The Grand Hotel In My Backyard

It’s summertime.  When I was growing up, summertime meant pilgrimages to the Catskill Mountains of New York or the White Mountains of New Hampshire in search of cooler air.  Of course in those days upper 90’s temperatures and oppressive humidity were exceptions.

After I moved to West Orange, New Jersey, I was shocked to find that this bedroom community had once been considered “the country” and had boasted popular resorts. The Goldman Hotel, reincarnated relatively recently as the Wilshire Grand, had been a kosher hotel. It featured entertainment by Sammy Davis, Jr., Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Tony Bennett, and Red Skeleton.  Boxer Max Baer trained there. Its founder, Morris Goldman, had won the property in a card game along with adjoining lots now occupied by a fire station and a Conservative temple. The Woodlands condominium development, where I now live, was once the Hotel’s nine-hole golf course. Just about a half-mile away from Goldman’s was another resort that deceptively called itself Green’s Hotel at Verona Lake, although the Lake was about a quarter-mile away and was not owned by the Hotel. Green’s is now a nursing home.

Golfers may have once teed off in my backyard, but the true Grand Hotel in my backyard is the Waldorf Astoria.   I once asked my father what the most famous hotel in the world was.  Without hesitation, he replied the Waldorf.  Surprisingly, although it was just a short car ride away, I never felt any inclination to visit it.  It always seemed reserved for celebrities, diplomats, debutantes, and other elites. The Waldorf was in a league of its own.

Formalities have eroded with time.  Just a few weeks ago, I visited the Waldorf Astoria.  I wore business casual, but was still a little nervous that I might be underdressed.  As it turned out, while most of the people I saw had donned business attire, I encountered a few guests wearing shorts and did not feel out of place. I walked across the massive art deco lobby, ate the most recent incarnation of a Waldorf salad at the Peacock Alley restaurant in the lobby, and visited the European style bathrooms.   I didn’t need a key to enter the restrooms.  This was the true find: a rare public restroom in New York City in the most unlikely place.

The Waldorf Hotel was built by William Waldorf Astor in 1893 at Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street.  Four years later, his cousin, John Jacob Astor IV (who was later to die on the Titanic), erected the Astoria Hotel on the adjoining lot. The two hotels were connected by Peacock Alley.  In 1929, both hotels were demolished to make way for the Empire State Building.  The Waldorf Astoria reopened at its present location at Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Street in 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression.  Luminaries from Pearl Buck to Winston Churchill visited.  Every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed in the Presidential Suite. Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe lived in the residential portion of the hotel.  Deals good and bad have been negotiated there. Film producers issued the Waldorf Statement in 1947, barring people with Communist beliefs from the film industry, resulting in the Hollywood blacklist.  Israeli representatives negotiated the purchase of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Waldorf Astoria. The upper crust held its annual charitable April in Paris ball at the Hotel. IBM introduced its personal computer at the Waldorf in 1981, and the first NBA draft lottery was held at the Waldorf in 1985. When royalty crossed the Atlantic, they stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. The Hotel was designated a New York City Landmark in 1993.

I began to think that something was not quite right with the Waldorf when 25% off coupons began to appear on my Facebook page.  On many summer Sundays, rooms were available for the unimaginably low price of $186.  By comparison, the Marriott Marquis was charging $342 for a comparable room on the same dates.  And while it was incomprehensible why any sane person would want to stay there, the Trump International was sold out.

I grasped for explanations.  The Waldorf’s location is not tourist-friendly.  It’s cross-town from Broadway and downtown from New York’s fabled museums.  The Marriott Marquis is in the heart of the theater district.  The Trump International sits on the edge of Central Park, just a few blocks from Lincoln Center.  A week later, I learned that I had visited the Grand Hotel in my backyard just in time.  It’s closing in the spring of 2017 for about three years. Most of the 1,400 rooms will be converted into luxury condominiums.  The Grand Hotel in my backyard will become the puny hotel.    But since Milton Berle might have hit some golf balls from where my deck now sits, it’s not all bad.



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