By William Alan Morrison
New York City’s Waldorf Astoria may well be the best known hotel in the world. Synonymous with grandeur, luxury and sophistication, its name has been appropriated by numerous pretenders from London to Shanghai, by the Waldorf’s own ubiquitous salad, and, somewhat amusingly, by one of Jim Henson’s Muppets. The Waldorf Astoria has been celebrated (and occasionally excoriated) in both song and verse by such talents as Irving Berlin, Langston Hughes, Cole Porter, Wallace Stevens, and Thomas E. “Fats” Waller. It has been featured in countless books, plays, and movies, including a top-billed role in M-G-M’s 1945 melodrama, Weekend at the Waldorf. Thousands of people who have never set foot through its doors know the Waldorf Astoria by sight and reputation.
To begin with, there was not one New York hotel called the Waldorf Astoria but two, and some might say even three. The first Waldorf-Astoria (its name properly hyphenated) resulted from the union of two separate hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria, built next door to each other on Fifth Avenue during the Gilded Age of the 1890s. Conceived as a civic palace embodying the wealth and position New York City had achieved by the end of the nineteenth century, it revolutionized America’s idea of what a hotel could be and stimulated the building of scores of palatial hotels in cities across the nation emulating its regal ambitions. This first Waldorf-Astoria was demolished in 1929.
The second Waldorf Astoria (without the hyphen) is the present one located at Park Avenue and East 49th Street. Opened in 1931, it was the largest, the tallest and the most expensive hotel ever built, not just succeeding its illustrious predecessor , but surpassing it in every way imaginable. Today, more than eighty years after its completion, the Waldorf Astoria remains the epitome of the grand hotel.
Hotels and their colonial antecedents, inns and taverns, have played a prominent role in American history since before the country’s founding. In 1776, members of the Second Continental Congress were fed and housed in Philadelphia’s inns and taverns, likely discussing Mr. Jefferson‘s controversial declaration over a tankard of ale and plate of terrapin stew. President George Washington, members of his cabinet, and ministers from foreign nations danced at cotillions honoring his birthday in 1792, ‘93 and ‘94. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the city hotel grew rapidly in both size and stature. In 1836 John Jacob Astor, whose descendants would play a prominent role in the creation of the first Waldorf-Astoria, built New York’s first true luxury hotel, the 300-room Astor House on Broadway opposite the New York City Hall. One of the first American buildings illuminated by gaslight and featuring indoor plumbing, for a number of years the Astor House served as New York City’s social and cultural center, hosting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jenny Lind, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln within its white granite walls. 1859 brought the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square, the first American hotel to boast an elevator, private bathrooms, and enough gilt and plush velvet to impress even the visiting Prince of Wales.
Post-Civil War New York hotels were an entirely different matter. Largely male domains, they served mostly as permanent residences for confirmed bachelors and stopovers for traveling salesmen who displayed their wares in the hotel‘s sample rooms. Spread up and down Broadway, their chief source of revenue was inevitably a saloon, where free lunch counters and long, brass-railed bars attracted crowds of cigar-smoking political bosses, ward healers, and favor-seekers, all talking business, sports, or politics. The only women on the premises were barmaids and waitresses, often subjected to off-color remarks or unwelcome advances from their boisterous, masculine clientele. A handful of the better establishments offered ladies dining rooms for women accompanied by a male escort. Respectable male citizens of New York seldom patronized the Broadway hostelries and respectable women not at all. At many establishments, an unescorted young woman seen hanging about a hotel exchange for any length of time was usually assumed to be a prostitute and given the bum’s rush by the house detective. Such actions were not taken to protect the hotel’s reputation; male guests arriving at even the most fashionable New York hotel were often provided by the hotel porter with a printed list of first-class brothels to be found in the surrounding neighborhood, a service for which the hotel proprietor was handsomely reimbursed.
Until the Waldorf came along, that is.
Set in the very heart of the fashionable Fifth Avenue residential district, the new hotel was intended to cater specifically to the socially prominent ladies and gentlemen of New York and the increasing number of distinguished foreign visitors to the city from abroad. To them, the Waldorf proffered the finest in French cuisine, a telephone in every room, and the privacy of meals served in their chambers, the first room service. It surrounded them with the art and trappings of a European royal court and an army of servants seeing to their every wish. Clearly, the Waldorf was their hotel.
And how did all this come about? It begins as a tale of two cousins. . .
Descended from four generations of American hotel keepers and dwellers, William Alan Morrison is the author of photographic histories of New York’s Broadway theaters, the lavish estates of the Philadelphia Main Line, and architects Carrère & Hastings. Though he, of course, was not present, his mother and father held their wedding reception in the Basildon Room of the present Waldorf Astoria. This introduction to the author’s book of the same title is reproduced with the permission of Arcadia Publishing.