Meet Me at the Plaza

Friday, August 1st, 2014

At the Plaza Hotel, Flashbacks and Revelations

As an exercise in public relations, it was a success: there were oohs. Certainly there were aahs. There was gawking and pointing.

There was even a smattering of applause for the guide, Francis Morrone, the author and architectural critic who was leading a new, free behind-the-scenes tour, unveiling to the public the controversial $400 million renovation of a city landmark: the Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue.

But since this was a tour group of 24 New Yorkers, the first question hardly referenced landmark preservation: “Could you please speak up?” Brenda Steere asked, competing with the music track in the Plaza’s new subterranean luxury shopping mall.

Unfazed, Mr. Morrone gestured for the group to gather more closely around him and tore right into his spiel, part of a new effort at the Plaza to put its best foot forward.

Some were pleasantly surprised, as the tour headed upstairs. Looking about the lobby for the Plaza’s 181 condominium apartments (most of which have sold for $2.5 million to $50 million), Roberta Balsam said, “They’ve improved things over the Trump era,” adding: “They got rid of that bright green lobby rug. And Trump liked to paint everything gold.” A retired New York State government manager, she gave her age as “old enough to know better than to answer.”

Soon Mr. Morrone led the tour into the Grand Ballroom, that neoclassical fantasyland for lavish rites of passage that was reopened a year ago after a $12.5 million renovation.

John Sibley, 76, smiled and said, “I remember being in white tie and tails here, escorting a beautiful young lady.” “And I remember spending my honeymoon here in the Plaza,” said Mr. Sibley, a retired luxury-luggage salesman who added, “If you were a New Yorker, well, the Plaza was the epitome.”

The tours, which began in April, require reservations through the hotel, at (212) 546-5477. They are fully booked until June, Mr. Morrone said, “because there are so many New Yorkers of a certain age who knew the hotel or had dined there.”

Miki Naftali, president of Elad Properties, the Plaza’s owner, said he wanted to show off the landmark public rooms, which, he said, “have been restored to their original glory.” Ergo: the hourlong tours every Tuesday and Saturday afternoon, revealing the Plaza as if it were blinking in the daylight after those three Rip Van Winkle renovation years, off-line from the city’s party whirl.

Elad bought the property for $675 million in 2004 and spent more than it had expected to turn it into a condominium-and-hotel hybrid. In April 2005, responding to protests against a plan to convert the Plaza to condominiums and stores, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg helped broker a compromise that preserved nearly half the hotel rooms and kept the jobs of more than a third of the Plaza’s 900 workers.

Along the way, Elad confronted union battles, legal threats by condominium buyers, recession headlines about tenant unrest in its underpopulated underground mall and a continuing embarrassment: the fabled Palm Court restaurant has been closed for the last five months in a search for a new operator.

But now, Mr. Naftali said, “We are proud of what we accomplished and wanted to invite New Yorkers and visitors in to see for themselves, to engage them and to reassure them that the legend continues.”

For those in the tour group, nostalgia seemed to outpoint architectural correctness. “I have many fond memories of the Plaza — my sister Lenore was married here in 1966,” said Ms. Steere, 70, a retired theater manager. Mr. Morrone, 51, an adjunct professor at New York University and a former architecture critic for the now defunct New York Sun, said, “I was completely unmoved by the Plaza drama because I didn’t think it was one of the greatest buildings in New York.” But, added Mr. Morrone, whom Elad pays for the tours, “the restoration transformed my perception of the Plaza as a great building. This is one of several really great city restorations.”

Plaza critics are less celebratory about the face-lift. “I think it is vulgar,” said David Garrard Lowe, president of the Beaux Arts Alliance in Manhattan, who advocated the preservation of the hotel in 2005. “No one in charge had any taste. Not that they haven’t spent enough money, but this renovation doesn’t hit the right notes. The Plaza has lost its gaiety, its sense of public festivity.” Another critic, Michele Birnbaum, president of Historic Park Avenue, who worked to support preservation of the public rooms, said that the new owners had “violated the integrity of the building.”
Mr. Morrone served up many informational curiosities during the tour: In the renovated Terrace Room, “the chandeliers are a replica of those in the Palace of Versailles,” he said. And in the reverberating, unoccupied spaces of the quondam Edwardian Room — once a restaurant and now a function room — Mr. Morrone pointed on high to the oft-unnoticed mirrored panels in the ceiling, which “make the room look even loftier than it is,” he said.

When Mr. Morrone segued to the Palm Court, he asked, “How many of you had tea here?” Most hands went up. “The Palm Court was the place for daddy and his girl on special occasions,” reminisced Judy Katten, a Manhattan lawyer who gave her age as “55-plus.”

In the Oak Room restaurant, Mr. Morrone said, “With the restoration, I was blown away by how beautiful the English oak is now,” after decades of smoke residue had been removed. Ms. Steere spoke up again: “The window treatments just don’t fit in here,” she said, indicating the coppery hangings at five decorative windows. Soon, after vamping a bit more on the room’s history, Mr. Morrone pointed up to another eccentricity at the central chandelier, topped by a small statue. “If you look closely,” he said, “you can see there is a maiden hoisting a stein of beer.”

Everyone did. Ooh. Aah.
New York Times May 30 2009
Reported: Friday, August 21st, 2009
Posted in News