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The Original Waldorf=Astoria Hotel

The famed hotel used to be on the site of the Empire State Building. Here’s its story.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Stanley Turkel
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The Original Waldorf=Astoria Hotel

During 2006, the Hilton Hotels Corporation (HHC) introduced the luxury brand Waldorf=Astoria Collection. The collection will feature a portfolio of some of the world’s top independent hotels and resorts, all managed by HHC. The first three member hotels (in addition to New York City’s Waldorf=Astoria) are CNL Hotels & Resorts’ Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Phoenix; Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa, Maui; and La Quinta Resort & Club, La Quinta, California. When asked about the possible conflict with the previously- announced plan to grow the luxury Conrad brand to 50 hotels by 2010, Matthew Hart, president and COO says, “We think the world is large enough for us to manage two luxury brands.”

Did you ever wonder about the hyphen between Waldorf and Astoria (Waldorf=Astoria). Here’s how it came to be. On March 14, 1893, William Waldorf Astor opened the world’s most luxurious hotel on 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue, the current site of the Empire State Building. Despite poor weather, a kitchen workers’ walkout and a serious accident, the hotel opened under the sponsorship of the St. Mary’s Free Hospital for Children. George Boldt, the hotel’s proprietor along with 37 year old Oscar Tschirkey (destined to become Oscar of the Waldorf) greeted each guest at the door. The hotel was designed by the noted architect Henry Hardenbergh who later designed the Plaza Hotel in 1907.

William Waldorf Astor had decided to demolish his great mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd street only 20 years after it was built by his father. New hotels were being built on and near 5th Avenue: Holland House at 13th Street, the Brunswick, Windsor, Buckingham, Grand Union, Park Avenue and the 5th Avenue Hotel.

The new 13-story Waldorf Hotel opened on March 14, 1893 with 450 guestrooms and 350 bathrooms, each of these with an outer window- a feature which apparently made a tremendous impression upon the high-grade traveling public of the nineties.

The grand opening presented the New York Symphony orchestra under the direction of Walter Damrosch playing Liszt, Bruch, Bizet, Tschaikowsky, Rossini and Wagner. No New York hotel had ever opened with such pomp and circumstance. The New York Sun wrote,

“To American enterprise is due most of the movement abroad in the world today toward luxurious hotels…. In few palaces of the Old World can such costly and artistic surroundings be found. Those who came found private suites, dining-rooms, salons and bedrooms such as kings could not excel… There were more wonders than could be seen in a single evening- magnificent tapestries, paintings, frescoings, wood-carvings, marble and onyx mosaics, quaint and rich pieces of furniture, rare and costly tableware… one sees throughout the hotel a mingling of foreign and American improvements… The owner has made the hotel the natural abode of transient and houseless fashion and wealth. He has made its café the rival of Delmonico and Sherry.”

George Boldt was the great leader of this wonderful new hotel. Perfection – the perfection of hotel keeping– was his religion. Boldt introduced many innovations at the Waldorf: “room service” that enabled guests to have breakfast in bed; relaxed the rule that prohibited men from smoking in the presence of women, installed an orchestra in the hotel lobby, hired Turkish waiters to serve coffee, placed plenty of ash trays at strategic locations among the potted palms.

Among the regular tenants, one of the most notable was the self-made millionaire and big plunger, John W. “Bet-a-Million” Gates who was later to become one of the backers of the Plaza Hotel. The professional services which attracted millionaires was due in large part to the suave and affable Oscar Tschirkey, who rose from headwaiter to maitre d’ hotel and an unofficial position as chief lieutenant to George Boldt. Oscar became known to hotel regulars and eventually to the world as Oscar of the Waldorf.

A famous attraction was a long corridor that ran through the Waldorf connecting two of the most popular restaurants, the Palm and the Empire rooms. It was a sparkling hall with soaring Corinthian columns, mosaic floors, and upholstered benches along the sides. Almost from the opening, the corridor was a popular promenade for ladies of fashion to display their gowns, jewels and gaudiest plumage. The society editor of the New York Tribune called it “Peacock Alley”. It is reported that it was not unusual for twenty five thousand people to stroll the length of Peacock Alley on a single day.

In 1895, John Jacob Astor IV (a cousin of William Waldorf Astor) demolished his mother’s mansion brownstone mansion on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue adjacent to the Waldorf Hotel. He built the Astoria hotel and struck a deal with his cousin William Waldorf and George Boldt to manage both hotels jointly.

The new structure was 17 stories with “perpendicular railways”; an indoor driveway on the 34th street side, the first in hotel history; a grand ballroom seating 1,500 and a roof garden. Between them the two hotels had 1,000 rooms, three floors of banquet and meeting rooms and common manage- man under George Boldt. After it was named Waldorf=Astoria, New Yorkers would tell their friends, “Meet me at the Hyphen.” ‘Where’s that?’ the friends would ask. ‘Between the Waldorf and the Astoria.’ As a nickname for the hotel “the Hyphen” did not stick but the hybrid name Waldorf- Astoria did and now is a most valuable intangible asset for exploitation in the Waldorf=Astoria collection. For the next 20 years the Waldorf- Astoria was operated as a single hotel until George Boldt died in 1916 and the hotel was acquired in 1918 by Lucius Boomer and Senator Coleman Du Pont. Boomer was a hotelier trained in Henry Flagler’s Florida hotels and earned his reputation in New York’s McAlpin Hotel in Herald Square just one block from the Waldorf=Astoria. The value of property in the area had grown enormously in the 30 years since the Waldorf opened. New hotels like the Plaza, Savoy, Netherland, Pierre and St. Regis reflected the inexorable uptown movement to the 50s and 60s. With Du Pont, Boomer acquired Sherry’s famous Manhattan restaurant, expanded it into a chain and eventually combined it with William Waldorf Astor’s old Netherland Hotel on 59th Street to form the fashionable apartment hotel known as the Sherry Netherland. In 1929, Boomer and Du Pont sold the original Waldorf=Astoria to developers for $13,500,000 who proceeded to erect the world’s largest office building: the Empire State Building.

Note: Part Two of this article will appear next month with the story of the current Waldorf=Astoria Hotel.

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