By Terry Trucco
The streak is over, and we’re not talking about Serena.
When President Barak Obama comes to New York later this month for the opening session of the UN General Assembly, he and his considerable entourage will check in at the New York Palace Hotel, the elegant 55-story glass tower behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral that was renovated top to toe in 2013.
The win for the Palace is a loss for the Waldorf-Astoria, the grand dame hotel where every U.S. president has stayed on official visits to New York since the hotel moved to its current Park Avenue home in 1931. (President Herbert Hoover, who delivered the Waldorf’s opening address, set the precedent.)
While it’s fitting to house a U.S. president on Madison Avenue, murmurs of a move began last October when Hilton Worldwide, the Waldorf’s long-time owner, sold its crown jewel to a Chinese insurance company for $1.95 billion. Though Hilton is contracted to manage the hotel for 100 years, the sale to the Beijing-based Anbang Insurance Group, a company with close ties to the China’s governing aristocracy, raised security concerns in Washington (think eavesdropping and cyber-espionage). Since the sale, the president has stayed elsewhere on visits to New York as have Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.
With the Waldorf’s superb Midtown location and the weight of presidential history, it’s likely that POTUS and company would have carried on at the Waldorf had ownership not changed. But the U.S. delegation may be grateful to be billeted at a different hotel.
Fresh from a $140 million refurbishment, the Palace glistens, a full-throttle, five-star hotel upstairs and downstairs. Rooms boast soothing colors, enormous windows with jaw-drop views and, in many, rainshowers. And that’s just the teaser. Consider the Metropolitan Suite, a contemporary two-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath abode designed as an art gallery in the sky with splashes of yellow and blue in the living room (meant to evoke speeding taxis) and black-and-white photos of New York. Or the Champagne Suite, an eight-room triplex with a sweeping terrace.
You still might want your wedding at The Waldorf, but the 1,140 rank-and-file guest rooms are deeply outdated in ways fresh carpets and high-thread-count sheets can’t hide. Even the prime real estate found at Waldorf Towers, the 181-room luxury hotel-within-a-hotel where the Presidential Suite resides, evokes Eisenhower more than Obama if the sprawling apartment, tasteful but tired, I saw a couple years ago is an indication. The enormous renovation costs needed to pull this storied but aging behemoth into the 21st century was one reason Anbang’s cash infusion proved irresistible to Hilton.
I can’t envision the State Department, let along the Executive Branch, checking into The Standard or The Ludlow on official government business, but with a handful of grand-scale hotels to choose from how did the Palace win the White House?
It’s got a lot in common with the Waldorf including its location (the two hotels are a block apart). Like the Waldorf, the Palace is two hotels in one — a 733-room business hotel, classic but stylish, with The Towers, a super-luxe hotel with 176 suites occupying the top 14 floors. As with Waldorf Towers, the Palace Towers boasts a well-secured private entrance (note the lush silk and wood-paneled walls) and elevators operated by porters, gloved and watchful, instead of keycards. And though the Palace opened in 1981, the hotel is more historic than you’d think. Its base, which includes a stately courtyard at the Madison Avenue entrance, is the Villard Houses, a cluster of Neo-Italian-style brownstone townhouses designed for railroad financier Henry Villard by McKim, Mead and White in 1882 — a full 11 years before William Waldorf Astor opened the Waldorf Hotel in its original location at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.
The Palace has had its ups and downs, not to mention quirks. As the hotel love child of Harry and Leona Helmsley, the reviled real estate 1-percenters of the Bonfire of the Vanities era, the original Palace mirrored its time, dripping in ormolu, lined in red marble and dressed with overstuffed sofas. More recently, the hotel has had difficulties maintaining a successful restaurant. Villard Michel Richard, the latest effort, closed quietly last year after being skewered by New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells and others. On the food front, the President may have done better at the Waldorf, where dishes are sweetened by honey harvested from beehives kept on the hotel roof deck.
Leona would have hated that, of course, but she’s long gone. So are the owners that followed, the Sultan of Brunei and Norwood Investors. In May, the hotel was purchased for $805 million by Lotte Hotels and Resorts, the hospitality wing of a South Korean conglomerate that encompasses fast food, heavy chemicals, Asian baseball teams and candy, among other things. South Korea is a trusted American ally. And that could be the ultimate reason the President will sleep in a palace on his next trip to New York.
But don’t feel too sorry for the Waldorf. It will be hosting sizable delegations from China and Russia during the upcoming General Assembly opening, including a president — Vladimir Putin.