Today marks 101 years since the opening of the Hotel Pennsylvania.
During its 101 year lifespan she has stood as an incredible monument and symbol of NYC.
From the minute she opened her doors on January 25th, 1919 she made
history. With a then mind- boggling 2,200 rooms, she was the largest hotel in the world. A private bathroom in every guest room (something very few hotels had at the time), modern elevators that would whisk guests to and from their floors and an underground passageway that allowed guests and others to be able to walk directly to and from the the marvel that once was Pennsylvania Station.
Sadly, her owners faced bankruptcy and had to sell off her older sibling, Pennsylvania Station. She looked on as they dismantled the station piece by piece, and we’re certain she wept for it. But she stood tall and remained at her post watching over the city as it transformed around her over the decades.
During her reign, she played host to people from Charlie Chaplin and William Faulkner to Harry Houdini, and Fidel Castro himself. She became immortalized by her own phone number thanks to Glenn Miller’s hit song “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and his radio broadcasts which were transmitted from the famous Cafe Rouge Ballroom located inside her halls. She stood by over the decades, watching and listening to the city, but never once faltered in her duty to provide for her guests.
She changed hands a number of times, but for the most part was treated well. She stood in her majestic glory with not a complaint. Just a proud building boasting her beauty and prestige. She did not falter when she changed owners from the Railroad to the Statler Hotel Chain and eventually to the Hiltons. Not a sound was uttered when she was again sold, this time to Dunfey Hotels, and had Elie Hirschfeld give her a complete makeover on the inside. While the hotel may have taken the sale like a champion, this marked the beginning of the end of the Grand Dame on 7th Avenue. The renovation was essentially a gut job, destroying priceless architecture and decor that can never be replaced again. Finally, she was purchased by her current owners, Vorando Realty Trust as a former shell of what she used to be. She still stood by and did her duty for the city and asked for nothing in return.
It wasn’t until the turn of the early 20th century, that she found herself in trouble. In mid 2006, Vornado grew tired of her service to the city and wanted something else from her. Money. They wanted to tear her down and put up a giant office building, then for Merrill Lynch. She was in trouble for sure. So she finally cried out to her people for help.
Hearing this news, how could we in all good conciseness stand by and not help her? We formed the then “Save Hotel Pennsylvania Foundation”, and went to work! We gathered up people from all across the world, and helped get the word out as to what she was facing. We enlisted the help of organizations such as the New York Historical Society, The National Register of Historic Places and even enlisted the aide of the New York State Assembly. Never wavering, we took our fight to the streets and went toe to toe with Vornado. Utilizing a 50,000 Watt radio station, WBAI, we got the word out and gained a massive following of people from all over. We went to Community Board 5, and got a 21-8 vote in favor of granting her landmark protection status. It was then that we went up against New York City Council, who turned their backs on the citizens of NYC, and the hotel. The city council held closed door meetings, and held “public” hearings with little notification as to entice public opinion.
But the city had already made up their mind. During the final public meeting, they gave almost unlimited time to the owners to speak about the redevelopment, and hardly any time to those who opposed it. In the end, the city council got what they wanted.
However, in what seemed like a twist in a dime store novel, the Hotel was spared because of the very thing that was dooming her. Corporate greed. The big banks that wanted a new building at her site were now struggling to keep afloat, and did not have the monetary backing they once did, to sway anyone to build it for them. With that the Hotel Pennsylvania was saved.
To this day she still stands, and protects her guests as she was built to do, however she does so with a broken spirit and a tarnished reputation due to intentional neglect and poor decisions. All is not gloom and doom though. Within the past year, Vornado has renovated hundreds of guest rooms perhaps as a well to rebuild the reputation of the hotel. But what is their long term plan? Do they really want to invest in the hotel the way it needs so are these just cosmetic enhancements to make a few more bucks until the time comes again where demolition is the plan.
So what have we learned since 2006 when we started this? We’ve learned that it’s not easy dealing with the local bureaucracy that envelops NYC. The city government has a tendency to give in to big developers since it’s easier to side with them, rather than the little guys.
As we have seen with examples from the Rizzoli Bookstore, where Vornado basically snuck into 31 W. 57th Street in the middle of the night, and demolished the interior to prevent any chance of it being landmarked. And then we have the opposite for the Strand Bookstore where the city saw more profit in making it a landmark then keeping it off the list, forcing the owners
to fight the ruling, and costing them a small fortune.
We’ve seen grandiose development plans for the area, as bait for big financial corporations, as well as big tech, all to fall to the wayside. We’ve seen New York State, giving the owners of Madison Square Garden and Hotel Pennsylvania millions in capital for redevelopment, tax rebates and exclusive rights to the surrounding area under the guise of “improving transit” only to have almost nothing done than window dressing.
Sure there are always cries, when something is gone, but who is there before hand? We are, and if you are reading this, then you may be one too. It is never too late to help save that which can not help itself. We are all for progress but not at the expense of destroying what is ours culturally, and that is certainly not for the sake of progress.
So here’s to 101 beautiful and maybe not so beautiful years. But she made it through them and may she forever stand tall, and always welcome her guests with open doors.