The historic Waldorf Astoria hotel is about to vanish. Not physically, but spiritually. It was purchased last year by the Chinese corporation Anbang Insurance Group. They plan to take 1,100 rooms and convert them into condos. The remaining few hundred rooms will be upgraded into a "high-end, boutique hotel that appeals to international (and Asian) travelers," according to The Real Deal.
The hotel will close March 1, making February 28 the last night you can stay there for the next three years. And, of course, it will never be the same. Prices will certainly rise (it's reasonably priced right now). As Kim Velsey recently wrote in "The Death of New York’s Grand Hotels" for Surface magazine, "a condo and a hotel...occupy vastly different positions in the emotional terrain of a city."
So I said goodbye to the old Waldorf by spending the night.
I checked in at 3:00 p.m. and didn't leave the hotel until 10:00 the next morning. Checking in, the clerk saw my New York address and laughed, telling me that many New Yorkers are reserving rooms, coming to say goodbye. She gave me coupons for free drinks, "from one New Yorker to another." I dropped my backpack in my room, a small and serviceable space with a soft bed and a deep bathtub.
I had a free drink at the Peacock cocktail lounge, with its pianist playing Cindi Lauper's "Time After Time" and its American tourists doing nothing of interest, and then I went wandering.
Wandering the corridors and staircases of the Waldorf is a great pleasure. You don't have to be a guest to do it--they're very permissive of the curious public--but it helps to feel like you belong. There are no locked doors here.
I drifted through rooms for conference meetings and wedding parties, lined in mirrors and topped with chandeliers, the art deco details filled with flowers and women's faces. I went down into the Marco Polo room, a dark and abandoned club, and up into the empty Grand Ballroom with its red velvet balconies and tattered stage where I once saw Buzz Aldrin tell the story of his walk on the Moon.
I looked through the shop windows of Elliot Stevens, an antiques and art gallery recently accused of selling knock-offs to tourists in the grand old New York tradition. Amid the wares, with their massive price tags, were signs proclaiming "Going Out of Business" and "End of an Era at the Waldorf Hotel."
I walked the empty South Lounge corridor, where no one goes, and where there's a plaque for the National Mothers Hall of Fame, dedicated in 1970 by the American Mothers Committee and filled with names you've never heard, like Mrs. Elizabeth Poe Cloud and Dr. Mary Martin Sloop, those once celebrated mothers.
The halls of the hotel are filled with Waldorf history--photographs, artifacts, an old telephone with the old exchange (ELdorado-5), a program for a Frank Sinatra concert (at the Wedgwood Room), fancy soup spoons and door knobs and ledger books rotted with age.
I kept wondering: Where will it all go? The place is one big museum. Will the Chinese corporation take it all? Will they dump it the way workers once dumped the apartment of my dead neighbor, the wreckage of his long life piled on the sidewalk?
I had another free drink at the Peacock lounge and ate the obligatory Waldorf Salad, listening to the great lobby clock chime each 15 minutes, noting the rapid passage of time. What will the Chinese businessmen do with that clock?
Made in the 1800s, it is topped by the Statue of Liberty and ringed with the faces of American presidents, plus Queen Victoria, along with a bunch of bulls and bears, and bas relief scenes of suspension bridges and athletic men with curly mustaches.
Will the public still be welcomed into the lobby to enjoy that clock?
Once the place is converted to condos and upscaled, will average New Yorkers still be free to roam the halls and ballrooms? Or will the Waldorf die under glass, domed beneath a bell jar of chilly international capital? At the Peacock lounge, the hostess said, "I heard the condos will go for $6 million apiece." Or did she say $60 million? No price surprises anymore. New York, the city that Mayor Bloomberg called a "luxury product," is going to the highest bidder, to international billionaires who buy it up then leave it empty, a vertical ghost town that no one enjoys. All of its treasures are being taken from us. All the life drained away.
When I woke up at the Waldorf the next morning, I could not wait to leave. I'm tired of funerals.