For a brief stretch, it was possible to score a ticket for the darkly sassy 2019 revival of Oklahoma! on Broadway and spend the night in the Rodgers & Hammerstein Suite at the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel, so named because the show’s creators agreed to collaborate on their game-changing musical over lunch at the hotel in 1942.
Any chance of a future pairing ended resoundingly last month when the Omni shut its doors, joining the growing list of notable New York City Covid-19 hotel casualties that includes Edition Times Square, The Maxwell and Z Hotel NYC. Like The Maxwell, which in a previous life was the first ever W Hotel, the Omni Berkshire Place owns a noteworthy piece of New York hotel history. Here’s a last look before it fades away.
The Berkshire Hotel opened in 1926 in a dignified, if unexceptional brick and limestone building on the corner of Madison Avenue and East 52nd Street. Originally a residential hotel, it was designed by architects Warren & Wetmore as part of Terminal City, a constellation of Classical Revival hotels and residential buildings orbiting Grand Central Terminal, their masterstroke creation from 1913.
With a stellar midtown location, unusually large rooms and a retinue of five-star hotel services, the Berkshire attracted upscale artists, theater folk and socialites. Ethel Merman lived here for years as did her mother. Alfred Hitchcock was a regular.
A big draw was the Barberry Room, deemed “the most exclusive restaurant in New York” by the Daily News. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, a leading theatrical and industrial designer and father of actress Barbara Bel Geddes, the Barberry oozed glamour with a towering ceiling blanketed in hammered copper and bronze, enormous copper-framed mirrors and just 34 tables. Edward R. Murrow dined every Friday before his Person to Person television show aired. Frank Sinatra was spotted with 21-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt. Salvador Dali, offended by the room’s old school painting of nymphs and a satyr by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted an abstract replacement, applying the finishing touches with his head, sheathed in a rubber cap. And composer Richard Rodgers, the toast of Broadway, had his own table.
As the story goes, in 1942 Rodgers wanted to make a musical of Green Grow the Lilacs, a hit play about cowboys and farmers set in the Native American territory that became Oklahoma in 1907. Over lunch at the Barberry, he asked lyricist Oscar Hammerstein to read the play. “I don’t have to read it,” Hammerstein replied. “I know it, and I’m crazy about it. I’d love to do it with you.” Their Barberry-lunch partnership blossomed into 11 classic musicals including Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and Oklahoma!
The Barberry Room packed in guests until the late 1960s, but it almost didn’t happen. Opened in 1938 as an elite private dining club patterned after the Algonquin’s Round Table, the Elbow Room, as it was originally known, was a financial flop. Credited with its rescue one year later, Berkshire Hotel owner Teddy Baker changed the name, tweaked the decor and, most importantly, hired a successful speakeasy manager to run it.
Times — and owners — change. In 1977, the hotel was sold to Ireland’s Dunfrey Family Hotel Company. They renovated the property, renamed it the Berkshire Place Hotel and evicted Ethel Merman (and the remaining permanent residents).
Omni became part of the hotel’s name a few years after the Dunfrey group purchased the Omni hotel chain in 1983. Omni ownership changed in 1988 and again in 1996, when TRT Holdings, a Texas private holding company, snapped up the hotel chain. Bob’s Steak and Chop House, the hotel’s manly, wood-paneled restaurant, was named for Robert Rowling, the co-founder and CEO of TRT Holdings.
The hotel underwent a $70 million renovation in 1995 and a top up in 2003 and looked good, if a bit antiseptic, when I last visited in 2019. As luck would have it, I attended an event in the Rodgers & Hammerstein Suite, formerly the Presidential Suite, a spacious, multi-roomed apartment with gorgeous views from a wraparound deck. If the suite contained Broadway memorabilia, I missed it, though a bronze plaque in front commemorated the hotel’s R & H connection.
As for the hotel’s demise, nothing is surprising these days, but the Omni Berkshire didn’t seem an obvious casualty. It wasn’t buzzy or contemporary, but it was well maintained and well reviewed — a little dowdy in places but dependable and comfortable, a Midtown business hotel with a family friendly streak. (Sarah Palin checked in, kids in tow, when she appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2008.)
What’s next for the building? TRT Holdings intends to hold onto the property for now, according to Bloomberg. It may be converted into offices. Or not. But like the musical hatched under its roof, the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel had a good run.