How do you mod­ernise a build­ing that is steeped in his­tory and in­grained in the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness? Selina Den­man speaks to the de­sign­ers and ar­chi­tects re­shap­ing New York’s Wal­dorf As­to­ria to find out

The National - News - Luxury - - CON­TENTS -

The de­sign­ers and ar­chi­tects giv­ing New York’s famed Wal­dorf As­to­ria ho­tel a new lease on life

A110-year-old piano takes pride of place in the Wal­dorf As­to­ria sales cen­tre on New York’s Park Av­enue. The pas­toral scenes painted onto the Stein­way’s cover more than a cen­tury ago have been lov­ingly pre­served, as has the piano’s unique patina. The in­stru­ment, which be­longed to Amer­i­can com­poser and song­writer Cole Porter, a long-time res­i­dent at the his­toric ho­tel, is just one of many arte­facts that pay tes­ta­ment to the prop­erty’s il­lus­tri­ous his­tory.

“Cole Porter lived in the ho­tel for 30 years, in a sixbed­room suite, and he used this par­tic­u­lar piano to com­pose many of his most fa­mous works,” ex­plains An­drew Miller, US chief ex­ec­u­tive of Da­jia, the Chi­nese com­pany that now owns the famed New York prop­erty. “Frank Si­na­tra later specif­i­cally rented the Cole Porter suite, for the un­fath­omable sum of $1 mil­lion [Dh3.6m] per year.

“When we closed the ho­tel, we went back to Stein­way, which thank­fully still keeps very de­tailed records of ev­ery piano it has ever man­u­fac­tured. And we de­vel­oped a restora­tion plan for it. The her­itage and his­tory are still there to be cel­e­brated and trea­sured. Which is kind of how we think about all the work we are do­ing at the Wal­dorf As­to­ria.”

Ren­o­va­tion work on New York’s most fa­mous ho­tel may have halted tem­po­rar­ily fol­low­ing a city­wide shut­down to com­bat the spread of Covid-19, but the build­ing has weath­ered its fair share of storms since it launched in its cur­rent Park Av­enue lo­ca­tion nearly 90 years ago. The ho­tel opened its doors in 1931, in the midst of the Great De­pres­sion. Span­ning an en­tire city block be­tween Park and Lex­ing­ton av­enues, from 49th to 50th street, it was the tallest and big­gest ho­tel in the world, and soon be­came the go-to ad­dress for New York high so­ci­ety, heads of state, movie stars and mu­si­cians. Si­na­tra got his break sing­ing in the ho­tel’s Wedg­wood Room in the 1940s and re­turned to live at the prop­erty more than 20 years later; Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe stayed for an ex­tended pe­riod of time in the 1950s, al­though, ac­cord­ing to bi­og­ra­pher Fred Lawrence Guiles: “She was o en acutely lonely in her Wal­dorf Tow­ers apart­ment, as only a famed movie star cut off from or­di­nary mor­tals can be.”

Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Grace Kelly cel­e­brated their en­gage­ment at the ho­tel in 1956; and Queen El­iz­a­beth II dined here dur­ing her first state visit to the US in 1957 – feast­ing on beef Perigour­dine with truf­fle sauce.

The 153,290-square-me­tre Art Deco build­ing has been closed since 2017, un­der­go­ing an ex­ten­sive restora­tion project that is see­ing its 1,000-plus rooms re­con­fig­ured into 375 ho­tel units and 375 res­i­dences. “The build­ing it­self is this mar­vel­lous Swiss watch of com­plex­ity,” notes Miller. “The ex­ist­ing lay­outs were re­moved en­tirely. In or­der to pro­vide lay­outs that made sense for to­day’s life­styles, more or less ev­ery­thing had to be swept clean.”

The mam­moth struc­ture is a New York City land­mark, with strict guide­lines about what can be mod­i­fied on the in­side and out­side. “There are thou­sands and thou­sands of ex­te­rior land­marks in New York and just over 100 in­te­rior land­marks, and this build­ing is both,” ex­plains Frank Ma­han, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor and ar­chi­tect at Skid­more Owings & Mer­rill, the ar­chi­tec­ture firm tasked with mod­ernising the prop­erty. “We have very me­thod­i­cally gone through all the in­te­rior spa­ces and are restor­ing many of the orig­i­nal ma­te­ri­als, while up­dat­ing those spa­ces for con­tem­po­rary expectatio­ns.”

In the ho­tel’s Sil­ver Cor­ri­dor, art-qual­ity restora­tions are un­der way on mu­rals that have been in the prop­erty since it first opened. “Peo­ple are scrap­ing away lay­ers of dirt and age, to re­store these art pieces back to what they were in 1931,” notes Dan Tubb, se­nior di­rec­tor of sales at Dou­glas El­li­man, the ex­clu­sive mar­ket­ing and sales agent for the prop­erty. “There is also a clock from 1893, which was com­mis­sioned by Queen Vic­to­ria for the World Fair, that is be­ing lov­ingly re­stored. There used to be a say­ing: ‘Meet me at the clock at the Wal­dorf As­to­ria’, and that’s go­ing to come back into this space.” Mean­while, the ex­te­rior will be care­fully cleaned and all 5,000 of the prop­erty’s win­dows will be re­placed and re­stored to their orig­i­nal size.

Be­cause the Wal­dorf As­to­ria has been such an in­te­gral part of the city’s so­cial fab­ric for so many decades, there is an al­most com­mu­nal sense of own­er­ship among New York­ers. How­ever, the things that might, in the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, seem in­te­gral to the ho­tel’s his­tory and her­itage are o en not part of the build­ing’s orig­i­nal fea­tures. “There’s an odd thing about the his­tory of the build­ing,” Miller ex­plains. “Like any ho­tel, they typ­i­cally re­mod­elled it on a seven to 10-year sched­ule, which means that vir­tu­ally ev­ery space in the ho­tel has been mod­i­fied time and time again over the 85 years that the ho­tel was in ex­is­tence.

“What that ends up mean­ing is a lot of the spa­ces that peo­ple might recog­nise as be­ing his­toric might only date from the mid-1990s, but are done in pe­riod styles. Part of what Skid­more Owings & Mer­rill did was go back and look at these spa­ces and un­der­stand what was orig­i­nally there – be­cause in many cases, it was five re­mod­els ago. Peo­ple will come in and re­mark on the ceil­ing of the Park Av­enue lobby – but that dates from 2012. It’s lovely, but it’s not ac­tu­ally Art Deco. It’s some­thing new.”

French de­signer Jean-Louis De­niot was en­listed to de­sign the in­te­ri­ors of the res­i­dences – and was con­scious of not cre­at­ing “an Art Deco pas­tiche”. Sales of apart­ments have commenced and a re­cently un­veiled show apart­ment in the Park Av­enue sales cen­tre of­fers a taste of what’s to come. An ex­pan­sive front door comes com­plete with a ser­vice closet where your de­liv­er­ies will be de­posited by your in-house concierge, sav­ing you the has­sle of lug­ging those Ama­zon pack­ages up­stairs your­self. Mar­ble floors in the en­trance area cre­ate a sense of ar­rival, while the lay­out of the apart­ment is in the Euro­pean style – “where you try to avoid cor­ri­dors as much as pos­si­ble and to align the rooms, one a er the other, which cre­ates a sense of spa­cious­ness”, De­niot ex­plains.

Her­ring­bone-es­que oak wood floors hint at Art Deco styling, but are not overly clas­si­cal, and the edges of the sinks in the bath­room mimic the shape and gra­da­tion of an emer­ald-cut di­a­mond, to elim­i­nate any sharp edges. “For the Wal­dorf, I was more in­spired by all the con­struc­tivists from Hol­land in the 1930s and 1940s,” De­niot ex­plains. “There are shapes that may be rem­i­nis­cent of Art Deco, but there is ac­tu­ally noth­ing Art Deco here. It is try­ing to cre­ate the im­pres­sion of the Wal­dorf As­to­ria, with­out recre­at­ing any spe­cific era.”

Res­i­dents will also have ac­cess to 4,645 square me­tres of lux­ury ameni­ties, in­clud­ing a 25-me­tre pool, over­looked by a gym and flanked by a win­ter gar­den and con­ser­va­tory. There will be male and fe­male spa ar­eas; a “han­gout” space for teenagers; a the­atre with a stage for pri­vate per­for­mances; bil­liards and games rooms; a grand sa­lon for events; a li­brary; a gallery space; and pri­vate din­ing ar­eas – but also quiet cor­ners that guests can re­treat to.

“There will prob­a­bly never be an­other project in New York of this scale, which means that no one else will ever be able to do this level of ameni­ties or ser­vices again,” says Miller.

Han­dover of the res­i­dences is due to be­gin in 2022, to co­in­cide with the open­ing of the ho­tel. Notably, two-thirds of the apart­ments are two bed­rooms or smaller, with prices start­ing at $1.7 mil­lion for a stu­dio and go­ing up to $18 mil­lion for a four-bed­room prop­erty. Two dis­tinct pin­na­cles that sit at the apex of the build­ing’s tow­ers are be­ing con­verted into four-bed­room pent­houses, of­fer­ing triple-height liv­ing rooms, pri­vate el­e­va­tors and 604 square me­tres of liv­ing space, sur­rounded by ter­races on all sides. For­merly home to me­chan­i­cal equip­ment, these spa­ces have never been in­hab­ited be­fore.

The propo­si­tion of a “com­plete new con­struc­tion within a land­mark shell” is likely to ap­peal to buy­ers from the Mid­dle East, notes Tubb. “We def­i­nitely find a re­la­tion­ship be­tween this kind of her­itage prod­uct and buy­ers [from the Mid­dle East],” he ex­plains. “They have stayed here, and they are used to and de­sire a very high level of ser­vice, and we are poised for that. We’ll have the largest ser­vice staff of any res­i­den­tial build­ing in New York, with mul­ti­ple lay­ers of valet park­ing, door­men, park­ing at­ten­dants and a pri­vate res­i­den­tial concierge on-site. This is what that client is used to,” he elab­o­rates.

The well­ness com­po­nent of the prop­erty will be an­other ma­jor draw for high-net-worth in­di­vid­u­als, the se­nior di­rec­tor of sales pre­dicts, as will the com­fort and pri­vacy of­fered by a newly cre­ated porte cochère – some­thing that only about five per cent of res­i­den­tial build­ings in Man­hat­tan of­fer. The fact that all en­trances, cor­ri­dors and el­e­va­tors are ex­clu­sive to the res­i­dences, and not shared by the ho­tel, will also ap­peal to po­ten­tial buy­ers.

Miller ends with one last anec­dote about the prop­erty. When the Wal­dorf As­to­ria opened in 1931, in the midst of a flail­ing econ­omy, it en­listed the help of New York so­cialite, colum­nist and au­thor Elsa Maxwell (who proves that the in­flu­encer trend is not a new one) to help gen­er­ate some buzz. “They gave her a free apart­ment in the tow­ers of the Wal­dorf, with the un­der­stand­ing that she would then host a se­ries of par­ties in the ho­tel’s spa­ces.

“There are some won­der­ful pho­tos of some of her par­ties; all these play­ful ab­sur­di­ties. They did a barn­yard party, and there’s this photo of all these farm­yard an­i­mals – ducks and sheep, who had lit­tle felt boots put on them so they wouldn’t dam­age the floors – com­ing up in the el­e­va­tors. I love this idea that there were al­ways peo­ple hav­ing ex­trav­a­gant par­ties here, be­ing fun and glam­orous. It speaks to what we want to bring back here.”

There will prob­a­bly never be an­other project in New York of this scale

New York’s famed Wal­dorf As­to­ria ho­tel is be­ing re­stored and re­mod­elled

Clock­wise from top left, the Wal­dorf As­to­ria opened in its cur­rent Park Av­enue lo­ca­tion in 1931; it has been closed for an ex­ten­sive ren­o­va­tion since 2017; fa­mous guests in­clude Queen El­iz­a­beth II; when it re­opens, it will fea­ture 4,645 square me­tres of lux­ury ameni­ties for res­i­dents; and 375 apart­ments, rang­ing from stu­dios to op­u­lent four-bed­room pent­houses

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