The Waldorf Astoria Hotel & Towers built-in 1931 on Park Avenue has always been an iconic New York City symbol. The hotel in its early years posed as a home to many of New York’s elite, celebrities worldwide, and royalty and quickly earned the title of ‘the unofficial palace of New York’.
The architects of Shultze & Weaver, an architectural firm that had specialized in luxury hotel design, designed the 625-foot high structure in a sedate and modernist style, which is now known as the Art Deco style. The twin towers clad in elegant limestone have been a New York City Landmark since 1993. The hotel interiors too, are one of the city’s finest Art Deco interiors and gained their own landmark status much later in 2017.
Hotels have been essential to New York City since the colonial era. Taverns, lodges, and inns of New Amsterdam, the 17th-century Dutch settlement that came to be called New York in 1664, offered travellers food, drinks, and a place to stay. The Waldorf Astoria marks its beginnings with the Astor family, German immigrants from the town of Waldorf.
Located on the west side of Fifth Avenue, between 33rd & 34th streets, the south building was opened as the Waldorf Hotel in 1893 while the north building known as the Astoria opened in 1897. The divide was the result of a family feud between the two families. Eventually, the two together came to be known as the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that functioned as a single hotel with about 1300 guest rooms and 40 public rooms. It was the largest New York City hotel in its time but certainly not unique among the other hotels in this era.
The New Waldorf Astoria Hotel
The second version of the hotel replaced the thirty-year-old, sixteen-story German Renaissance complex with limestone and a matching ‘Waldorf Gray’ brick building. The Art Deco hotel with classic details and bronze accents was located on the east side of Park Avenue between 49th and 50th streets, just north of the Grand Central Terminal. The site took over an entire Manhattan block and was substantially larger than the original hotel.
The design of the Waldorf Astoria is credited to Lloyd Morgan, a partner at Schultze & Weaver. The architect-designed this new skyscraper hotel to be a hybrid building—a cross between a residential tower and a hotel.
The building was designed to have a three-part structure to have interconnected residences with the hotel. The 42-story residential tower is flanked by two 20-story towers on Park and Lexington Avenue that serve as the hotel. The hotel blocks were located on the visible avenues to ensure maximum traffic and to keep the residential towers private. The lower stories of the hotel are clad in gray limestone while the upper stories are covered in matching gray brick, fondly called the ‘Waldorf gray’.
In plan, the layout of rooms was axial with a sequence of rooms and hallways that extended to the full length of the building. The main lobby with the reception and lounge was located at the centre of the first floor covering an area of 5000sq ft in between the Park and Lexington Avenue entrances. Guests would arrive from either of the avenue entrances and ascend a grand staircase to the floor above. This freed up street-level spaces for revenue-building stores.
The Waldorf Astoria in its new location soon became the largest and tallest hotel in the world and from its inception, the hotel was a true palatial existence in the city.
The Interior Design
The interior of the Waldorf Astoria is one of the most exquisite Art Deco interior spaces in New York City. It effortlessly balances modern and geometric elements with classical decorative motifs throughout the building. The inspiration for this design strategy mainly came from the tastes of the varied clientele of the hotel and to keep it economically viable as it was first under construction during the first phase of the Great Depression.
Shultze & Weaver skillfully merged “smart contemporary effects and beautiful period interpretations” as published by The New York Times in 1931. Originating in the 1920s, the new Art Deco style was adapted by the architects who had a major French influence in their design aesthetic. Considering that France was primarily a dictator of taste, this style would appeal to the hotel’s regular visitors that would include foreign dignitaries, royalty, and global celebrities.
The interiors were gracefully decorated with a series of colourful murals by Louis Rigal depicting scenes that refer to classical antiquity. The corridors were differentiated using an array of coloured marble panels – yellow for the North Lounge, white gray for the South Lounge, and green serpentine for the East Arcade. Black marble however was clad on columns for the Main Lobby. The Main Lobby also featured an elaborate plaster ceiling, gorgeous wood panelling, and Art Deco metalwork on its registration desks.
Further enhancing the Art Deco nature of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel was its lighting design. In an era when chandeliers were celebrated, the Main Lobby, Park Avenue Lobby, and the Grand Ballroom were designed without chandeliers to bring focus to the height of the space. The ceilings were clad in handsome reliefs and murals and were designed without recessed downlights too.
The lighting concept for the hotel was to portray a mild sense of mystery and glamour with soft drama. Mirror reflectors, glass ceiling panels, backlit marble, and lights concealed inside urns were used to create this restful and enigmatic atmosphere. The Waldorf Astoria is one of the only two early 20th century hotels to preserve most of their original public spaces.
The Future of the Waldorf Astoria
Ninety years into the opening of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, it has undergone significant renovations and is currently going through a much-needed refresh. In March 2017, soon after its interiors were designated as a New York City landmark, the hotel closed its doors to the public for a complex and comprehensive restoration project. To restore the Waldorf Astoria to its former glamour, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill along with interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon have merged their expertise to convert the former 1400-room hotel into a 375-room residential and a 375-room boutique hotel.
To bring back the soft and ambient aura of the hotel’s past, many of the finishes, elements, and reliefs from the lobbies, corridors, and ballrooms will be refurbished to their original conditions. Projected to be completed in 2022, the Waldorf Astoria will offer all new amenities including a fitness centre, a cinema, a porte-cochere, a dramatic skylit pool, a wellness lounge, and a lounge overlooking a terrace garden. The goal of the renovation is to restore the Waldorf Astoria’s opulence and to make it a jewel in New York City again.