One of the Golden Ages most prestigious hotels was the Waldorf Astoria. It held galas and balls, was home to the rich and famous, and was the site of historic announcements and events. The exterior and interior of the Waldorf were designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as official landmarks.
This historic treasure was purchased by a Chinese company for $1.95 billion in 2014, and the hotel was closed for three-years while extensive renovation took place, converting some of the rooms into condos. Here, we take a look inside, before the acquisition by Anbang Insurance Group of China.
After entering the grand lobby, one of the first pieces you’ll notice is the nine-foot-tall, two-ton World’s Fair Clock Tower from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The base of the clock is octagonal and holds eight commemorative plaques of presidents.
The 47-story landmark structure was designed by architects Schultze and Weaver, and completed in 1931. It was the world’s tallest hotel from 1931 until 1963. This was the second location for the famed hotel, having left its original site on Fifth Avenue (opening in 1893) in 1929, when it was demolished to make way for the construction of the Empire State Building.
The ‘new’ Waldorf Astoria was built on land formerly owned by the New York Central Railroad. One of the more secretive places in the Waldorf was Track 61, its own railway platform that once was part of the New York Central Railroad. It was connected to the Grand Central Terminal complex, and used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, James Farley, Adlai Stevenson and Douglas MacArthur, among others.
This Platform was also used for the exhibition of American Locomotive Company’s new diesel locomotive in 1946. An elevator large enough for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s automobile (image above) provided access to the Platform.
Above is an image of the Waldorf’s ledger of special events in the year 1915. Each page in this 487 page ledger describes a single event in detail, from a wedding breakfast to a national banquet ~ from the first boutonniere to the last cup of coffee. The back of each page shows calculations for the final costs.
This volume preserves fascinating evidence about food, wine, prices, and customs of celebrations in the Gilded Age, like this tidbit ~ when 585 diners honored famous journalist Irvin S. Cobb, there were Manhattans and Martinis before supper, each dinner table of 10 had Four Quarts of Champagne (Mumm’s) and 2 quarts of beer, and after supper, the host provided 1,000 cigars, 4,000 cigarettes and souvenir statuettes for all.
The Waldorf was known for its lavish dinner parties and galas, entertaining the rich and famous. As of the late 1990s, the hotel had a housekeeping staff of nearly 400, with 150 day maids and 24 night maids.
It was frequented by such notable and diverse people as Cary Grant, the Dalai Lama, many Royals from around the world. The Chicago businessman, J.W. Gates, who played poker at the hotel, paid up to $50,000 a year just for suites.
Also on view on the main level, the c. 1907 Steinway piano that once belonged to American musician, Cole Porter, who was a longtime resident on the 33rd floor in Waldorf Towers.
Porter composed some of his classic songs on this instrument, including “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” After his death in 1964, the piano ~ nicknamed ‘High Society’ ~ remained at the hotel on the mezzanine.
After New York City legalized beekeeping in 2012, the Waldorf Astoria set up a home for hives on the 20th-floor terrace where approximately 360,000 European honeybees lived. Honey harvested from the Waldorf hives generated about 400 pounds of honey used in the hotel’s kitchens, supplying the three restaurants. The current disposition of the honeybees is unknown.
The elevator doors throughout the public spaces hold relief’s of musical themes. In the West elevator Lobby, the doors feature stylized females that hold a horn, pan pipe or cymbals. The double doors in the East Arcade and Ballroom Entrance Hall depict two figures in profile, women holding stringed instruments, possibly a lute and harp.
The Grand Ballroom (image above on the third floor) held many important events including the 1932, 200-person event honoring Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth, which was a best-selling novel at the time. Below, a closeup of the chandelier in the Grand Ballroom.
The third floor houses not only the Grand Ballroom, but also the Silver Corridor, the Basildon Room, the Jade Room, and the Astor Gallery.
Events were social but also historical from the time it first opened its doors on, including the 1974 stay by Fatah party leader Farouk Kaddoumi, taking fifteen suites in the hotel. The 20-car motorcade, with eight shotgun-toting police marksmen arrived from JFK International Airport, complete with German Shepherd sniffing dogs.
During the 1930s, gangster Bugsy Siegel owned an apartment at the Waldorf; Frank Costello was said to have his haircut and nails done in the Waldorf’s Barber Shop. In 1975, Yasser Arafat stayed at the Waldorf against the wishes of the hotel staff.
Fidel Castro once walked into the hotel with a flock of live chickens, insisting that they be killed and freshly cooked ~ he was turned away.
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower lived there from 1967 to 1969. Henry Kissinger had all the antiques removed from one of his suites, and replaced with 36 desks for his staff.
In 1981, IBM unveiled its Personal Computer in a press conference at the Waldorf, and in 1985 the NBA held its first ever draft lottery in the Starlight Room. This was the lottery draft in which Patrick Ewing was the consensus number one pick!
On the social side, Bob Hope was such a regular performer at the Ballroom that he often joked that he should leave his dinner jacket in the lobby. Hotel guests included the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, Liv Ullmann, Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Tony Bennett, Jack Benny, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Muhammad Ali, Vince Lombardi, Judy Garland, Zsa Zsa Gabor and many more.
The fourth-floor held the banquet and sales offices ~ and many of the suites including Barron, Vanderbilt, Windsor, Conrad, Vertes, Louis XVI, and Cole Porter ~ all named after the celebrities who stayed in them. The fourth-floor also had a re-creation of one of the living rooms of Hoover’s Waldorf-Astoria suite in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
The Royal Suite (image above) was named after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. All of the suites were at least 1,800 square feet, with two or more bedrooms, kitchen and dining room which could accommodate from 8-12 guests.
The very private Waldorf Towers was located between the 28th floor and 42nd Floor, with private entrances from the main lobby and from the outside on 50th Street. Within those floors were 181 rooms, including 115 suites with from one to four bedrooms. Several of the suites were named after the celebrities who lived or stayed in them.
This includes the Cole Porter Suite, the Royal Suite, the MacArthur Suite and the Churchill Suite. Frank Sinatra kept a suite at the Waldorf from 1979 until 1988, where he renovated the kitchen and held wonderful spaghetti dinners for his friends. He paid nearly $1 million a year for this suite during the filming of ‘The First Deadly Sin’ in 1980.
The most expensive room in the hotel was the Presidential Suite ~ 2,250 square-feet designed with Georgian-style furniture to emulate that of the White House. It was the residence of Herbert Hoover from his retirement for over thirty-years, until his death in 1964. This Suite had three large bedrooms and three bathrooms. It held numerous historical treasures including the desk of General MacArthur and a rocking chair belonging to John F. Kennedy.
Waldorf Astoria New York is located at 301 Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. The hotel was closed for three-years, converting 375 hotel rooms into condominiums.
While the Waldorf Astoria is under renovation, three of the hotel’s historic possessions are on view at The New York Historical Society.