobby and the Terrace Room in 1919-21
  • Schultze & Weaver’s 1929 Grand Ballroom

The Plaza’s exterior was designated a New York City Landmark in 1969. Then, on June 7, 2005, the Landmark Preservation Commission designated as an Interior Landmark: the 59th Street lobby, the Edwardian Room, the Palm Court, the Oak Bar, the Oak Room, the Terrace Room, the Grand Ballroom and the adjacent corridors and vestibules.

The Plaza has had numerous famous guests and performers and been the setting of many movies, including:
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby”
  • Cary Grant in “North by Northwest”
  • Walter Matthau in “Plaza Suite”
  • Barbara Streisand in “The Way We Were”
  • Clara Bow in “No Limit”
  • “Barefoot in the Park”, “Crocodile Dundee”, “Home Alone 2”
  • Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Truman Capote
  • Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Of all the show people who have been part of the Plaza’s history, only one has a permanent monument there. He’s an American theatrical icon named George M. Cohan, who was an actor, composer, playwright, producer, theater owner and a legend; the only person ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for a song, the World War I favorite “Over There”. The Plaza is only ten minutes away from Broadway and it was a convenient place for Cohan to unwind before the evening performance. From 4 PM to 7 PM each day, he had pre-theater cocktails in the Oak Room; his reserved table was a booth in the northwest corner. After he died in the early ’40s, the Lambs Club put a bronze placque on the wall above his booth which reads, “Here in this corner where he spent many happy hours, the Lambs have placed this tablet in honor of the most brilliant and versatile gentleman in the theatre of his day, George M. Cohan.” The Plaza, then owned by Conrad Hilton, officially named the Oak Room’s northwest corner, “The Cohan Corner”. In 1959, a statue of George M. Cohan was finally erected in Duffy Square on Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets - the same site that had earlier been proposed for General William Tecumsah Sherman’s monument which now stands in Grand Army Plaza opposite the Plaza Hotel. The Cohan placque can be seen on the wall in the Oak Room’s northwest corner.

For nearly 40 years, the Persian Room, a legendary nightclub at the Plaza, presented the most talented live performers. It opened on April 1, 1934 - four months after the repeal of Prohibition - in the southern half of the Fifth Avenue dining room. It was designed in Art Deco style by the Viennese designer Joseph Urban, with murals by Lillian Gaertner Palmedo. Until it closed in 1975, the Persian Room featured such stars as Liberace, Carol Channing. Burl Ives, Eddy Duchin, Kitty Carlisle, the Mills Brothers, Bob Fosse, Victor Borge, Marge and Gower Champion, Eddie Fisher, Xavier Cugat, the McGuire Sisters, Dinah Shore, Vic Damone, Bob Hope, Robert Goulet, Frankie Laine, Ethel Merman, Eartha Kitt, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Hildegarde (record holder for the most performances there).

In 1943, the Plaza was sold to Conrad Hilton for $7.4 million after 36 years of continuous original ownership. Hilton made important physical changes:
  • Removed the brokerage firm of E.F. Hutton from its ground-floor parkside office (monthly rent: $416) and reestablished it as the Oak Bar, an immediate and continuing success
  • Converted a basement storage area (once the Grill Room) into the Rendez-vous supper club
  • Mezzanine writing rooms overlooking the lobby were converted into private meeting rooms
  • Vitrines were installed throughout the lobby
  • The leaded-glass dome over the Palm Court was removed to allow for central air conditioning
Hilton sold the Plaza for $15 million in 1953 to the Boston industrialist A.M. Sonnabend, whose Hotel Corporation of America (HCA) focused on improving the operations until the hotel was sold to Western International Hotels (later Westin) in 1975 for $25 million. Western had owned the 1,000-room Savoy-Plaza Hotel until it was demolished to make way for the General Motors Building on the east side of Fifth Avenue at 59th Street. Incidentally, the Savoy Plaza was built in 1927 on the site of the old Savoy Hotel which was designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1890.

In 1988, Donald Trump purchased the Plaza for $390 million. Trump said “This isn’t just a building, it’s the ultimate work of art - it’s the Mona Lisa. I’m in love with it.” With his then-wife Ivana, he revitalized the hotel with careful renovation of the lobby, banquet rooms and certain suites.

In 1995, Trump sold the Plaza to Prince Alwalid bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Saud, partial owner of Fairmont Hotels and CDL Hotels for $325 million.

Meanwhile, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts (who manages the Plaza) has commenced publishing a monthly listing of events at the Plaza. Scheduled in October 2010 are the following:

  • Reading in the Rose Club by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lee Child from his latest novel “Worth Dying For”.
  • The Plaza Food Hall has new seasonal offerings by Executive Chief Todd English (who also appears on “The Today Show”).
  • Olivier Krug will offer complimentary tastings of his champagne between 5PM and 6PM.
  • The Palm Court will continue to offer its famous Afternoon Tea
  • The Oak Bar & the Oak Room will continue to provide a classic setting for cocktails and dinner with Brian Newman performing live on Wednesdays from 10 PM to midnight, no cover or minimum required.
  • The Eloise Suite - The Plaza launches the one-of-a-kind Eloise Suite designed by celebrated fashion designer Betsey Johnson.
  • Trick and Treat at Eloise on October 15th from 4-6 PM and October 30th from 2-5 PM. Both events are complimentary and open to the public.

As Curtis Gathje wrote in “At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel” (St. Martin’s Press, New York 2000), “Thanks to a number of serendipitous events − a prime location, visionary builders and management, and most recently, the movies − The Plaza has become the most famous hotel in the world. That it has maintained its dignity and reputation over the century is the most remarkable thing about it.”

Will the new Plaza continue to be the most famous hotel in the world?

Order Your Copy of My New Book
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 at a reduced rate.
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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