Once the World’s Largest, a Hotel Goes ‘Poof!’ Before Our Eyes

Bit by bit, floor by floor, the building that once rose 22 stories over Penn Station is shrinking before the city’s very eyes. The black netting draped over its ever-diminishing brick is like a magician’s handkerchief; once removed, it will reveal — nothing.

Behold: The Great Disappearing Act of the Hotel Pennsylvania.

This isn’t — or wasn’t — just any building. This was once the largest hotel on earth, with 2,200 rooms, shops, restaurants, its own newspaper, and a telephone number immortalized by the bandleader Glenn Miller with a 1940 song “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” for which the complete original lyrics are:

Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand

Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand

Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand

Pennsylvania Six Five Oh Oh Oh

That’s it.

The hotel figured prominently in Big Band-era lore and counted among its many millions of guests the consequential (Fidel Castro) and the canine (the Westminster Kennel Club). It offered an accessible urbanity, a kind of cosmopolitanism for the common folk. When a young soldier aged by combat returned home at the close of World War II, for example, he made good on a vow to spend his first night stateside at the hotel with the phone number he knew by heart.

But the Hotel Pennsylvania never quite had the cachet of the Plaza or the Waldorf Astoria. It came to depend on traveling salespeople, conventions devoted to dentistry or footwear, and tourists seeking affordable accommodations. In recent years, perhaps the most charitable review was: conveniently located.

In 2008, a hard pass by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission effectively sentenced the hotel to the same fate as the building it was designed to complement: the majestic Pennsylvania Station, the egregious razing of which in 1963 led to the creation of a city agency charged with protecting buildings of historic and cultural significance: the Landmarks Preservation Commission, of course.

For two decades, the building’s owner, the real-estate behemoth Vornado Realty Trust, dithered about its plans (We’re knocking it down. No, we’re renovating! We’re knocking it down.) before moving ahead with demolition. A supertall office tower might replace it, or maybe a casino.

Some preservationists considered the hotel to be pedestrian and not worth saving. “Even if you’re a hard-core preservationist, your energies might be better spent elsewhere,” the city editor of New York magazine wrote in 2021.

Others disagreed, including Michael Devonshire, a preservation architect, a longtime member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and son of a certain soldier, James Devonshire, who found comfort once at the Hotel Pennsylvania. “I cannot think of a building more worthy of designation as a landmark,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”

“At our hearings we adjudicate whether a mailbox installed in a designated neighborhood in Queens is appropriate to an historic district,” Mr. Devonshire said of the commission. “Meanwhile, this incredibly important hotel is about to be turned to mulch. It’s insane.”

Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand.

Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company for an astonishing $10 million — the equivalent to $173 million today — the hotel, which opened in 1919, was envisioned by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to be in concert with two of its other creations: Pennsylvania Station, across Seventh Avenue, and the General Post Office, on Eighth. Visitors passed through a four-story portico — its six monumental columns echoing the station’s colonnade across the avenue — to enter a thrumming city within a city, with Turkish baths, swimming pools, a barbershop and a library featuring 4,000 volumes. Sixty women operated the telephone exchange.

Among the hotel’s signature features were its Servidors, full-length, two-way cabinet doors that allowed items like shined shoes and pressed clothes to be left for guests without disturbing them. The supposed advancement, designed to “eliminate contact with servants,” neither aged well nor benefited tip-dependent staffers.

The hotel thrived through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, with more than 300 unannounced check-ins a day, many from the train station, and a nonstop blur of galas and conventions. The American Dahlia Society. The National Greenskeepers Association. The Daughters of the Imperial Order of the British Empire. The War Relief Fund of the Federation of French Veterans of the Great War.

There were fatal leaps from windows, grifters scamming suckers, proposals accepted and vows broken, possibly all in the same night. Here, a couple of mugs fresh from Sing Sing prison broke into a room to steal cash and jewelry. Here, Prohibition agents stopped a man lugging a travel bag that all but rattled with bottles of Scotch intended for some parched conventioneers. Here, a guest entrusted a young actress of fresh acquaintance with $17,000, only to have both ingénue and dough disappear, to no one’s surprise but his own.

Then there was the time an unregistered guest scampered past the registration desk to leap from table to table, upending the hotel lobby’s desired atmosphere of orderly calm. A bystander finally grabbed the acrobatic interloper — a monkey, from who knows where — and the two shared a cab to the nearest police station.

Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand.

The hotel’s fame grew through the 1930s with musical broadcasts from the cozy Madhattan Room on the lower level and, later, the Café Rouge on the first floor — where, the NBC announcer used to say, “the young at heart come from far and near.”

Glenn Miller. Benny Goodman. Artie Shaw. Les Brown and His Band of Renown, featuring a young Doris Day taking a war-weary nation on a sentimental journey.

The postwar years were less kind to the hotel, as fewer overnighters arrived by train and more people chose watching television over frequenting nightclubs. There were repeated changes in ownership and name: the Hotel Statler, the Statler Hilton, the New York Statler, on and on, before eventually returning to the Hotel Pennsylvania.

The atmosphere changed as well; a weariness, even a weirdness, set in. Among the odder moments came when a government bacteriologist named Frank Olson plunged to his death from the 10th floor in 1953. It was later revealed that he had been slipped LSD as part of an illegal mind-control program overseen by the C.I.A. Seventy years later, the circumstances remain murky.

As the years passed, the struggling hotel did what it could. In the late 1980s, the Barbizon school of modeling moved in. In the mid-1990s, a Sports Authority megastore took over most of the mezzanine. A closeout retail store set up residence in what had been the Café Rouge, and the once-grand ballroom became a television studio for such fare as “Maury” and “The People’s Court.”

The dinners and conventions, at least, never stopped. Gem-and-mineral shows, bridge tournaments, city auctions, dog shows. A national shoe fair. A chess match between grandmasters. The annual meeting of the First District Dental Society of New York.

By 1999, Vornado — a company with more expertise in real estate than in hospitality — was the sole owner of the Hotel Pennsylvania. Fans of the old hotel began to fear an end to their sentimental journey.

For one thing, the hotel’s reputation had plummeted into its subbasement, with mocking public complaints about peeling wallpaper, worn furniture and bedbugs. For another, Vornado had been acquiring property around Penn Station with an eye toward transforming the area one day into a business, retail and entertainment mecca.

One evening in the fall of 2007, in the Long Island town of Deer Park, a father came across some news on his desktop computer, and he called out to his 13-year-old son: Hey, Steven. Remember that hotel you like so much? The one across from Penn Station? They’re going to knock it down.

That moment is seared in the memory of Steven Lepore, now 28. He felt a swirl of sadness, anger and urgency. “All hell broke loose in my brain,” he recalled.

Resolved to act, the teenager found and joined the Save the Hotel Pennsylvania Foundation, a small group led by a computer specialist named Gregory Jones. The foundation was working to block any demolition by asking the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider the hotel for landmark status.

In assessing the merits of a building as a potential landmark, the commission studies its architectural, historical and cultural significance, as well as the level of integrity of the original design. In its estimation, the Hotel Pennsylvania, which had undergone significant changes over the years, fell short.

The hopes of the hotel’s would-be protectors briefly soared when the fallout from the recession of the late 2000s nudged Vornado to reconsider demolition. In 2013, its chairman, Steven Roth, told investors that the company would invest heavily in the building “and try to make it into a really profitable, really good hotel for our purposes.”

“We won,” Mr. Lepore remembers thinking. The save-the-hotel foundation was rechristened the Hotel Pennsylvania Preservation Society, which soon sent Vornado a detailed proposal for restoring the hotel to its former glory.

“Of course, there was no response,” Mr. Lepore said.

Perhaps because Vornado had already begun to change its mind. By 2015, Mr. Roth was telling investors that demolition was still an option; by 2016, he was complaining about the oversupply of hotels, hinting about a massive redevelopment plan and calling the hotel a “parking lot.”

All the while, the hotel was trumpeting interior renovations, celebrating its ties to the Westminster dog pageant, offering discounted rooms and renting space for pet fashion shows and other events. In truth, it was a brick-and-mortar place holder.

In early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced the Hotel Pennsylvania to close, which proved to be convenient to its owners. In announcing the inevitable a year later, Mr. Roth described the hotel as “decades past its glory and sell-by date.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission seemed to agree. A commission spokeswoman said last month that the agency “has reviewed Hotel Pennsylvania numerous times over the last 20 years and determined each time that the property does not rise to the level of architectural significance necessary as a potential landmark.”

By this point, the Hotel Pennsylvania Preservation Society was just Mr. Lepore. The reality that the 22-story building was about to be removed from the cityscape didn’t hit him until he walked into the closed hotel for a liquidation sale. As he pored over leftovers of hospitality, looking for relics worth purchasing for posterity, a deep sadness came over him. He felt like a failed caretaker.

“In my head I was saying, ‘Sorry, I did everything I could,’” he recalled. “‘I’m sorry you’re going to be erased from the world.’

“I said my goodbyes.”

Some community organizations focused on the hotel’s imminent demise to protest a multibillion-dollar plan by New York State — with Vornado as a central player — to redevelop the Penn Station area, mostly with high-rise office towers. But by the time demolition began at the end of 2021, there was not much left to say.

David Holowka, an architect who leads walking tours of the neighborhood’s at-risk buildings, said that the hotel could have been repurposed and its history celebrated, as other cities have done with older structures. Instead, he said, New York “is just throwing its architectural heritage out the window.”

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an author and former landmarks commission member who specializes in urbanism, agreed. She said that a tear-down, bottom-line aesthetic prevails in the city, with leaders uninterested in how old buildings might be reimagined.

“If anyone thinks that another office tower is more useful than a creatively repurposed hotel as big and beautiful as the Pennsylvania, I don’t know what to say,” Ms. Gratz said.

Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand.

The Hotel Pennsylvania continues to evaporate in the midst of distracted Midtown; at the moment, just 10 of its 22 stories remain. Trucks rattling with emptiness disappear into its West 32nd Street side, then emerge from its West 33rd Street side laden with chunks of a New York place that once mattered.

But scattered here and there are remnants that summon echoes of clattering cutlery and lobby chatter, haunting clarinet solos and the velvety, reassuring voice of Doris Day.

Vornado has saved a few items, including a bronze letter box and some decorative elements from the Café Rouge area. The company said that they will be featured in a future exhibit.

Mr. Lepore bought a few things at the liquidation sale, including a couple of old Servidors for $50 apiece. He added the memorabilia to his Hotel Pennsylvania collection in Deer Park, where he lives with his parents. Matchbooks. Coffee pots. Silverware with the HP monogram. An old receipt book recording the settled bills of guests long since checked out.

The Servidors are massive and must be kept in a storage unit, but many other items are in the china closet, to the chagrin of Mr. Lepore’s mother, Virginia. “Just last week she said it,” he recalled. “‘What are you going to do with all this?’”

Well, Mr. Lepore intends to have his own place sometime soon. And while he has no intentions of building a shrine to the hotel — “That sounds obsessive” — he does hope to incorporate the artifacts so that “everything will be used and out in the open.”

Then there is Michael Fusco, 69, retiree, nature photographer and Big Band aficionado. He often wears fedoras.

When demolition started, Mr. Fusco began lingering outside the building, taking long-lens photographs and chatting with construction workers. One day he explained the Big Band connections to the building they were tearing down, and asked if would it be possible to get a small piece of the terra-cotta arches that used to adorn the Café Rouge.

“I meant something I could put in my pocket,” Mr. Fusco said.

Instead, the workers presented him with two terra-cotta chunks so large and heavy that he had to make two trips by Uber to transport them to his apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. One leans against a chair; the other, against a coffee table. They weigh so much — 50 pounds? 75? — that he has trouble picking them up.

Every Sunday morning, Mr. Fusco passes the building on his way to serve as an usher at the Latin High Mass at the Church of the Holy Innocents on West 37th Street. “I’m the guy doing the collections on the right side,” he said.

He knows that the demolition site is quiet on Sundays. He knows where a three-inch opening exists between two chain-linked doors. And he knows how to summon recordings of old broadcasts from the Café Rouge with a few taps on his phone.

You might see him one of these Sunday mornings. A man in a fedora, thrusting his cellphone deep into the side of a doomed building, filling the dusty void with sweet Big Band swing. And the volume is turned way, way up.

Pennsylvania Six. Five. Oh. Oh.


https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/02/nyregion/hotel-pennsylvania-nyc.html Once the World’s Largest, a Hotel Goes ‘Poof!’ Before Our Eyes


Nytimepost.com is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – admin@nytimepost.com. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Related Articles

Back to top button