The Passing Of The Old Hotel
(Originally printed in 1931)
The first eighteen months of the new management of the Waldorf-Astoria provided a tremendous, far-reaching problem. It was an era during which every hotel in the United States faced a crisis. This, of course, was because of the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution of the United States outlawing the importation, manufacture, or sale of liquor.
There can be no question that the bar was one of the most important sources of revenue in the modern American hotel. The sale of wines and liquors usually could be depended upon to take care, not only of waste, but of loss in other departments. With this flow of revenue dammed, the hotel men, most of them, looked about with desperation for some way to provide an adequate substitute. It would be idle to suggest that they found one. They had to accept a condition, just as hundreds of thousands of others were forced to do. The United States, whether for good or ill, had allowed a noble experiment to crush and wipe out a great industry. That “experiment” remains in its experimental stages, but the liquor industry also remains, only it has been transferred from the honorable and legal to the criminal and illegal field of activity.
Fortunately for the Waldorf-Astoria, Mr. Boomer already had learned how to keep track of hotel waste and to eliminate it as far as possible. Besides his new system of cost accounting, he made many important changes in the arrangement of the lower floor of the hotel to expedite its business, and rebuilt the roof garden.
The mistake was not made, however, of effecting great changes in methods with which the visiting public had become familiar through contact. Progress was not allowed to destroy tradition.
One of the important changes was in that part of the ground-floor on the Astoria side of the hotel. Originally there were two main entrances from Thirty-fourth Street, flanking the old carriageway, in addition to the less important entrances opposite the elevators and at the Astor court end of Peacock Alley. It was decided to close the doorway to the east of the carriageway. In its place a street doorway was cut into the Italian, or Istrian, Room, and this was to answer as the substitute for the bar. The famous four-sided drinking-bar in the men’s cafe ceased its old function on the night of June 30, 1919, when prohibition became legally a fact. Soon the bar was cut down and was distributed as souvenirs.
Parenthetically, there has been considerable conjecture as to the disposal of that famous bar. Indeed, even when the old Waldorf-Astoria was closing, many people who knew about the bar only by reputation sought to get pieces of it. But the brass-railed mahogany-and-rosewood rectangle, that supported many famous elbows for twenty-two years, had long since gone. The entire room was razed to be replaced by a men’s reading-room, lounge, and cafe.
Chief Engineer Ezra Bingham, who was in charge of its demolition, says that for days he was besieged by souvenir: hunters and habitues. Their demands became so insistent that the Santo Domingo mahogany boards, hand-carved joints and knuckles, blocks of priceless rosewood and sections of the old foot rail and arm rail, which encircled the front bar, were given away, a small piece at a time, to hundreds of eager and sad-eyed old friends who sighed with each blow of the ax. The creaking joints and lonesome groans of the old piece of art as it fell was its own protest against its passing.
The whereabouts of the bar proper, which had absorbed the overflow of rare vintages for a quarter of a century, remains a mystery. One story is that it became a theatre-ticket counter in a hotel; another, that it passed ignominiously into the firewood category. What was left, after the souvenir-hunters were satisfied, went Bowery-ward, destination unknown.
But if there could not be a bar, the hotel management was determined to provide a substitute. Over in the McAlpin, for instance, Mr. Boomer already had set up a soda-water and candy counter that became popular. This hotel had its own candy factory and eventually was forced to enlarge the counter. So the Italian Room of the Waldorf-Astoria was appropriated for the same purpose. If the candy shop could be a success at the Mc-Alpin, it could be a success at the Waldorf-Astoria. It became, indeed, a candy shop de luxe and New York, at first skeptical, was charmed and amazed by its excellence and attractiveness. The soda fountain itself was not in plain view, but was kept hidden in a near-by pantry, which also served as an adjunct of the tea room, located in the foyer of the Rose Room restaurant on the Astoria side of the hotel. Tea had been served in the Italian Room, but this was abandoned because it was too small to care for the great crowds that taxed its capacity every after-noon. The hostess in this particular department was Mrs. Leonora Rector Crook, of Mississippi, always smilingly on hand each afternoon to preside over the tea tables.
As a result of the success of the Waldorf-Astoria’s experiments in this respect many other American hotels adopted the candy-shop—and the soda water fountain soon replaced the once popular bar.
Still another important change made under the Boomer regime was the roof garden. During the early history of the hotel there was no roof garden. Boldt was against it, so was Architect Hardenbergh. The latter, of course, was guided more by artistic impulses. He was so proud of the turreted and dormered roof that he felt a garden would spoil the effect because of the necessarily large area of fiat space that would be entailed. When the Astoria was added to the Waldorf, however, a roof garden was constructed and became a popular part of the hotel. On summer nights one might dine up there and listen to the music, while obtaining an excellent view of New York, and in winter the roof was flooded and turned into a sky-scraper ice-skating rink. At that time all this was quite an innovation, in view of the fact that the roof garden had not yet come into its own in New York.
Under the new management the roof garden was in-closed and converted into a series of restaurants for all-season use. John J. Petit, who conceived the beautiful dining-room of the old Claridge Hotel, planned the reconstructed roof garden of the Waldorf-Astoria. It became, during the few years of its life, a popular gathering-place for discriminating New Yorkers.
In the year 1924 there arose rumors that the Waldorf-Astoria was to be closed as a hotel. This was the result of the announcement that the property had been acquired by the Waldorf-Astoria Realty Corporation, of which General Coleman du Pont and Mr. Boomer were the heads, with the participation of such nationally well known industrialists as W. W. Atterbury, Leroy W. Baldwin, M. C. Brush, Robert K. Cassatt, L. L. Dunham, Percy H. Johnston, William C. Sproul, E. T. Stotesbury, and John R. Todd.
Since no plans definitely had been decided upon, the rumors naturally were denied. Yet it was becoming increasingly evident that the Thirty-fourth–Fifth Avenue site was out-dated. Owing to the tremendously increased taxation, much of the Thirty-fourth Street frontage was converted into handsome shops, and improvements totaling more than a million dollars were made in bringing the hotel’s facilities up to date. Peacock Alley was widened and tremendously improved by a new lighting arrangement. A little later the famous Bradley-Martin ballroom, which had changed its name several times until it was known as the South Cafe, was renovated and re-decorated and became known as the Jade Room, one of the popular hotel restaurants in New York.
More than once, offers had been received for leases of the Fifth Avenue side of the hotel, comprising the two vast dining-rooms, the Rose and the Empire Room. One of these offers reached the enormous sum of $300,000 per annum. However, it was decided that without those two rooms the only great dining-rooms left in the whole length of Fifth Avenue, the Waldorf-Astoria would not be the same. For two and more years the hotel had housed the main New York passenger office and offices of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in New York, without the slightest trespass upon the space devoted to the use of its patrons.
That space, and other great non-productive areas in the hotel, involving enormous taxation and operating cost, indicated that the site of the Waldorf-Astoria would be more profitable if used for other purposes. Progress could not be stopped, even for tradition. But there was one little line in the announcement made by Mr. Boomer that indicated he and his associates had no intention of abandoning forever the tradition of a great hotel. That line read:
“We retain all rights to the name `Waldorf-Astoria Hotel’ for future use.”
There was drama in the passing of the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria in Fifth Avenue. Every single annual event which took place there between the Boomer announcement and the closing day assumed a new significance. New Year’s eve, heralding the year 1929, was as gala an event as the hotel had known.
However, all the time there was no letting down in the service and the employees worked right on up to that final day, May 3, 1929. The final day was “Employees Day” and every dollar taken in by the hotel for rooms, meals, etc., went into a fund for the benefit of those who were to leave the service of the hotel for what they thought (erroneously) was forever.
The greatest tribute to the hotel was given on the night of May 1, of that year, when thirty-eight organizations, which had made the Waldorf-Astoria their banquet home
and gathering-place during the past, gathered at a great dinner in the famous old grand ballroom. It was, said the New York Evening World, “the most glorious testimonial to a journeying friend that New York has ever witnessed. Every phase of New York life was represented: university men, military men, bankers, brokers, philanthropists, politicians, big business men, churchmen, writers, and newspapermen.”
The dinner was billed as “The Final Dinner” and was arranged by a committee headed by Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University. George T. Wilson was toastmaster. To appreciate what the hotel had been in the life of the city it is only necessary to glance over the guests who occupied the dais. Each one represented an organization that had called the Waldorf-Astoria home. I am giving a part of the list here because I think it is appropriate in such a book as this:
H. Dykes, president of the Rotary Club; George A. Zabriskie, president of the Sons of the Revolution; Col. Franklin Q. Brown, president of the Army and Navy Club; Col. Michael Friedsam, president of the Fifth Avenue Association; and Thomas Ewing, president of the New York Patent Law Association.
Other association heads present: George E. Fahys, president of the Church Club; William Fellowes Morgan, president of the League for Industrial Rights; Herbert C. Green, president of the Ohio Society; John F. Hylan, former Mayor of New York; John McGlynn, New York Hotel Men’s Association; Bertram H. Borden, president of the New England Society; Philip C. Meon, president of the Oil Trades Association; Charles P. McClellan, president of St. Andrews Society; Stephen Callaghan, president of the St. Patrick’s Society of Brooklyn. And others:
Percival Wilde, president of the Lake Champlain Association; Dr, Marcel Knecht, general secretary of “Le Matin”; Adolph S. Ochs, New York Times,: Col. Leonor F. Loree, president of the Chamber of Commerce; Royal S. Copeland, United States Senator; the Right. Rev. William T. Manning, D.D., Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York; William A. Prendergast, chairman of the Public Service Commission.
With the dinner over, those guests who had lived for years at the Waldorf-Astoria went sorrowfully to their rooms. They included Col. E. H. R. Green, son of the late Hetty Green; Mr. and Mrs. William Rogers Chap-man, Harry Stevens, and Albert Morris Bagby, the musician.
After that came the auction, resulting in the sale of most of the furniture, objects of art, and various fixtures in the hotel. The sale of the contents brought approximately $500,000.
As for the rest of the old hotel, there is nothing much to say. The last chapter in its history was finished on May 3, 1929, when the doors were closed for the last time. Soon the tradition of the Waldorf-Astoria, the gay chat-ter of Peacock Alley, was replaced by the rivet-roar of progress. The building succumbed to the wrecker’s touch and in a little while a new building, the tallest in the world, was to take its place. It was, of course, the Empire State Building, sheer stone and steel rising hundreds of feet above the hotel that was.
Looking upon it now, one has to smile, especially when thinking back to that day in 1893 when New York viewed with awe the old Waldorf which seemed like an architectural giant that had stamped out the home of William Waldorf Astor.
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