Old New York Hotels Return to Glamour
by mike olson
When the doors of the Algonquin Hotel reopened in May, Matilda the cat—the latest in a long line of feline greeters who have called the lobby home— was there to welcome guests from her personal chaise lounge. It’s a scene that has played out countless times since the first stray wandered into the warmth of the hotel in the late 1930s, not long after the final meeting of the Algonquin Round Table, a decade-long lunch gathering of writers and actors that made this spot on West 44th Street the center of the theater and publishing worlds.
Matilda may still be in residence, but much else has changed about the Algonquin. Opened in 1902, the city’s oldest continually operating hotel just completed an exhaustive renovation, with its lobby restored, decaying infrastructure rebuilt, and guest rooms reimagined. “Candidly, the building needed this sort of work desperately,” explains general manager Gary Budge. “So the decision was made to close for five months and then open what many would call a new hotel in a 110-year-old envelope.”
The Algonquin is not alone. Across the city, dusty gems—some in need of new infrastructure after a century of wear and tear, others converted into hotels after decades of less stately use—are being brought back to life, creating a bridge to past grandeur that gratifies tradition-minded travelers while they charge their iPads. Because the buildings are often in disrepair and almost always outdated, this renovation work is never easy, but the results can be breathtaking.
The city has seen this before, with Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck’s redesign of the Paramount Hotel in 1990 considered a seminal moment in the hospitality industry. But in recent history, one need only look at the 2009 opening of the Ace Hotel on Broadway and West 29th Street to see where the latest movement began. Andrew Zobler was a managing member at GFI Development, the company that financed and worked with the Ace Hotel team to oversee the construction and development of the former Hotel Breslin. And before it was home to tastemakers, this old SRO was not destined for the glossy pages of a shelter magazine. “If you had gone into the old lobby, you would have had no idea what the potential of the building was,” remembers Zobler. “We began to scrape away and get down to the original treasure trove of underlying things.”
All of that excavating unearthed touches that would be impossible to replicate, like the wonderful mosaic floor in the lobby. The Ace Hotel team had no idea of its size and scope when they began peeling away layers of neglect, and they ultimately made the very bold, very rare decision to shrink the size of Ace’s retail spaces just to show it off. That commitment to maintaining historic flourishes has extended one block south to the latest development of Zobler’s Sydell Group, the newly opened NoMad Hotel, a converted Beaux Arts office building with grand staircases and ceilings that the team kept to give the hotel an old Europe feel.
For other hotels, like the Milford on Eighth Avenue and West 48th Street, renovating offers a rare opportunity to rebrand. Opened as the Hotel Lincoln in 1928 but made famous—or infamous if you recall its “Lullaby of Broadway” jingle—as the Milford Plaza in 1980, the 1,330-room hotel was recently acquired by Highgate Hotels, which plans to turn the classic two-star into a three-star-plus hotel sure to be loved by international travelers.
Period detail takes a backseat to the location just off of Times Square. The $140 million renovation gave each of the Milford’s floors a New York neighborhood theme—Central Park, Soho, Chinatown—and each of its rooms touches like 32-inch LCD televisions and sliding-entry bathroom doors. Outside, the first two floors will feature an all-glass façade. “Because we haven’t started the public areas yet, I don’t think people understand how different the asset will be,” says Vann Avedisian, principal at Highgate Hotels. “It’s going to be a great transformation while still paying homage to history.”
Highgate’s portfolio features another property with haute history: the Knickerbocker Hotel. Located on the southeast corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, the storied structure was built by John Jacob Astor IV in 1906 but closed its doors during the Depression, spending the last 85 years as apartments, garment showrooms, and even Newsweek’s home office. Currently, it’s being renovated into a 330-room boutique hotel that, when it opens in 2013, will be perfect for the high-minded corporate traveler.
Whether it’s the Milford restoring the giant “M” sign that has become an unforgettable piece of the Theater District skyline or the Algonquin bringing the oak paneling and ceilings of its lobby, dubbed New York City’s living room, back to their original glory, one common element emerges in all of these transformations: an appreciation of the past.
“We have an owner who recognized that we need to respect our provenance,” Budge explains. “At the same time, the modern traveler has a level of expectation that we needed to meet.” At the Algonquin, that meant hiring design firm Intra-Spec to modernize the room décor. Some difficult choices had to be made (like replacing the building’s original soaking tubs with walk-in showers), but in a nod to the past, each room also features a giant, backlit photo of a New York streetscape circa 1920. “There couldn’t have been a better way to make a connection to the fact that yes, we’ve got history,” says Budge, “but we’re fresh and new.”
Zobler agrees that history cannot serve as an excuse for antiquated service. “You need to provide all of the amenities that you would in a new building,” he says. “The trick, if you will, is to do it in a way that doesn’t feel out of sync with the look you’re trying to preserve.” At the NoMad, that meant knowing when to save money (recreating an antique desk table spied at a Paris flea market, but with 21st-century wiring) and when to splurge (installing a 200-year-old fireplace from a French château that has become a focal point of the first floor).
Even more than the amenities, today’s travelers are bound to notice these elegant touches. “People yearn to experience a bit of a city’s heritage when they visit,” Zobler attests, and Budge agrees that hotels like his Algonquin deliver something that gleaming new properties can’t. “They offer a level of authenticity of what real Manhattan is,” says Budge of these classic hotels. “One of the great things about New York City is that not everything is torn down and put up shiny new. The fact that these hotels are being restored is pretty gratifying.” Just ask Matilda.