New York Nostalgia: The Grand Old Hotels
THE BEST OF THE BEST
by Ray Riegert
Travel is primarily an act of nostalgia. We go abroad to visit old friends and time-encrusted monuments and to fashion new memories for future recollection. Remote destinations become repositories of memory. We appropriate particular places as personal possessions. Then years later we return to find scattered about in a distant town shards of our own lives.
Cities, with their boulevards and broad character, especially assume this importance. We go back not so much to experience their changes as to freeze an image of our own transformation. We travel outward through space on a journey inward in time.
For transplanted Easterners like me, there is only one place to summon the past. It's an island wedged between two rivers, a tumbling block of territory that contains within its narrow span an expanse of personal remembrance.
When years ago the family lived in New York, my grandfather owned a printing company in Manhattan. That was back in the era of hot type when a kid like me, visiting the shop, carried home a metal plate with his name embossed as a reminder that Grandpa was an important man. He had after all put the family name on the map. Or at least in the yellow pages. Riegert & Kennedy. You could find them under "Lithographers;" in their heyday they printed Look magazine.
Commuting all week between the wooded hills of suburban Westchester and the glass canyons of Midtown, my grandparents would retreat on weekends. There would be dinners at “21" Club, the landmark restaurant favored by film stars, athletes and every President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was then that our family life became a moveable feast spread among the grand hotels of New York. Places like the Plaza and the Waldorf Astoria became part of my personal history. For years I believed the doormen there were the world's most important people. Who else wore brilliant red jackets with brass buttons that glistened in perfect rows?
New York's grand old hotels have been around a lot longer than that impressionable kid. The Plaza is approaching its 100th birthday, while the Waldorf Astoria has marked over 70 years. In the days of Dorsey and Duchin, when Big Bands roamed the earth, those hotels were king. Though not even a toddler until the 1950s, I've always lived that brassy era through my grandparents.
Back then, when Babe Ruth relinquished the crown of New York to a San Francisco kid named Joe DiMaggio, the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf featured Cole Porter, Glenn Miller and Rudy Vallee. If those headliners proved insufficient, the retractable roof rolled back to reveal a night sky powdered with stars.
Time and Manhattan haze have changed all that, but today the Waldorf has been restored to its original Art Deco design. Sentimental visitors like me, recalling the stylish murals and sumptuous ballrooms, will find the touch of old New York. For architectural believers, who recognize that if God were to repeat the act of creation he would redo the world in Art Deco, the Waldorf has been born again.
The Plaza Hotel has also undergone extensive renovation. With its mansard silhouette and glazed brick facade, the place holds memories even for those who have never visited. It was a film location for Barefoot in the Park, North by Northwest, The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby and of course Plaza Suite. Then there are the stories. Like the time opera star Enrico Caruso smashed an electric clock that ticked too loudly and succeeded in disrupting clocks throughout the 900-room hotel. Or when F. Scott Fitzgerald plunged into the Fifth Avenue fountain. Fitzgerald loved the Plaza as much as Princeton and bootleg liquor; his caustic colleague Ernest Hemingway even suggested that the hard-drinking Ivy Leaguer will his liver to the college and his heart to the hotel.
I returned to New York recently to find the Plaza as chic and comfortable as ever. The most evident changes were in the neighborhood, where I found San Domenico NY, a stylish Italian restaurant with a cutting edge cuisine, and the Manhattan Ocean Club, a fashionable gathering place that combines a fresh seafood menu with a modern art decor. Both are within walking distance of the Plaza and provided encouraging evidence that even for a sentimental fool change can be good.
In New York the legends loom large as the buildings. Little wonder then that visitors arrive not only with their luggage, but the baggage of memory as well; or that restoring the past has become a local way of life. Among the finest of the city's re-creations is the Gotham Hotel, a Beaux-Arts beauty built in 1903 that has been refashioned as The Peninsula New York. Old-time New Yorkers remember when the Gotham, the nearby St. Regis Hotel and the Palazzo-style University Club were the central jewels in Fifth Avenue's crown. Now The Peninsula's staff has polished one of the district's rare gems, preserving the hotel's lustrous facade while transforming the interior into an ultra-modern facility.
Up Fifth Avenue at the Pierre Hotel renovation rarely seems necessary. There's simply little to be done to improve the place. Modeled after a French château, built of granite and limestone and capped with a copper mansard roof, the Pierre is outstanding. The tall lean figure of this hotel on Central Park has attracted visitors for generations.
When this tower hotel opened back in 1930 most transcontinental and international travelers were still arriving in New York aboard trains and ocean liners. A few more adventurous types were entrusting limb and luggage to fledgling airline companies and their revolutionary mode of transportation. Of course back in those early years flight time was counted in days. By the time you checked into the Waldorf or Plaza you had already spent at least one rumpled night sleeping aloft.
Flying to New York is no longer troublesome. My problems begin when I arrive. I can never seem to make it past the hotel lobby. It's not just the luxury of drinking in wood-paneled bars that holds me, but that terrible force of memory. I haunt Gotham's grand hotels because, before cancer closed his life, my grandfather visited them.
The memories in these hotels hang heavy as the chandeliers. New York's grand old hotels are emblems of the city's history, symbols of its style. Every visitor to one extent or another borrows part of that history as his own.
Memory can be a cruel and wild creature, at other times a docile pet. If you check into one of these venerable hotels sometime soon, remember to leash your imagination. And look for me—I'll be there, that glaze-eyed guest leading a procession of exotic but untamable animals through the hotel lobby.
Big Apple Facts and Figures
The first step in planning a visit to New York's grand old hotels involves contacting the NYC & Company Convention & Visitors Bureau (810 7th Avenue, N.Y., NY 10019; phone 212/484-1244; fax 212/582-8765; http://www.nycvisit.com). They supply maps, brochures and itineraries at no cost.
Nostalgia buffs and world travelers alike will find doormen welcoming them to all New York's fine hotels. My two favorites, the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza, offer special packages helpful for those times when your sentimentality outstrips your savings.
At the Waldorf Astoria (301 Park Avenue; 800/925-3673 or 212/355-3000; www.waldorf=astoria.com) there are several theme plans to choose from with room rates that start around $230.
Or you can enjoy a special package at the Plaza (Fifth Avenue at 59th Street; 800/527-4727 or 212/759-3000; http://www.fairmont.com). Here the nightly tab runs about $265 and up.
On the dining front, there’s “21" Club (21 West 52nd Street; 212/582-7200; www.21club.com), San Domenico NY (240 Central Park South; 212/265-5959; http://www.restaurant.com/sandomenicony), and the Manhattan Ocean Club (57 West 58th Street; 212/371-7777; www.moc.com). --R.R.
Ray Riegert is the author of Hidden Hawaii and Hidden San Francisco and Northern California. The publisher of Ulysses Press, he lives in Berkeley, California.