A new era for one of the most famous hotels in the world is now one step closer to reality. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved renovation and restoration work at the Waldorf Astoria New York that will allow part of it to be converted to residential use.
Most of this work will involve restoration, repair, and cleaning. As the project architect pointed out, a 2011 test cleaning of a portion of the structure showed just how dirty it is. The hotel has also changed dramatically from the way it was when it first opened.
The Waldorf is located at 301 Park Avenue, a full block also bound by East 50th Street, Lexington Avenue, and East 49th Street. The 625-foot-tall, 44-story Art Deco skyscraper, at the time the largest hotel on earth, boasting over 2,000 rooms, was designed by Schultze and Weaver and opened on October 1, 1931. It was designated an individual landmark in 1993. It closed on March 1 of this year and, on March 7, portions of its interior were designated.
Now, the plan is a multi-year renovation and restoration for the Hilton-branded hotel. Chinese developer Anbang Insurance Group will convert the 14th through 44th floors to 321 condominiums, while 840 hotel rooms will remain on the fifth through 13th floors. Architect Frank Mahan of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and preservation consultant Bill Higgins of Higgins Quasebarth & Partners are leading the project. Mahan delivered the majority of Tuesday’s presentation to the LPC.
He started by speaking a little about the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, where the Empire State Building sits today, pointing out that it had not just hotel rooms, but also apartments and retail space.
Turning to the hotel’s current edifice, Mahan began with changes proposed to the exterior. Existing window openings, 5,380 in total, will be restored, as will 141 spandrels. Several non-original additions, including those on the 38th floor, will be removed. The existing cooling tower will be relocated and sunk into usable floor space, removing it from public view. New ventilation windows will be punched at that site, and 80 new ventilation windows will be punched overall.
The floor-to-floor height up to the 28th floor is 11 feet, but above that, it is 12 feet. However, the windows on all of those floors are the same height. The windows on the upper floors will be extended vertically by one foot. More usable windows will also be punched, for a total of 137.
Some non-original material will be removed, but a space on the 20th floor will also be filled in, though it will be relatively minor. A somewhat more significant addition will be constructed between the twin towers at the roof level.
The through-block porte-cochère has been part of the building for its entire life. However, the new configuration will see one each on 49th and 50th streets. The openings and grills, heavily altered over time, will be unified. Each elevation will get new sconces.
The loading dock has always presented a problem for traffic on 50th Street because the trucks jut out into the roadway. This wasn’t as big a problem in the 1930s because the trucks were smaller. They are now considerably longer. So, the loading dock will be recessed into the building and moved to 49th Street.
The storefronts will be restored to a condition much closer to their original condition. That includes the re-centering of the door to the storefront on the north end of the Park Avenue side of the building. In between that storefront and the main hotel entrance, a new door will be inserted. That will be the residential entrance, and will come with its own canopy.
Originally, there were two marquees – one on each side street. Eventually, it was realized that a covered opening would be advantageous for the primary entrances to a hotel. Several canopies were constructed at the Park Avenue entrance, with quite a bit more care than the one currently on Lexington Avenue.
The one on Park Avenue will be maintained, but its corrugated glass skirt will be replaced with flat glass. Lexington Avenue will get an entirely new canopy that is much closer to the one on Park Avenue, but allows natural light through.
The original bronze on the 49th Street marquee will remain, but its faux fabric skirt will be replaced, with a similar treatment for the 50th Street marquee. There will be a gorgeous underside extant on 49th Street and two non-original grills will be removed from 50th Street.
Now, for the interior, where we’ll start, at the west, with the Park Avenue foyer. The ceiling is actually not original, and has had quite a bit of light added. The historic central luminous marble ceiling will be restored. The doors to the side rooms will be replaced, as will the current urns and spheres. The new urns will, like their historic predecessors, have uplighting within.
The colonnade will get new sconces and the plaster wall finishes will be painted green, which, it turns out, is the original color. Peacock Alley (the alley where Sir Harry’s was located, not the former lobby restaurant) will be restored, from floor to ceiling. So will the west elevator lobby.
The main lobby will become a food hall or restaurant, accessible from all four cardinal directions. Unlike many of the designated interior spaces, the main lobby ended up darker than it began. The new lighting will be brighter but come from fewer, smaller lights. The iconic clock is not original, but it will stay. Reception, however, will be moved south to a non-designated space.
The Lexington Avenue foyer will be transformed into a double-height space. The escalator will be removed and the elevator will be relocated. The exterior grills will also be restored.
On the third floor, the grand ballroom, its foyer, the Silver Corridor, the Basildon Room, the Jade Room, and the Astor Gallery will receive restorative work as well as lighting changes, including hidden lighting in the ballroom and restored glass doors in its foyer.
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron asked Mahan if he and his team had considered another location for the residential entrance. Mahan showed several examples of otherwise symmetrical facades with secondary entrances. Higgins said they decided on having the residential entrance on Park Avenue because people think of the Waldorf Astoria as “a building on Park Avenue.”
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said the design team was “incredible” and complimented them for being “open to their suggestions.” She called this a “great project” and an “amazing opportunity.”
Commissioner Frederick Bland said this proposal is the “paradigm” of how to approach a project like this. He called the modifications “exquisite adjustments.”
When a cart was needed to carry copies of the over 200-page presentation into the hearing room, Commissioner Michael Devonshire said he thought to himself, “The circus is about to begin.” He was, however, impressed, and commented on Mahan’s “scholarship.” He also said that developer and design team exercised enormous restraint in not creating a “Trumpian” interior.
There were nine pieces of public testimony, most of which was very supportive of the proposal. Elected officials who back the proposal include Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brad Hoylman, City Council Member Daniel Garodnick, and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. So did the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the Association for a Better New York (ABNY), and the St. Bartholomew’s Conservancy.
Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City congratulated the team on great job, but did request that they replicate the original waterfall chandeliers in the Silver Gallery.
Meghan Weatherby of the Art Deco Society of New York echoed that request, and expressed concern over the new residential entrance on Park Avenue.
“HDC commends the applicants on a thorough and spectacular presentation, fitting for a project of this importance, but we did notice some details which require attention. Our committee would like to see the historic 1931 chandeliers in the Silver Corridor on the 3rd floor replicated. We would also like to draw the Commission’s attention to a proposed alteration to the main lobby. Regarding the portals into the north and south lounges, historic photos show the original central bay to have a distinct tall articulation with a very strong vertical expression, characteristic of art deco design,” testified the Historic Districts Council’s Kelly Carroll. “The proposed changes look more like the existing conditions than the historic ones, however, and our committee would like to see the hierarchical expression of the cross axis returned. We would also like to see the clock returned as part of the treatment of that bay, which is slated to be removed.”
The commissioners approved the proposal unanimously, but did made one modification, directing the applicant to work with LPC staff on possibly replicating the aforementioned chandeliers.