A New Waldorf Against The Sky
(Originally printed in 1931)
Shortly after the closing of the old hotel Mr. Boomer, who was then taking a brief vacation in Florida, received a telegram from Mr. L. J. Horowitz, chairman of the Board of the Thompson-Starrett Company, Inc., to the effect that he favored the idea of a new Waldorf-Astoria. He said he believed banking firms represented on his company’s board of directors would undertake to sell the necessary securities to provide all of the funds required for the hotel if Mr. Boomer would head such a company.
It is interesting to note that General du Pont’s offer to buy the old Waldorf if Mr. Boomer would run it, was almost paraphrased by Mr. Horowitz, who offered to build a new Waldorf on the same terms.
To Mr. Horowitz’s telegram Mr. Boomer replied, in effect, that if the new hotel could be planned to mean to the current period what the old Waldorf did in its hey-day, he was for it heart and soul. And so the new Waldorf-Astoria, “intended to preserve and carry on the traditions and prestige of the old hotel,” came into being. A number of banking firms, headed by Hayden, Stone & Company, Hallgarten & Company, and Kissel, Kinnicutt & Company, arranged the financing. The New York Central Railroad approved the project and agreed to advance ten millions of dollars toward its accomplishment.
Mr. Boomer, enthusiastic, went to work on the new project. Sentimental as well as practical things were in his mind. He felt he was not building a new hotel, but erecting a building that would house an old institution. His imagination was fired, and as the result of his years of experience and conception of a magnificent opportunity, he visualized the Waldorf-Astoria you see on Park Avenue today.
He felt that while the old hotel was admired by millions of patrons as a building of advanced and even unique physical plan and structure, it also appealed to millions of patrons especially because of its sincere hospitality and an efficient and personal type of service.
Because of this special sort of appeal, and due to the hotel’s unusual facilities and equipment, it was so often selected for public and semi-public entertaining that it developed a personality. This fact became clearly apparent to Mr. Boomer when he went to the old Waldorf, and he noticed with interest how all of its personnel had been affected, The attitude of the staff of the Waldorf was that they were working for the hotel.
This, Mr. Boomer explains, is the reason there is a new Waldorf-Astoria hotel building—and at the same time not a new Waldorf-Astoria. To build a new Waldorf-Astoria, he says, did not seem to mean to add another large hotel to New York’s many, but rather to give the Waldorf a new housing and convenience of location. And the effort was to make of the new hotel an institution as important to the present generation as the old Waldorf was to an earlier one.
The site at Park Avenue, between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets, was decided upon as the most logical for the new hotel building. This property was controlled by the New York Central Railroad. It was felt that the hotel should be situated on a spot easily accessible to the high-class residential district and the shopping and amusement centers.
A new corporation, known as the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria Corporation, was formed, with Mr. Boomer as president, to acquire the site and to erect and maintain the hotel. Associated with Mr. Boomer on the board of directors, elected in 1931, were Charles Hayden, chair-man of the board; Lewis L. Dunham, vice-president; Maurice Newton, 2nd vice-president; Augustus Nulle, secretary and treasurer; Stuart McNamara, general counsel; Gen. W. W. Atterbury, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co.; E. W. Beatty, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway Co.; Robert K. Cassatt of Cassatt & Co. ; Samuel L. Fuller of Kissel, Kinnicutt & Co.; Robert Goelet; L. J. Horowitz, chairman of the Board of Thompson-Starrett Co.; Richard F. Hoyt of Hayden, Stone & Co.; Harold E. Talbott, Jr.; Percy H. Johnston, president of the Chemical Bank & Trust Co.; G. Hermann Kinnicutt; Ivy Lee; George MacDonald; Conde Nast, the publisher; John W. Prentiss of Hornblower & Weeks; Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., president of General Motors Co.; Casimir I. Stralem of Hallgarten & Co.; and William H. Wheelock, real-estate man.
Anxious that the hotel be as representative of the mod-ern age as the Waldorf was in the ‘nineties, a building forty-seven stories high (over 625 feet), the tallest hotel in the world, representing something like $40,000,000, was erected.
But such a task involved many complicated problems of engineering and construction, First there was the clearing of the site—a complete block extending from Park to Lexington Avenues and from Forty-ninth to Fiftieth Streets. This was occupied by three large buildings, the Central Y. M. C. A., a structure used by the American Express Company, and the Car Service Department of the New York Central Building. In addition, the New York Central power-station, which furnished light, heat, and power to most of the buildings in the crowded Grand Central zone.
Wrecking operations began in April, 1929, miles of electric cable and thousands of feet of steam and hot-water piping were rerouted and a formidable array of pumps, motors, fans, air-compressors, tanks, and so on were moved to new sites. This job was particularly difficult because the New York Central power-house and the substations were built without a cellar and above the New York Central tracks, whose traffic continued uninterrupted throughout the wrecking of the buildings.
This work was successfully completed in January, 1930, by which time the Waldorf-Astoria site not only was clear, but the heating, lighting, and power systems in the Grand Central zone were entirely rearranged. To achieve this task one of the most formidable engineering feats connected with construction in New York was accomplished by Thompson-Starrett Company, the builders. Without disturbing the foundations of the Grand Central Terminal, the New York Central power-house was re-located beneath the terminal structure one hundred feet below the level of the street in solid rock. This power station today is one of the largest substations in the world.
The design of the new Waldorf, with its twin towers, was the inspiration of Schultze & Weaver, architects for the hotel. This firm already had to its credit such buildings as the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the Park Lane, both of New York; the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach; the Biltmore and the Harriman Bank Building in Los Angeles. The results of the firm’s planning are to be seen today, so that it is not necessary to describe them fully here. Perhaps decades hence, when still another Waldorf-Astoria is going up, a historian of the hotel will be enthusiastically describing the extravagant splendor to be found in the new structure.
Besides the architect, there were the builders, those men who direct and carry out the plans. For the Waldorf-Astoria they were the officials and workers of the Thompson-Starrett Co., Inc., who for the past three decades have been identified with the construction of a large number of the outstanding buildings in this country. During that time the company built for itself a reputation for work-manlike efficiency in the erection of skyscrapers.
Every detail, from the placing of the orders for the raw materials and the following of each item through the various processes of fabrication to the orderly delivery and erection of the finished products, was closely supervised by men of long experience, each an expert in some phase of construction. In the erection of the hotel each step was carefully scheduled and the schedule was adhered to with the rigidity of a railroad time-table. This is stressed, not because it is a new idea to builders, but will inform the public of the exactitude that governs the erection of a building. The public does not realize the timing that enters into such work.
Magnificence in hotel architecture and dimensions no longer is the awe-inspiring thing it was in the days when the old Waldorf first went up. The new hotel, however, undoubtedly will win as much admiration, if not awe. For instance, it is not only the world’s tallest hotel, but also the largest as a structure, although not the largest so far as the number of rooms is concerned. Its total cubical content is 20,487,000 cubic feet. Here is how that compares with other New York hotels; the second in size, the Pennsylvania Hotel, has 18,618,000 cubic feet; the Commodore, third, has 14,240,000 cubic feet; the New Yorker, fourth, 11,400,000 cubic feet; the Hotel St. George of Brooklyn, fifth, 10,000,000 cubic feet; the McAlpin, sixth, 10,037,000 cubic feet.
For that matter, the Waldorf also has the largest rooms, with an average of 9,529 cubic feet for its 2,150 guest-rooms. The Pennsylvania has 2,200 rooms, but it has only 8,462 cubic feet average per room; and the Commodore, with 2,000 rooms, averages 7,120 cubic feet per room.
Many of the features of the old Waldorf were retained in the new—particularly Peacock Alley, now longer and wider. In addition there is the Peacock Gallery. It is approximately one hundred and fifty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. Its design is modern. On the walls are French burl walnut applied in flat veneered panels. The pilasters are of Morocco red marble. The ceilings and cornices are plastered with gold and silver leaf.
One of the remarkable features of the hotel is a private railroad siding beneath the building, where guests in private cars can come directly to the hotel via the New York Central tracks.
To meet the demand for home privacy the hotel has given much attention to the private driveway for the convenience of its guests. This driveway is ninety feet wide and runs through the building from Forty-ninth Street to Fiftieth Street, a distance of two hundred feet. There also are parking facilities within the hotel property, with four vehicle entrances and exits on each street.
Among the advantages of the driveway is the elimination of congestion on the thoroughfares surrounding the hotel. Instead of guests disembarking at the Park Avenue, Forty-ninth or Fiftieth Street entrances of the hotel, private cars and taxis will stop within the hotel.
This novel feature, of course, brings once more to our mind that here history repeats itself, since it was the late George C. Boldt who sacrificed nearly 7,000 square feet of ground space at the Thirty-fourth Street entrance of the old hotel to build a carriageway. Of course, he had to abolish it when automobiles became the vogue, because of the long wheel base of the cars. The new hotel does not have to worry about wheel bases and the driveway will continue to be of use unless and until the airplane completely usurps the automobile as a mode of city traffic. By that time, however, the Waldorf-Astoria probably will have its own private “landing field.”
The problem of lighting was given more than ordinary attention at the new hotel. Architects, designers, and artists have planned the use of electric light, as such, with new and beautiful results. The use of electric light without visible fixtures of any sort has been tested out, with the result that the guest is charmed by indirect lighting, cove lighting, reflected lighting, and decorative effects, variable at command. Living-rooms and many chambers are illuminated by reflection from the ceiling. In addition there is a generous installation for picture-lighting, and living-rooms are equipped with electric clocks, synchronized with Naval Observatory time.
Modern science was injected into the hotel. Elaborate installations were made of radio, television, talkie, music reproduction, and public address facilities throughout the building. All of the rooms were equipped with radios and the remarkable centralized antenna system was regarded as the marvel of radio engineering. The radio system in the hotel was worked out by Joseph F. Carney, an old associate of Mr. Boomer’s. Carney was the chief engineer of the Hotel McAlpin when it was opened and he was appointed superintendent of the new Waldorf-Astoria building.
Another remarkable example of how science has invaded the hotel was to be found in the telephone type-writer, which solved, for the first time, the problem of paging and communications in the modern hotel. It enabled desk clerks to transmit simultaneously to employees in every department concerned, the arrival and departure of guests and their requirements. Thus, before a newly arrived guest has reached his room in the Waldorf-Astoria, news of his arrival already is in the hands of those who have anything to do with serving him. It is likely that this system will be found in every hotel of the future.
The installation of the telephone system of the Waldorf was prodigious because of the fact that two telephone outlets were placed in every double bedroom. This feature called for a telephone office that ordinarily might meet the demands of a city with a population of 25,000.
The main public rooms and galleries were equipped with a public-address system. Engineers of the Bell Laboratories cooperated with the hotel engineers in order that the location of permanently installed loud speakers would harmonize with the building design. In addition the hotel has been equipped with the Western Electric sound picture reproducing equipment, to be used for reproducing sound pictures in the ballroom and private chambers. The system will be entirely independent of the public-address apparatus.
In the ballroom, also, by the way, has been installed the largest hotel player-organ in the world. It is electropneumatic throughout, consists of a three-manual Moller Artiste reproducing organ, containing forty-four independent sets of pipes, controlled by seventy-eight stop registers, also chimes, harp, xylophone, orchestral bells, etc. There are in all 3,328 pipes.
Nor does that end the Waldorf’s plans for guest entertainment. It has looked into the future and has prepared against the day when there will be television. Although much of the publicity concerning television has been hasty and over-optimistic, all rooms have been wired for television so that when the day of its actuality arrives those who stay at the hotel will be able to see a show or a ball game by looking on a screen in their rooms.
But the most interesting plan carried out under Mr. Boomer’s direction was based on the realization that the modern hotel must cater as much to permanent guests as it used to cater almost exclusively to the transients. Mr.. Boomer was convinced that the “town house” was some-thing that no hotel of importance should overlook. He was convinced that people often want to live in hotels as well as to “stay” at them. When the old Waldorf
opened in 1893 the only suite arranged for permanent occupancy was that which Mr. Boldt himself used. Later, and in recognition of the demand for such apartments, he moved to transient rooms and his original suite was occupied, first by John W. Gates, then by Clarence Mackay, and later by judge Gary. By this time the vogue of making a hotel suite a permanent home was beginning to be popular. Gradually changes in metropolitan living standards brought about more general use of the large hotels for long-term residences instead of mere stopping-places for visitors.
It was Mr. Boomer’s conviction that we were entering a new era of hotel-keeping—one that comes as the last of the following stages of evolution as to the preferred way of living in New York:
First, of course, there were private detached houses and practically nothing else. Then came the brownstone front —sometimes a two-family affair. Then “flats” appeared. They gradually went up the social scale and became apartments. Eventually, because of economic advantages (real or fancied) the cooperative hotels began coming into their own as the “new way of living.”
With this in mind, the Boomer idea was to provide facilities and an atmosphere that reminded one less of a hotel and more of an apartment in which to live. His idea was that if people are to think of hotel rooms as “home” they must look more like “home” rooms than is yet to be noted in most of our hotels. The majority of them have been equipped with furniture and incidentals “suitable to hotel use,” which frequently gives them a drably institutional character and a tiresome, monotonous sameness.
In furnishings and interior decoration, the Waldorf-Astoria is characterized by standards of comfort, artistic excellence, and individual distinction such as are found only in the most tasteful private homes. With this end in view, a number of the leading interior decorators of America, England, France, and Sweden collaborated in plans of unusual interest.
The list of those associated in the work included individuals and firms who have carried out interior decorations in some of the most famous residences and public buildings in the world, including Buckingham Palace and other royal residences in England, and the homes of such noted Americans as J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr., William K. Vanderbilt, George Gould, Joseph Widener, Mrs. Nicholas F. Brady, Mrs. Herman LeRoy Emmet, and the late Henry E. Huntingdon.
With more than two thousand rooms, including three hundred residential suites and numerous ballrooms, dining-rooms, restaurants, kitchens, foyers, lounges, corridors, stairways, club rooms, and private entertaining suites, the Waldorf presented a furnishing problem of unusual magnitude and complexity.
Among those who contributed to its solution are: Sir Charles Allom of White, Allom &
Co., London and New York; L. Alavoine & Co., of Paris and New York; Arthur S. Vernay, Inc., New York; Barton, Price and Willson, Inc., New York; Jacques Bodart, Inc., Paris and New York; Mr. R. T. H. Halsey, Maison Jansen, Paris; Fran-cis Lenygon, of Lenygon & Morant, London and New York; Nordiska Kompaniet of Stockholm, Sweden; W. & J. Sloane, New York; Mrs. Charles H. Sabin, consultant decorator of transient section of the hotel;
Schmieg, Hungate & Kotzian, New York, Nathan Straus & Sons, New York, and A. Rutledge-Smith, general consulting decorator of the Hotel Corporation.
All the arrangements in respect of the Waldorf-Astoria were developed and coordinated under the general direction of a committee of the directors in conjunction with Schultze & Weaver, the architects.
From the start one imperative condition was laid down. It was that anything approaching stereotyped standardization or the “hotel atmosphere” should be rigidly taboo.
Thus, each guest-room and suite has its own individual character such as would be sought in a private house distinguished at once for comfort and impeccable taste.
Not only the furnishing of the rooms, but also the lay-out, and, indeed, the entire physical structure of the building, as well as its equipment and internal organization, are, in fact, influenced by the thought that the Waldorf must be a place to live in rather than merely to stay at.
There is a discernible demand for more homelike qualities in the large metropolitan hotels and a tendency to-ward establishing more or less permanent town residence in them, particularly in New York.
The Waldorf is designed particularly to meet this mod-ern development and to provide adequately for its indicated future growth.
In keeping with the domestic character aimed at, the furniture for the Waldorf is based largely upon that developed during the periods when domestic furnishing attained acknowledged heights of excellence. The best work of the early American period, the eighteenth century English period, when such master-designers and craftsmen as the Adam Brothers, Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite flourished, and the fine Louis Quinze and Louis Seize periods in France, for example, are represented.
At the same time it was not forgotten that the new Waldorf is essentially a modern hotel and that common sense, good taste, and convenience alike demand that a modern home shall consist of something more than pedantic reproductions of interiors of the past.
Consequently, while the best traditions of domestic furnishing have been respected, original adaptations, in harmony with them, were made to utilize to the full later achievements in the decorative and furnishing arts and to meet the requirements of modern taste.
The modern influence will be seen, for instance, in the absence of stuffiness and ostentatious ornamentation, in ample provisions for ventilation, air and lighting, comfortable upholstery, convenient and “livable” arrangements of the rooms, and clean-cut, attractive color schemes. Those associated in furnishing the bedrooms and suites of the Waldorf approached their problem precisely as they would that of furnishing a number of private town residences of distinction.
The fact that the services of many eminent authorities have been engaged is believed to be an assurance that the decorations and furnishings throughout will be marked by outstanding merit and at the same time individuality and variety of treatment.
if the Waldorf is giving so much attention to the “home” atmosphere, it is by no means neglecting the hotel’s old tradition of public entertainment. Four floors, the first, third, fourth, and eighteenth, will be devoted to facilities for conventions, exhibitions, banquets, and other social gatherings. Something of the extent and scope of the arrangements is indicated by the fact that specially designed accommodations will exist, on the one hand, for entertaining private parties of twenty persons or less, and, on the other hand, for gatherings of as many as 4,000 persons. More than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space is available in the various rooms.
Indeed, as a center of preeminent distinction for public functions and private entertainment, the new hotel promises to be, like its famous predecessor—to quote again the New York Times—”the unofficial palace of New York.”
Socially, the hotel will strive to recapture its reputation as the center of activity. Standing in the heart of New York’s residential district, it already affords a great attraction to what once were the 400 and now are the 4,000–or the 400,000!
The Association of the Junior Leagues of America has established quarters in the hotel. These provide for administrative offices, quarters for the junior League Magazine, as well as private dining-rooms, a large clubroom opening out on a set-back terrace twenty floors above the street, and bedrooms .for both transient and permanent guests of the association.
Another prominent social organization to establish spacious new quarters in the hotel is the Canadian Club of New York, which back in 1901 began among a small group of Canadians residing in New York. The quarters of the club consist of the eighteenth floor of the center wing and the eighteenth floor of the east wing. There are three dining-rooms, the largest being eighty-five feet by fifty-five feet, a large lounge, a billiard-room, card-rooms, reading and writing rooms, and offices. In addition, the nineteenth floor of the east wing is used for club bed-rooms and suites. The club has its own private roof gar-den on the entire twentieth floor of the east wing. Adjoining the roof garden are several handball courts and a solarium for the exclusive use of the club members.
And there will be other clubs..
It would be superfluous to dilate further on the hotel. It is to be seen and enjoyed and, unlike such institutions of the past as the old Waldorf, it does not have to intrust its reputation to cold type.
Besides, one purpose of this book has been served. The glamour, romance, and excitement of the original Waldorf-Astoria have been recorded. And in the pages of New York history it has by common consent held a place unique and magnificent.
As to the future hotel, it would be presumptuous to suggest how long it will remain popular and successful in its new location. Progress is a very relentless—and unreliable—thing. It forced the Astors to sell out their homes and convert them into a great hotel, it forced that hotel eventually to give way to the giant office skyscraper we see there today.
So the safest thing is to ignore prophecy. All we need do is to wonder about the immediate future (say the next twenty-five or thirty years) of the hotel. During that period there is every indication that it will play as important a part in the life of New York as it did in the three decades of its old existence. Always superimposed upon that future scene will be Peacock Alley. There, undoubtedly, will be reflected the excitement of a new age. And when it is outmoded, and the trends of society and commerce and entertainment have moved elsewhere in Manhattan, it is not too much to suppose that still another Waldorf will project itself into the New York skyline. For that is the way with institutions that are attuned to the life about them.
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