From the 39th-floor breakfast room of the New Yorker Hotel, one can see the whole of downtown and clear across the river to Brooklyn. It’s a master-of-the-universe view—East River glinting in the sun, Empire State rising above a jumble of lesser skyscrapers, clouds and sky and construction cranes—situated amid the cheap carpet and generic furnishings of a budget motel: A titan’s perch occupied by tourists and business travelers munching boxed cereal.
Welcome to the New Yorker: aging art deco behemoth, former destination of machers and movie stars, prize fighters and politicians, now a redoubt of budget-conscious tourists, Class B office tenants and 600 college students who dwell in a block of dorm-room conversions.
The Hotel New Yorker was a relic of a bygone era even before the first guests checked in. Conceived and constructed in the final, feverish years of the 1920s, the hotel didn’t open until January 2, 1930, a few months after the stock market crash, leaving more than a million state-of-the-art square feet, three ballrooms, bars, restaurants, barbershops, an indoor ice rink and 2,500 rooms to fill at a time of anemic leisure budgets. Legend has it that on one night during its first year when the hotel was virtually empty, the general manager ordered every light turned on and all the curtains opened. New arrivals were told there was no vacancy and escorted to arch nemesis, the Hotel Pennsylvania. Maybe it wasn’t that, but something, certainly, worked. The place was soon packed with the kinds of people who made the papers, if not necessarily the society section.
Barbara Stanwyck dined and danced, Benny Goodman played the Terrace Room nightclub and Muhammad Ali recuperated in one of the suites after losing the fight of the century. It was also a favorite of Mickey Rooney, that satyr of the studio system, as well as Joan Crawford and Joe DiMaggio.
Nikola Tesla died in his rooms on the 33rd floor, where he spent the last 10 years of his life, sheltering injured pigeons he found in parks and falling in love with one pure white specimen, of whom he wrote: “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.” He died before the hotel switched its electric system to the alternating current he invented.
But like Tesla, the hotel never quite reconciled its grand intentions with reality. It was often the kind of place that saw famous names pass through in the wan afterglow of faded stardom, a place forever a little bit at odds with itself.
The largest hotel in the city and the second largest in the world, possessor of its own power plant, its name emblazoned in glowing red letters affixed to its roof, the New Yorker was always something of a social upstart. “Even taking the name of the city and putting it in such a prominent place in the architectural composition; there’s a kind of braggadocio in that,” said Rick Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“Once a favorite of congressman,” The New York Times noted when the hotel closed its doors in 1972, its location across from Penn Station having shifted from being just about the best place a hotel could be to just about the worst. Time could be as kind as it is cruel.
There were the years when the hotel wasn’t a hotel at all, but housing for followers of the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon—the Unification Church still owns the hotel through a subsidiary—many of whom were betrothed in its grand ballroom and married en masse at the nearby Madison Square Garden.
Down at the heels but never quite derelict, the New Yorker has spent the last two decades “bootstrapping itself back into existence” in the words of its chief engineer and historian Joe Kinney.
“I always saw the hotel as one step away from a youth hostel. Booked this hotel for a business trip by mistake through my assistant. However, it was far better than I expected,” reads a typical comment on Yelp, where the hotel is rated a respectable three stars.
But now, with Hudson Yards rising to the West, the hotel is angling to become the kind of place that a prosperous businessman might stay on purpose.
“I’ll tell you how it’s going to change: top-flight corporate accounts, once Hudson Yards comes to fruition,” said John Yazbeck, the New Yorker’s director of sales and marketing, when we met with him and hotel general manager and president Ann Peterson on a recent morning. In anticipation of the influx of higher-end clientele, management is increasing the number of rooms from 986 to 1,149, maybe more if enough top-flight accounts come knocking.
“The integrity of the art deco look will be maintained, but with a business slant,” Peterson said.
To that end, Wyndham has supplanted economy-minded Ramada as the hotel operator and a major renovation is under way: rooms are being revamped, old cast-iron tubs exchanged for gleaming shower stalls, espresso machines installed and ceilings gussied up with new light fixtures. The pub off the lobby has been upgraded to a trattoria and soon the coffee stand in the lobby, an oversize muffin kind of place, will be replaced with something “Starbucks caliber.”
The lobby is also undergoing an aesthetic scouring, with ersatz art deco elements displacing most remaining traces of an ill-advised late 1970s faux-Victorian makeover, says architect Paul Taylor of Stonehill & Taylor, the firm in charge of the building-wide renovation.
“The lobby has a bit of an identity issue. There was really nothing original left, so we decided to return it back to art deco and play up when it was the largest hotel in the U.S.—or at least in New York. Anyway, it was a major hotel, or at least it was more grand,” Taylor said. “The elevator doors are original, and there is some wonderful art deco bronze work. But we didn’t have the money to continue the beautiful bronze work, so it’s plastic laminate.”
The lobby furnishings, meanwhile, have become a little bit more “boutique-y”—“Not just like a bunch of tables and chairs, but taking some cues from the lifestyle hotels,” Taylor continued. “The problem is that it’s been so popular with the guests that they’re sitting out there all the time. They’re not necessarily the most attractive people. It drives the staff crazy.”
Whereas other mid-tier establishments like the Hotel Carter—drug busts, murders and warring family members—sunk into destitution, the New Yorker plodded on, surviving a hospital conversion attempt and homeless shelter plan before the Moonies picked it up for $5.6 million in 1976. At that time in the city’s history, an interlude with a religious group that championed family-centric, drug- and alcohol-free living was just about the best thing a shabby skyscraper could hope for.
“It makes sense that Reverend Moon would buy something iconic; he was so into being iconically American,” said Lisa Kohn, who spent her pre-teen years playing in the halls with Reverend Moon’s kids after her mom joined the church. “I have memories of how dilapidated it was—of course, I didn’t realize it at the time— the carpets weren’t kept up, the paint was old, the rooms were cold. But it was a wonderful place.
“I remember sliding down the escalator railing, and we used to run up and down in the halls. It was like a building that you knew should be more formal, but we’d get to do things you’d never get to do in a real building—hanging out in the kitchen, exploring the bowels, playing in the old barbershop, other people’s suites.”
It’s true that the rooms are small and that cafeteria smells sometimes waft through the halls. But somehow, the students in their underwear sharing elevators with office workers on their way to the laundry room, the small rooms [and] even the smells feel as of-a-piece with the New Yorker as its iconic sign. There’s a kind of cheerful perseverance that seems to be built right into its solid masonry walls—walls that make it near-impossible to rewire anything, Taylor said, accounting for the unfortunate over-the-bed placement of the light fixtures.
But it’s also unexpectedly lovely, all the more so in a city where every other new or newly remodeled building promises to yield some form of unrivaled luxury in which to check email and brush one’s teeth. Even the most ungenerous lodgers grudgingly admit that the New Yorker is clean and the views stellar. A lot of the tower rooms even have massive terraces, though they lack niceties, such as furniture and plants.
“A nice place to have cham-pag-ne as they say in The Stooges,” Kinney said when he showed us around one of the big, empty terraces. “I don’t think there are many hotels in the city where you can have this view.” It’s true: Most other grand old hotels have converted all the higher floors to condos, reserving the choicest cuts for buyers.
Kinney’s own office, a spacious room cluttered with hotel ephemera, is in one of the hotel’s many basements. He’s spent the last 18 years working to preserve both the hotel’s legacy—collecting old photos, Terrace Room menus, programs from ice skating revues and snippets of social history—and its Depression-era mechanicals, many of which he’s merged with modern facilities.
“You look at the modern hotels where everything is squeaky and new, and we’re headed in that direction, but yet the way this hotel was built and the nature of it, those other hotels will reach the end of their life and the New Yorker will keep going,” he said. “The name implies that it’s a citizen. There’s the Plaza and the Waldorf and the St. Regis, but this is the only one that’s a participant. But unlike people who only age in one direction, the building can be modernized.”
And unlike those elite hotels, the New Yorker has always been quintessentially of the city from which it draws its name, a fundamentally democratic sort of establishment that didn’t have the kind of wealthy patrons or social register clout—the debutante balls and the charity benefits—to protect it from the rough patches in the city’s history, or the luxury of being situated in more rarefied park-side environs like the Carlyle or the Ritz.
The hotel will never be five stars, Kinney admits. “We did the business plans, and it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.” The rooms aren’t big enough, the neighborhood’s not right “and this never was a five-star hotel in the first place.”
“You have to be true to what you are,” he reflected. The New Yorker Hotel, he said, “was meant for business people, not the King of Siam.”