The Waldorf Astoria
Updated: Jun 28, 2016
id: grand dame art deco hotel
size: 1,120 rooms in the main building; 118 in the towers
atmosphere: classic grand hotel
cool detail: the lobby's showpiece clock tower from 1893
By Terry Trucco
News flash: The Waldorf will be closing in Spring 2017 for up to three years for much-needed gut renovations. Be sure to stroll through this Art Deco beauty before it disappears from view. While the renovation will no doubt yank it into the 21st century, it's unlikely it will feel the same.
At a glance: Is the Waldorf Astoria a hotel or a city? As I roamed through acres of thickly carpeted lobby, nearly the entire length of a block, I realized you could hole up here for days and never do the same thing twice.
The hotel has three restaurants, three lounges, a Starbucks and a mall of boutiques, where you can shop for antiques, rare books, cell phones or sweatshirts. You can go blond at Kenneth's Hair Salon, work out all day in the gym, or try to count the tiles of the restored allegorical mosaic floor in the Park Avenue lobby. (Answer:150,000.) Then you can sink into a sofa in the main lobby and gaze up -- way up -- at the Art Deco reliefs of stags and naiads frolicking on the gilded ceiling.
There's nothing cozy about the Waldorf, but it's comfortable, and it certainly is grand. It's so big, it's two hotels in one -- the 1,120-room Waldorf-Astoria and the more cushy 118-room Waldorf Towers, where every President has stayed since Herbert Hoover.
But its size and scale mean you rarely feel crowded, even when a convention spills out of a ballroom or guests pulling wheelies pile into the lobby.
To walk into the main lobby is to step into another sphere; the people look familiar enough, dressed in the usual mix of sweatshirts, suits and Louboutins, at least before 6 pm when a dress code kicks in (no flip-flops, no cut-offs). But the urbane Art Deco world of Fred and Ginger is never far away. Surroundings are, for the most part, well maintained -- upholstered side chairs that look like giant seashells, massive square black marble columns and big vases of potpourri on the square, gilt-edged coffee tables.
The Park Avenue lobby is almost as big and following a 2012 restoration that jettisoned an old walkway and dust-catching 1970s chandelier, even more breathtaking. Allegorical murals by the French artist Louis Rigal line the walls. And a massive Art Deco-inspired illumination powered by LED lights hugs the ceiling, a seamless mash-up of past-meets-present.
Too bad these lush, history-enriched trappings don't waft upstairs to all the rooms, which look outdated despite a renovation. But downstairs, the Waldorf puts on quite a show.
Cool detail: The hotel "museum" -- a lobby quartet of glass cases laden with vintage menus, place settings, photos and a continuous sound-free showing of Weekend at the Waldorf, a 1945 riff on Grand Hotel with Ginger Rogers, Van Johnson and Lana Turner; it was the first movie filmed at a hotel.
Rooms: After you've seen the lobby, rooms are a letdown. Still, the traditionally dressed rooms, dripping with floor-length curtains and densely patterned carpeting, look somewhat better than their tired predecessors and more what you'd expect of the mighty W-A. Typical of vintage hotels, they range from palatial to puny. And they’re old. Unlike fellow grand dames like the Plaza and the Pierre, the Waldorf’s guest floors were never gutted and reconfigured for 21st century tastes (rooms here are also a lot less pricey).
The deluxe queen-bed room I saw, ie a standard, was small and jam-packed with traditional hotel furniture, including a wood desk, an upholstered club chair, matching bedside tables and a sleek wood dresser surmounted by a flatpanel TV on the wall. In other words, it didn’t evoke the Eisenhower era as did previous rooms I stayed in pre-renovation.
The cream-hued, marble-tiled bathroom, while small, was clean, featured a fairly new-looking tub-shower combo and a pedestal sink and was a big improvement over the aging bathroom I encountered when I stayed here previously.
The suite I saw in the Waldorf Towers resembled a timeless one-bedroom Park Avenue apartment; while not contemporary it was elegant, comfortable and BIG (I’ve been in hotel rooms smaller than the foyer). The enormous living room would be ideal for a United Nations cocktail party, with printed upholstery, large flatpanel TV and great views of Park Avenue. The suite also featured a large dining room, a small, dated but fully equipped kitchenette, a grand-scale bathroom with dressing area and a large bedroom. Though not as lavishly appointed as the Tower suite pictured on the website, it looked more up-to-date than the suite I stayed in in the early 2000s.
Food and drink: The Waldorf had more dining venues when we first stayed here in 1999. Still, the hotel claims to serve close to 5,000 meals a day. And with three restaurants, four lounges, a Starbucks, a vast catering department and 24-hour room service, which the hotel invented along with Waldorf Salad and Eggs Benedict, you won’t go hungry.
You may, however, go broke. But choose carefully, and dining here can a pleasure.
The dark, leathery Bull and Bear is a classic steak house with a manly vibe and generally good reviews from places like Zagat and Yelp. The bar makes serious cocktails and is straight our of Mad Men.
Peacock Alley, a cocktail lounge and dining room, opens onto the hotel lobby and serves breakfast, lunch and small plates weekdays from 7 am to 10:30 pm, weekend small plates from 2:30 pm and a sumptuous Sunday brunch, including caviar, a raw bar and leg of lamb, for $95 a person. Bonus: the Cole Porter piano, an art-case Steinway the hotel lent the composer when he lived in the Towers, is in residence -- and in use.
La Chine, a glamorous French-inflected Chinese restaurant opened in November 2015, a nod, no doubt, to the hotel's Chinese owners Arbang Insurance Group. Pete Williams gave it a respectable two stars (very good) in the New York Times, and it's safe to say it's a cut above Oscar's American Brasserie, the glorified coffee shop that preceded it.
Amenities: WiFi, $15.95 to $18.95 per day in rooms, free in the lobby. Pets under 25 lbs. allowed (one-time $50 charge). The hotel's fifth-floor fitness center is well appointed but isn't huge and costs $15 a day unless you're a member of Hilton HHonors or staying in the Towers. The business center is large and well equipped. The hotel has 40 meeting rooms, including New York's only four-story ballroom. The Guerlain spa is lavish. Most Friday nights, Steve Cohen, "The Millionaires' Magician," performs in a suite of the Waldorf Towers at 7 and 9 pm; $70 reservations required -- 212 209-3370.
Surroundings: A superb location if you want Midtown Manhattan. The Waldorf is next to historic St. Bartholomew’s Church and two blocks from Saks Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. Grand Central Station is a short walk away as are the Museum of Modern Art, the Theater District and countless restaurants and shops. Subway stations and bus stops are a block away, so heading uptown to the Metropolitan or Guggenheim museum or downtown to SoHo, the Lower East Side, the East Village or the Financial District is a breeze. And taxis prowl Park Avenue day and night.
Back story: The Waldorf traces its origins to 1893, when William Waldorf Astor opened the Waldorf Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. The hotel appealed to society’s upper crust, and four years later, a different branch of the Astor family built the Astoria adjacent to it. The names were linked with an = sign, and the properties were linked by a marble promenade known as Peacock Alley, a reflection of the swells who paraded between the two properties.
In 1929, the Waldorf was razed to make way for the Empire State Building, and today’s Waldorf=Astoria opened in 1931. It was the city’s biggest, plushest, most modern hotel with state-of-the-art Art Deco detail, antiques and entire rooms imported from Europe. The main lobby’s Clock Tower was created in 1893 at the behest of Queen Victoria for the Chicago World’s fair (remember Devil in the White City? President Herbert Hoover delivered the welcome address.
Despite its Depression-era debut, the hotel thrived. It entered popular culture in numerous ways, like Cole Porter’s song lyric “You’re the top, you’re a Waldorf salad.” Dignitaries stayed at the Waldorf Towers, especially when the United Nations was in session.
Numerous movies were filmed here including Scent of a Woman, Serendipity, Coming to America, The Out-of-Towners and Weekend at the Waldorf.
The guest list has included Cole Porter, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, General Douglas MacArthur, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, inventor Nicola Tesla, Frank Sinatra and Paris Hilton, who lived here as a child. Her great-grandfather Conrad Hilton bought the hotel in 1949. It remained a Hilton property until 2010, when it was purchased by the Blackstone Group, the international real estate conglomerate.
Keep in mind: A lobby dress code kicks in after 6 pm – collared shirts and long pants for men (jackets optional), slacks, skirts or dresses for women. Plan to wear flip flops? Expect a tap on the shoulder.
The public rooms are generally in good repair but you see shabbiness here and there.
in 2014, Hilton Worldwide sold the hotel to China's Arbang Insurance Group for $1.95 million -- the most ever paid for a hotel. As mentioned above, the hotel is to close for renovations in Spring 2017 for up to three years.
What We Saw:
Lew Griswold » Terry. Interesting review. I see you updated just the other day. I just saw this:
Terry at Overnight New York » Thanks, Lew. I'll miss the Waldorf while it's closed and who knows what it will be like when it reopens? Here's my take, published on the blog today. Hope all's well with you!