The Algonquin Gets Set to Close for Refurbishment in Early 2012

Historic hotels have their charms – the evocative architecture, the whiff of time travel, the (often) dazzling out-of-the-past guests lists. But there’s nothing charming about historic plumbing, which could be one reason the Algonquin, New York’s oldest operating hotel, is closing for four months of renovations beginning on January 1, 2012.

The news, reported in USA Today, seems a blend of surprise and what-took-them-so-long. The hotel, called the Puritan when it opened in 1902, oozes history in all the right places, namely the cozy/urbane wood-paneled lobby that still reels in an intriguing crowd, and the tile-floored Blue Bar, which opened the day Prohibition was repealed.

A savvy $4.5 million renovation in 2008 freshened the lobby, refurbished the guest rooms (I love the starburst mirrors) and updated amenities (you can borrow a Kindle uploaded with the book of your choice). When I recently passed through the lobby, it was its inimitable neo-Edwardian self, jammed with a lively mix of tourists and locals.

Less enchanting are the two tiny elevators, one shared by guests and the

housekeeping team, and the guest room bathrooms, which while clean, looked old when I saw them a year and a half ago (tubs flaunt the evidence of countless resglazings, and the stall showers have an unsettling budget motel appearance).

It’s likely the Algonquin’s quirks veered from amusing to annoying last year when it joined Marriott’s Autograph Collection, a stylish but pricey group of world-wide properties sporting lively histories but better bathrooms than the Times Square hotel (Algonquin guests receive Marriott rewards points). As the Algonquin’s prices edged up – rooms started at $499 when the hotel joined the Autograph Collection though they have since dropped a bit — so did expectations.

As one guest wrote on Trip Advisor recently, “We really enjoyed soaking up the history and ambience of this hotel’s public spaces. But our room was unbelievably small (e.g., not one drawer to put anything away!) and badly in need of maintenance (e.g., bathroom shelf coming off the wall).” Yikes!

So what does the future hold for the fabled stomping ground of Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross and other lit wits that turned the place into a Roaring 20s hot spot? Will the lobby’s Chinoiserie wallpaper survive? Will choice Parker observations — “Theater review: if you don’t knit, bring a book” — still grace guest room doors? And what’s to become of Matilda, the hotel’s prize-winning cat who swans around the lobby like a Broadway diva? Expect updates.

After all, there’s nothing like a smart renovation to resuscitate an aging property. Just look at the Pierre, which sparkles, and the Plaza, undeniably gorgeous if somewhat soulless. So far the renovations-in-progress look good at the Grand Hyatt, the Sheraton New York and the Marriott Marquis. We won’t discuss the Hotel Chelsea, whose lobby, bereft of its art, looked forlorn the last time I passed by.

So fingers crossed for the Algonquin. There’s still time to toast a classic New York lobby before this chapter closes.

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