As the cornerstone of Central Park and a beacon of Fifth Avenue’s posh history, the Plaza Hotel, one of the world’s most extravagant stays, debuted on October 1, 1907. Erected as a hotel/residence, and designed to resemble a skyscraping French chateau, it cost $12.5 million to build — at the time, one of the most expensive structures in the city. A double room with bath ran a whopping $6 to $10 per day upon opening.
The hotel as we know it today was not the original Plaza, however. A previous Plaza Hotel stood at the site from 1890 to 1905. It, too, was considered one of the city’s most elegant hotels. When it was purchased in 1902 by the US Realty and Construction Company, the new owners had big plans for expansion. However, the eight-story building could not be built upon, so the building was razed in 1905 to make way for the current 19-story masterpiece. Some of the notable owners to follow included Conrad Hilton, who purchased it in 1943 and owned it for a decade, and Donald Trump, who acquired it in 1988 and sold it in 1995. Today, the 282 rooms include 102 suites, with rates starting at $595 per night. Its fabled public spaces, such as the Palm Court and Oak Room, continue to evolve while keeping their historic integrity. Read on to discover more of the fascinating past and present of this landmark hotel.
A startling murder during the new Plaza’s construction spurred sensationalistic headlines
The “Midair Murder,” of watchman Michael Butler in July 1906 caused a journalistic sensation. During a union dispute with ironworkers, Butler was apparently clubbed over the head with a wrench before “falling” from the eighth floor to the fifth floor. The biggest controversy of the case: workers who witnessed the murder continued working, then stonewalled the investigation and trial with conflicting testimony. The four suspects were eventually exonerated.
The first New York City cabs debuted at the Plaza on the hotel’s opening day
According to Curtis Gathje, former official historian of the Plaza and the author of At The Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel, “The first fleet of cabs were owned by a guy named Harry Allen. He arranged for the cabs to park themselves in front of the Plaza on its opening day. The drivers of the horse-drawn carriages lined up just across the street on Central Park were very much aghast at this, and very much against him.” While the arrival of the automobiles signaled the decline of the horse-drawn carriage business, Gathje points out the irony that “Today, the Plaza is one of the few places in the city where you can still hail a horse-drawn carriage — and a taxicab, too.” (Of course that could change if the Mayor Bill de Blasio follows through with his promise to eliminate horse-drawn carriages.)
The Plaza was one of the first pet-friendly hotels
The year after the Plaza opened, in 1908, an exotic guest, and her menagerie, came to stay. Princess Elisabeth Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy of Russia checked in with dogs, cats, an owl, a guinea pig, an ibis, two alligators, a small bear and a human entourage of 12 servants. She originally wanted to stay at the Waldorf Astoria, but was turned away because of the animal members of her retinue. The Plaza welcomed her, and she ended up renting 14 rooms and staying for five years. During her time there, she adopted a lion cub originally from the Ringling Bros. Circus named Goldfleck, who moved in as well.
Chef Boyardee once toiled in the Plaza’s kitchen
Teenage Italian immigrant Ettore “Hector” Boiardi arrived in New York City with his brother Mario in 1917, as recounted in The New York Times. Their brother Paul was a waiter at the Plaza, so he helped his two brothers get jobs at the hotel. Though Hector only stayed a short time, he worked his way up to head chef before he moved to Cleveland to open a restaurant. Brother Paul stayed on, eventually becoming the maitre d’ in the hotel’s exclusive Persian Room. One of Paul’s loyal customers, who ran A&P, was won over after Paul served him a sample of spaghetti sauce made from his brother Hector’s recipe. That tasting, at the Plaza, launched a world-famous brand.
The Plaza has continually been a playground for the rich and famous
The notable names that have stayed, played and partied here could fill a weighty tome. Alfred G. Vanderbilt was the very first guest to sign the register. Composer George M. Cohan spent so much time in the Oak Room they named his booth “The Cohan Corner.” After dinner in the hotel’s Grill Room, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald frolicked in the Pulitzer fountain out front. The Beatles had an entire wing to themselves when they visited in 1964. They ordered room service like it was their last supper; wrote the tune “Michelle,” on the suite’s piano; and took the closet hangers with them when they checked out. A catalog of knots were tied in the ballroom, including Donald Trump and Marla Maples, after The Donald’s ex, Ivana, demanded the hotel as a part of their divorce settlement (but didn’t get it). But perhaps the most legendary party held at the Plaza was Truman Capote’s renowned Black and White Ball on November 28, 1966. Guests donned masks and were held to a strict black-and-white dress code. “The party was to celebrate the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote’s masterwork,” Gathje says. “So in the same room there were people like the Maharaja of Jaipur, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, and then the postmistress of Holcomb, Kansas, who’s a character in the book. It was a real mix of high-and-low that introduced a new idea of what society was.”
The Plaza has been the setting of salacious scandals for more than a century
Eyebrows were raised early on when a British actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, lit a cigarette in the Palm Court in November 1907. In those days, ladies didn’t smoke, especially in public. “The story goes that they put a screen up around her so the other diners wouldn’t faint,” Gathje says. She wasn’t the only one making strides for women’s rights, however. As late as 1969, the National Organization for Women staged a protest of citywide men’s only policies in the Oak Room. Four months later, the Oak Room eliminated its own men’s only luncheon.
The Plaza was also the setting for the (still unsubstantiated) J. Edgar Hoover cross-dressing rumor. Anthony Summers’s book, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, quoted Susan L. Rosenstiel as saying that she witnessed Hoover at the hotel, “Wearing a fluffy black dress … with flounces and lace stockings and high heels, and a black curly wig. … He had makeup on and false eyelashes.”
And the scandals keep coming. In 1980, a Plaza suite played an important part in the Abscam sting (made famous recently by the movie American Hustle) as a meeting place for some of the videotaped encounters orchestrated by the FBI. In 1992, Woody Allen held a press conference in the Terrace Room to declare his love for Soon Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his girlfriend Mia Farrow. Most recently, Charlie Sheen trashed a room there while partying with a porn actress. Sheen’s companion was reportedly so upset by his rampage that she locked herself in the bathroom and called the front desk, who summoned the police. The police escorted Sheen to a nearby hospital for psychiatric evaluation. The damage to the suite reportedly totaled $7,000.
The Plaza has starred in so many films, it should hold a SAG card
New York’s most filmed building has been a set for films such as American Hustle, The Great Gatsby, Almost Famous, The Way We Were and the Hitchcock masterpiece North by Northwest. Gathje was a Plaza employee during the filming of Home Alone 2 in the early 90s, which changed the face of the hotel. He recalls, “The original floors in the lobby were Italian Ravenna tiles. But 60 years later, the lobby was entirely carpeted, covering up these beautiful tiles. During the filming of Home Alone 2, they wanted to do a stunt where the kid slid into an elevator. So they asked the owner at the time, Donald Trump, if they could remove the carpets in the lobby to do the stunt. He said yes. Once Trump saw the floor underneath, the carpets never went back down.”
The famous portrait of Eloise is not the original
The children’s book character Eloise didn’t just live at the Plaza, she was born there in 1955, a collaboration between nightclub performer Kay Thompson and illustrator Hilary Knight. The famous portrait of Eloise marking the occasion hangs in the corridor of the Palm Court — but it is not the one that originally decorated the wall. Knight’s very first painting of Eloise was stolen and is unfound to this day. Knight told New York magazine, “The first Eloise painting was really a great big watercolor. It was not my finest work. It was stolen one night and nobody knows what happened to it. Kay would always say drunken debutantes stole it.”
Gourmet magazine once had its offices and test kitchen in the penthouse
It sure beats a cubicle: Between 1945 and 1965, the food magazine rented 22 rooms in a penthouse suite that included a private terrace and Central Park views. Every employee had an office in a former bedroom, while the sprawling test kitchen had an attached wine cellar, holding 1,500 bottles.
The best rooms are on the lower floors
An insider tip from Gathje, who also worked at the hotel as a desk clerk: The best rooms are in the fifth floor and below; the worst rooms are at the top. Why? “In 1907, the elevator was a relatively new invention. So elevator service was not so hot, and it was much better to be living on the lower floors,” Gathje explains. “The staffers used to live at the top, and the roof had such a pitch that some of the rooms you could only walk into halfway. So the rooms and suites that are the grandest are the fifth floor and below.”
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