When a hotel opens its doors for the first time, it stays open 24/7, 365 days a year. For 85 years and five months, the Waldorf Astoria did just that, treating the world to innovations like room service, Eggs Benedict and Waldorf salad without ever locking its massive doors.
But at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the mighty Waldorf closed up shop two hours after check-out time for the last guests craving a final night in the Art Deco tower where every U.S. President from Hoover to Obama spent the night. The hotel won’t be reopening any time soon (two to three years is the estimate). And when it does, it’s anybody’s guess what it will look like.
Anything can happen when a grande dame hotel gets a full-throttle makeover. Consider The Plaza (beautifully restored but chilly) and The Ritz Paris, where the humblest room will cost you $1,100.
If all goes according to plan, the Waldorf will emerge from its much-needed $1 billion renovation much as you’d expect for a trophy property purchased for just under $2 billion by a Chinese insurance conglomerate with government ties — as a five-star boutique hotel embedded in a tower of luxury condos (witness The Plaza). That’s a long leap from the 1,421 rooms of wildly varying quality that were on offer this week at the last round up.
As a long-time Waldorf fan — I was once upgraded to an apartment in the Towers because the humbler rooms in the main building were sold out — I wanted one last look before the final lock-up. I wasn’t alone. As I strolled though on its final night, the Waldorf’s two massive lobbies resembled Monday morning security check lines at JFK albeit considerably more upbeat.
Overheard: “I would have been here for the conference next year.”
The crowd looked as diverse as any you’d see in Times Square, a mix of sweatshirts and business suits, sneakers and Louboutins. As night arrived so did the evening suits and cocktail dresses, a modest 21st century nod to the vintage photos of 20th-century swells like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Frank Sinatra on what seems like every wall. Everyone was taking pictures because everything, it seemed, was a photo op: the silvery Art Deco elevator doors, the reliefs of stags and naiads frolicking on a gilded ceiling, the showpiece Clock Tower presented to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair by Queen Victoria.
The famous art-case piano Cole Porter commandeered when he lived at the Waldorf Towers had migrated into the Park Avenue lobby, where it stood — snap, snap — atop the celebrated Wheel of Life mosaic floor with its 150,000 polished tiles. Just before 6 p.m., a woman in a sparkling evening dress sat down to play. Minutes later the doors to the nearby Empire Room burst open and throngs of bigwigs in business suits from Hilton, the Waldorf’s former owner and current management company, spilled into the lobby, causing a mild traffic jam as they lined up for elevators to the guest rooms.
Meanwhile, the champagne bar just past the piano was standing room only. And loud whoops emanated from jam-packed Peacock Alley, where someone at the bar had tossed a sheaf of papers into the air.
For all the festivity, the Waldorf felt more like a ghost town than the Host to the World on the final night of its 85-year run. Though spotless, the carpets and upholstery looked just this side of worn out. And the few remaining shops near the lobby were either shuttered or in the final throes of Everything Must Go! I watched as the two-person staff at the hotel gift shop bent to lock the door for the last time. Through the windows you could see toiletries in packing boxes and a Sale sign next to a stack of New York sweatshirts. “I’ve been ready for a while,” sighed the woman, bundled in a faux fur coat, as she turned the key.
Most people felt that way about the Waldorf. For all its Art Deco charms the hotel was past its sell-by date, a faded beauty scrambling to keep up with nimbler grand dames like the Palace, the Pierre and the Plaza that had weathered the pain and expense of 21st century retrofits. It was time. Let’s just hope they don’t ruin it.