Gotham's Gems: The secrets of the New Yorker Hotel

Rolando Pujol

Rolando Pujol (Credit: Rolando Pujol)

The maze of tunnels under New York includes one you probably never heard of. It lies 30 feet below the intersection of West 34th Street and Eighth Avenue and links the New Yorker Hotel to Penn Station.

 This tunnel is no utilitarian slouch: It's sheathed in sumptuous Art Deco tile and long-empty glass sign displays that promoted Duke Ellington shows to travelers being whisked through the passage by bellhops. You'd say, "Take me to the New Yorker and you wouldn’t have to go outside,” Joe Kinney, the hotel's engineer and historian, said during a recent tour of the hotel.

Indeed, the New Yorker's historic spirit is filling all of its corridors again, as a room-by-room renovation draws toward completion, powered by the strong Art Deco genes that gave it life almost 80 years ago. But for many of those years, the hotel had lost touch with its history. It closed in 1972 and was purchased by the Unification Church. In 1994, it reopened under its original name, but only now is it truly reclaiming its lost history and pride of place among the city's hotels.

It's easy to see how Kinney, 57, who joined the staff in 1996, became captivated by its history, and how he was able to sell senior management on the idea that the hotel's future lay in its past. The striking pyramidical, set-backed tower was financed and built before the Wall Street crash of 1929, and opened into a sobered-up world on Jan. 2, 1930, with the Great Depression already under way.

The 43-story hotel boasted many extremes when it opened: It was the biggest, the tallest, the one with the largest switchboard, the largest kitchen, the largest private power plant. Today, its massive LED sign is a skyline fixture and is possibly the largest of its kind anywhere.

You hear of the ice follies at the Terrace Room, of visits by actor Mickey Rooney and band leader Benny Goodman, and of Nikola Tesla, the electrical genius whose obsession with numbers and his love for pigeons still draw the curious to the hotel, where he spent his final years.

The New Yorker Hotel's historically minded renovation comes at a time when the future of its former swing-era arch enemy, the Hotel Pennsylvania, has been in question, and during a time when the wrecking ball has been tearing down old New York with abandon.

The hotel’s rebirth is due in no small part to Kinney's curiosity and cheer-leading for the hotel's history.

“I feel very happy that I was able to push the Art Deconess of the hotel and that the architects took that into consideration," Kinney said, speaking of the work of the firm Stonehill & Taylor. "They did a great job.”

A quest to save history

Like the Empire State Building, its considerably more famous Art Deco cousin down 34th Street, the New Yorker was born of the high hopes of the 1920s and confronted with the harsh realities of the 1930s.

"The hotel really, really struggled. It never really got over it," Kinney said, but the New Yorker weathered the Depression and World War II years with style. A who's who of celebrities, big bands and high-living swells coursed through its lobby during the 1930s and 1940s, a story Kinney is piecing back together every day through the massive memorabilia collection he continues to build. He has rescued long-lost menus, copies of the hotel's in-house magazine, Caravan, and countless other ephemera that tell the story of one of New York's iconic hotels.

Many of his finds are on eBay, but every so often, a relative of a former employee might stop by with a stunning discovery, or a story that would have otherwise been lost to history. Just the other day, a 92-year-old former bellhop stopped by and, beaming with pride, recalled that he was an employee of the month in 1939. "They’ll give you stuff, if they think it’s going to be put to its best and highest use," Kinney said.

And his passion for hotel history helps tells the story of mid-century New York, and more broadly, American culture.

It's difficult, for instance, to think about Madison Avenue's gift at promoting smoking without considering Johnny Roventini.

The pint-sized pitchman would exclaim "call for Philip Morris" on television for years. Yet he began his career by hailing visitors in the New Yorker's lobby. A Philip Morris executive took a shine to Roventini, and the rest is advertising history.

Tesla, the eccentric inventor of AC current, called room 3327 home. The numbers held a certain magic for him, and it is here that he allegedly kept company with a beloved pigeon, and died after a 10-year stay. (The feds swooped in to clean out his room, just in case the inventor had come up with some plans that could fall into enemy hands. This was January 1943, after all.)

 A hotel's secrets

The underground tunnel is certainly a highlight of any tour. Now used for storage, the tunnel poses too many security risks to reopen. And then there's a far more quotidian reason to keep it shut. "Now luggage has wheels on it, they can drag it down Eighth Avenue and walk in our front door,” Kinney said.

Another surprise awaits behind the massive brass door on Eighth Avenue. The door once lead to a branch of Manufacturers Trust bank. The door connotes wealth and security, a comforting or possibly alienating symbol for New Yorkers scraping by during the Depression.

The doors themselves, though, have been shuttered since the Reagan administration, and what lurks behind is a cavernous banking hall dripping with terrazzo flooring, brass railings, and Art Deco murals by the noted artist Louis Jambor.

The banking hall is now undergoing restoration, on track to become a grand ballroom. Once completed, it will return one of New York's great architectural spaces to public use.

Jambor made 26 panels in total for the hotel, with many of them covered under plaster during an insensitive renovation during the 1960s, the "Tupperware architecture," period, Kinney said. For a future renovation project, the hotel might undertake an effort to bring those panels to light. Indeed, the hotel is focused on reclaiming its history, one art mural, old brochure or knick-knack at a time. Kinney’s collection, in fact, may one day become part of an exhibit at the hotel.

“By recapturing and reconstituting the true history of the New Yorker Hotel ... we are actually adding value to this building and even meaning to our working lives," Kinney said.

 

 

Tags: city living , new yorker hotel , history , art deco , urban archaeology , old school , hotels , endangered nyc , architecture

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