March 01, 2017

Photo Essay: Lunch at the Waldorf Astoria New York, Upon Its Closing

Every few days, I drive by the construction site of a new luxury hotel being built at the intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire: The Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills.

Opening this June, it's taking the place (more or less) of the wing of the Beverly Hilton behind it that was demolished—the wing that included the original Trader Vic's, that closed about 10 years ago—on the lot that's sat vacant for way too long.

But as I watch that building rise high into the Beverly Hills sky, the irony isn't lost on me that the original Waldorf Astoria—the one housed in two landmark buildings on Park Avenue in New York City—has just closed to the public, presumably for good.

The 1930s-era fixture of New York glamour, in all its Art Deco glory, has been bought in order to be converted into condos.

Since no one really knows what will happen to the interiors during its renovation (though it supposedly will reopen, with condos), I had to go back for a last minute look at it.

Having lived in New York City for 14 years and having worked in midtown for four of them, I'd of course passed by the Waldorf Astoria New York many times—just as I now pass by the new one being built in my new hometown.

But as I recall, I'd only been inside once, around the turn of the 21st century for the Billboard magazine Dance Music Summit. All these years later, I could only really remember the lobby, and not even room the conference had been in.

I never stopped to look at the Steinway piano that's parked just inside the Park Avenue entrance...

...which once belonged to—and was played by—perhaps the most famous and long-running resident of the Waldorf Towers, Cole Porter.

To my delight, it doesn't appear restored.

In fact, it looks a little beaten up—though, not much, considering the nearly 30 years that Porter spent playing it and composing his contributions to the Great American Songbook on it, nearly 50 years ago.

The way he would let his cats climb up all over the open lid is the stuff of legends.

And it's still got the claw marks to prove it.

In all that time I lived in New York City, I never had lunch—or even a drink—at the Waldorf Astoria's west lobby cafe and bar, Peacock Alley.

It never even occurred to me to do so.

I never sat in the lobby, relishing in being a woman in the lounge that was originally designed for gentlemen.

I never looked up at the nine-foot clock tower in the lobby to check the time or examine its bronze bas-reliefs of U.S. presidents (and Benjamin Franklin) or the miniature Statue of Liberty on top.

I never tried to get past any forbidden doors.

I never climbed any forbidden stairs.

I don't remember whether the 1939 "Wheel of Life" floor mosaic (by French artist Louis Rigal) in the Park Avenue Lobby had yet been uncovered...

...or whether it was, at the time, still hidden under carpeting (that was only removed when flooding made it necessary to do so).

In fact, I'm pretty sure that I never made it upstairs at all...

...past the Art Deco motifs on those elevator doors...

...up to the famed "feather chandelier"...

...or into the former "Starlight Roof" on the 18th floor, a supper club where the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman performed while guests danced under the stars.

It's all these little details that I want to commit to memory now...

...those features, embellishments, and views that are otherwise undocumented by historic photographs or other tourists' snapshots.

I knew I would see the Waldorf Astoria differently than others had—especially considering the timing.

I knew it might be going away. I knew I had to make this visit count.

To get as much access as possible, I booked a historic walking tour with a docent that included a visit beyond the public areas...

...and into the kitchen, where we got to nibble on some freshly-made goodies and watch the guys prepare some others.

The tour also included lunch at the Bull & Bear Steakhouse, where we could try their eponymous "Waldorf salad," created by the maître d'hôtel at its first location in 1893.

I ate only one of the two branded cupcakes that arrived for dessert and brought the other to some friends I was meeting later.

With the gift shop closed (its attendant out to lunch), the only souvenir I got was an embossed paper hand towel from the bathroom.

But at least I got that.

And I got a real good look at nearly everything. The one access I didn't manage to nab? The not-so-secret underground subway station.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Farewell to the Palace on Mount Yamashiro
Photo Essay: The Iconic Hotel Normandie
Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints
Photo Essay: Castle Green Open House, Old Town Pasadena

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