The history of the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York
Adapted from “Story of a great hotel: The Waldorf-Astoria” (hotel brochure from 1929)
The original Waldorf-Astoria was among America’s first big hotels.
When it was built during the Victorian era, and for years thereafter, it was considered the finest hotel in the world — and it soon became the most famous, for its reputation was carried wherever civilization had spread, and even where only explorers had gone.
The roster of its clientele has bristled from its earliest days with the names of those who have made history, who have made laws, who have made literature, no less than with those of the leaders of finance and every department of industry.
Kings and princes have made it their New York abode. The New York home of presidents and potentates, of great statesmen, great financiers and great industrialists, its prestige has never become dim.
The original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel owed its inception to William Waldorf Astor, later Baron Astor of England.
To a decision of Mr Astor, made in the spring of 1890, that he would thereafter make his residence in England, is to be attributed the building of the Waldorf — the first of the double structures of which the Waldorf-Astoria is composed.
The Astoria Hotel’s main entrance – 1903
The main entrance of the Waldorf hotel – 1903
Ballrooms, foyers & gardens: The original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1903
The Famous Waldorf State Apartments are on the same floor at the Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue corner.
The East or Caen Foyer
Containing Story’s original statue, “Cleopatra,” “Jephtha’s Daughter” and “Undine” by Ives, and “The Reading Girl,” bv Magni. It is intended to place other statues by famous sculptors in this room as they can be obtained.
Gentlemen’s hair dressing rooms/Barber (1903)
The Grand Ball Room
The hotel’s main office
The Main Office has various sections dividing the many departments to facilitate business.
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Main foyer of the Astoria
Thirty-fourth Street side. Art: Statue of “Vanity,” by Guarnerio, Statue of “Night” by Ives.
Marie Antoinette Room at the Waldorf
The Thirty-third Street side. Ceiling, “Birth of Venus,” by Low. Original armchair with footrest from “The Louvre.” The clock on mantle is the original. Bronze bust of Marie Antoinette with medallion of Louis XVI. Grand piano, an exquisite example of modern art. All other furniture in this room is reproduced from the original.
North Palm Garden – Astoria Hotel in NYC
Photographic studio/gallery at the Astoria Hotel
South Palm Garden at the Waldorf Hotel in NYC
The Waldorf Palm Garden has a revolving dome.
The Astor Gallery at the old Astoria Hotel in Manhattan
The Astor Gallery (modeled after the Palais Soubise, Paris) had sixteen magnificent allegorical paintings, of the twelve months and the four seasons, by Simmons.
The Astoria Restaurant – Dining room with round 4-seat tables
Located on the Thirty-fourth Street corner. Mural paintings by Turner.
The Astoria’s grand ballroom
The Grand Ball Room is 100 feet square and 40 feet high. This magnificent room has 25 first tier and 18 second tier boxes, and can be arranged at short notice either as a ballroom, concert room, dining room or private theatre.
Gentlemen’s Cafe at the Astoria
Thirty-fourth Street and Astor Court. Attention is called to the handsome fireplace.
The Myrtle Room at the Astoria
The Myrtle Room. Attention is called to the delicate green tints in the decorations, and exquisite embroideries on the curtains and portieres.
The Red Room/Library at the Waldorf
The Red Room or Library. Note the delicate wood carving and oak panels. The canvas frieze was painted by Maynard.
The restaurant at New York City’s old Waldorf Hotel
Thirty-third Street corner. Particular attention is called to the exquisite brasswork and paneling.
The small ballroom at the Waldorf Hotel
Small Ball Room. Thirty-third Street side. Ceiling paintings by Fowler. Lunettes by Armstrong.
The Turkish Salon at the early 1900s Waldorf Hotel
Turkish Rooms. Thirty-third Street side. Beautiful mosaic work. Sword of Napoleon the First.
The Waldorf Hotel florist shop in 1903
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The Waldorf-Astoria broker’s office and board room
The Waldorf-Astoria grand ball room as a theater
The ceiling was painted by Blashfield, and is believed to be the largest single canvas in the world. The Lunettes are by Low. This room has a special lighting and ventilating plant.
The West Foyer of the Astoria Hotel in 1903
West Foyer, adjoining the Grand Ball Room, contains Benzoni’s great statue, “The Flight from Pompeii.”
The original Waldorf Hotel in New York City
In the winter of 1893, the Waldorf really began to come into its own. Not only had New York “caught on” to the real loveliness — back of all the sheer opulence and magnificence — of its new toy, but the rest of the country had followed likewise.
Yet, large as was the Waldorf, it was not nearly large enough. The demands upon its hospitality grew more pressing each month.
New York now was coming uptown by leaps and by bounds. Fifth Avenue as a residence thoroughfare — between Twelfth Street and Fiftieth, at least — was gone.
In place of the old brownstone and red-brick fronts were coming shops — shops of high degree and of wonderful loveliness in all of their offerings — but shops nonetheless. Yet they but added to the éclat and to the prestige of the Waldorf, and to the terrific demands for rooms, particularly in the more crowded seasons of the year.
To be a room-clerk in the old Thirty-third Street office during Horse Show week or that of the beginning of the opera season was no sinecure. One had to have the wit and the diplomacy of a Talleyrand or a Disraeli — or both of them together.
In addition to all of this, there was an increasing demand upon the hotel for formal social functions of almost every conceivable sort.
Mr. Bagby was organizing his Monday Morning Musicales; dining clubs, such as the Southern Society and that of the Ohio and the Sphinx Club, were fairly springing into existence, with the superior cuisine of the Waldorf always as the largest excuse for their being.
The original Astoria Hotel
By the summer of 1896, the Astoria was well upon its way toward completion. The details of its magnificence were beginning to seep out into New York.
More than the original Waldorf ever had been, this house was to be recognized as a semi-public institution. Its very coming seemed to mark a distinctive change in the urban civilization of America.
Sharp observers of our social customs began to perceive a definite tendency on the part of well-to-do folk to make their real homes in the country, coming to New York for but three or four or possibly five or six months in the winter. To cater to these folk was the special desire of the Waldorf-Astoria.
Gradually, it was to become slightly less a hotel for the mere feeding and housing of travelers, and considerably more a semi-public institution designed for furnishing the prosperous residents of the New York metropolitan district with all the luxuries of urban life.
With this in view, great attention was given to the planning of the ballrooms and other apartments of public assemblage in the Astoria.
The Astor Gallery alone — in the style of Louis XV and an exact replica of the historic Crystal Room at the Soubise Palace, Paris — would have been a great acquisition of itself, for any hotel. Yet it was overshadowed by the main ballroom adjoining, which remains to this day, after all these years, the most sumptuous apartment of its sort in New York, if not indeed in all America.
To paint its lesser murals, Turner and Low and Simmons were summoned by Colonel Astor; for its giant ceiling, the genius of E. H. Blashfield was employed. The results speak for themselves.
The semi-public character of the new Astoria was reflected also in its spacious rooms upon the ground floor. Into it — upon the Thirty-fourth Street side of the enlarged and hyphenated hotel — were moved the offices and accounting departments of the combined establishments.
An open court, a twin to the Palm Garden, but a full two stories in height, was built adjoining that room. And likewise a Fifth Avenue restaurant similar in size and type and immediately adjoining the Fifth Avenue restaurant of the original Waldorf.
The men’s cafe was moved out of the Oak Room and into the Astoria, and Mr. Boldt conceded to it at last, a standing bar, a huge affair (eventually four-sided), which at once became a tremendous success and which was in no little way responsible for the Waldorf-Astoria becoming known in New York as “the club of all clubs.”
In its cafe at five in the afternoon could ever be found the representative men of the town. To that room, Wall Street adjourned at the close of business downtown. And the late tickers buzzed with the gossip of what was being said and done at the Waldorf that evening.
As a final concession to a really public institution, there was “Peacock Alley,” as some irrepressible reporter immediately dubbed the glorious main corridor along the Thirty-fourth Street side of the hyphenated hotel.
As the Waldorf-Astoria was “the club of all clubs” of New York, Peacock Alley was at once “the street of all streets.” Through it marched the smartness of the town — masculine as well as feminine. To see, in Peacock Alley, and to be seen, in Peacock Alley — that was the proper thing.
The future of the Waldorf-Astoria?
To prophesy far into the future of any institution in a great and rapidly changing city like New York is sheerest folly. But for a decade — two decades — three decades to come, the future of the Waldorf seems assured.
It will continue to be the house of good service, the house of good eating, the house of good comfort of every sort. To the vastness of its acquired prestige, it steadily is adding new laurels.
It is one of the few hotels in America known internationally. In 1893, Eulalie, princess of old Spain, came to stop under its roof; nine years later came the affable Henry of Prussia; just yesterday, it seems, came the King and the Queen of the Belgians — heroic figures of the most terrible war of all history. And upon their heels, that boyish young Briton who seems to be destined to be the reigning monarch of the most powerful kingdom upon the face of the earth.
All these, and hundreds of others from oveseas. And from the United States the tens and hundreds of thousands. In the vast accumulation of the carefully-preserved registers of the hotel is the real Who’s Who of America. There is not a state that is missing in that list, and hardly a town or a village from all the way across the land.
The question now is answered. It seemingly is as firmly assured as is its past, and of that past you have just had the brief telling.
The suite life: See the rooms at the elegant old Waldorf-Astoria New York (1903)
THE WALDORF occupies the former site of the late Mr John Jacob Astor’s townhouse, northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street, and was erected by his son, the Honorable William Waldorf Astor, for Mr. Boldt.
Ground was broken November 1st, 1890, and the house was opened for business March 14th, 1893. The hotel derives its name from the little town of Waldorf, in the Duchy of Baden, Germany, which was the ancestral home of the Astor family.
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THE ASTORIA occupies the former site of the late Mr William B. Astor’s townhouse, southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, and was erected by his son, Col. John Jacob Astor.
Ground was broken May 1st, 1895, and the house was opened for business November 1st, 1897. This hotel was named after the town of Astoria, founded in the year 1811 by John Jacob Astor, the first, at the mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon. The combined hotels are known under the title of The Waldorf-Astoria.
About the Waldorf-Astoria rooms and suites
The Bedrooms: There are in all about 1,300 sleeping rooms and 800 bathrooms; those in the Waldorf part of the hotel are mainly furnished after distinctive periods, while those on the Astoria side are treated in a somewhat lighter and more floral tone. All bathrooms face and ventilate to the open air.
The Fifth Avenue Corner Suites are arranged as complete private apartments, with dining room and butler’s pantries, the latter being supplied with electric heating apparatus.
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THE ASTORIA HOTEL SIDE OF THE OLD WALDORF-ASTORIA
The Royal Suite – Louis Bedroom – The Astoria Hotel
The Royal Suite (two flights up), corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. This suite consists of a drawing room, dining room and seven bedrooms. The drawing room is furnished after the old Italian, and the bedrooms after the Louis periods, respectively.
Fifth Ave corner suite – drawing room – Astoria Hotel
Double bedroom at the Astoria Hotel
A bathroom in an old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel room
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THE WALDORF HOTEL SIDE OF THE WALDORF-ASTORIA
Pomp and circumstance. The large Waldorf. The luxurious Waldorf. The glorious Waldorf.
How New York — huge, calm, sophisticated New York — gazed and gaped at the splendors of its newest tavern.
People flocked to it by the hundreds and by the thousands; they engaged tables in all of its restaurants days and even weeks in advance. They filled its sleeping rooms.
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When they could not do any of these things, they just came — open-eyed — to return, more open-eyed than before. For these last, professional guides were engaged; probably for the first time in the history of any hotel.
These young men, glib of tongue and pleasing of manner, were hired to direct strangers through the hotel and to spare no details of information in regard to it.
A Louis XV drawing room at Waldorf Hotel
Astor dining room at the Waldorf Hotel
Double bedroom at the Waldorf Hotel
Empire Suite – bedroom – Waldorf
Empire Suite – Drawing room at The Waldorf
Greek Bedroom at the Waldorf Hotel
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Italian Renaissance Suite – Drawing room – The Waldorf
One of a series of Louis XV bedrooms at the Waldorf Hotel
Pompeiian Bedroom at the Waldorf Hotel
Reception Room of Astor Dining Room at the Waldorf Hotel
A single bedroom at the Waldorf Hotel
East India Suite – Drawing room – Waldorf
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Waldorf State Apartments – Francis I bedroom
Waldorf State Apartments – Henry IV drawing room
Waldorf State Apartments – Louis XVI – Music room
A Colonial bedroom at the Waldorf Hotel
The end of an era: New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel torn down (1929)
by Ruth Reynolds, Daily News (New York, New York) March 24, 1929
New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, mother of American hotels, passes with a sigh as the new era enters with a roar
The doors of this thirty-six-year-old internationally-known institution will close May 1 . The staff who “built up” the Waldorf-Astoria will pass quietly and unobtrusively from its massive doors. Noisy wreckers will clank in to tear it down. The old generation passes with a sigh. The new era enters with a roar.
“I am going to build a hotel,” said William Waldorf Astor in 1892. He was following the advice of his estate agent, Abner Bartlett. He was ignoring the scoffing of his friends.
In March 1893, the Waldorf, first of the luxurious American hotels, was ready to astonish the world. It was a daring enterprise.
It had 530 rooms and 350 baths! And that in a day when bathing was sacred to Saturday night! Such extravagance would never win.
They called it Astor’s Folly. Some called it “Boldt’s Folly” after George C. Boldt, who was to be its first manager.
Astor visited his hotel twice. Then he went to England to live and die. Boldt directed the Waldorf.
* * *
Boldt looked up to find a stocky young man before him. The chap wanted a job.
The boy was Oscar — then Oscar Tschirky — now Oscar of the Waldorf, known throughout the world, decorated by governments.
In 1892, he had been a waiter at Delmonico’s. He had seen the diggers working at 33d Street and 5th Avenue.
“What will it be?” he asked one.
“The new Waldorf hotel,” was the answer.
It would be a good place to work. So Oscar applied to Boldt for the job. He got it.
It was raining on the morning of March 14, 1893, at 6 am, Boldt tapped Oscar on the shoulder.
“Oscar, open the door.” The Waldorf was born.
* * *
That night, there was a concert in the great dull red chateau of a hotel. It was for the benefit of St. Mary’s Hospital for Children. The tickets were $5 apiece! Unheard of! But it was worth it.
For the New York Symphony orchestra, donated by W. K. Vanderbilt, played. Walter Damrosch conducted.
* * *
1,500 came in rain to admire Waldorf
Fifteen hundred came in the rain to this great hotel. Guides took them through the profusion of stately columns, the dimly-lit rooms. There were splashing fountains and stately sculptures.
There was comfort and ease and elegance without gaudiness. The crowds admired. And deplored its situation “so far uptown.” And the wiseacres seemed to be right.
* * *
After the first burst of applause, the Waldorf was not so successful. The bewhiskered gentlemen failed to patronize the luxurious hotel. Petticoated ladies burned their altar fires to social leaders and indulged in secret smoking elsewhere.
The business looked like a dismal failure.
True, within a month after the hotel opened, it entertained a party of Spanish grandees. They were headed by the Duke and Duchess of Veragua, on the way to Chicago to attend the world’s fair. The Infanta Eulalia came soon after.
On April 19, 1893, these distinguished Spaniards held a reception at the Waldorf. It was attended by 100 prominent women of New York, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago. But there was no great rush of foreign travel to the World’s Fair.
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And they still tell in whispers that in the summer of 1893, there were just forty guests at the Waldorf, and 970 servants on the payroll. Yet Boldt didn’t discharge a helper. And in three years, he had paid off all obligations and was on the way to financial success.
This Boldt and his Oscar were men of ideas. Anything new in the hotel business originated at the Waldorf.
It was Boldt who coined the slogan, “The guest is always right.”
It was he who, in 1897, urged John Jacob Astor, estranged cousin of William Waldorf, to give up his estate adjoining the hotel, for the Astoria twin of the Waldorf. The twin hotels became the Waldorf-Astoria.
Between Boldt and Oscar, the famous “baked potato lunch” in the oak room was inaugurated. All those who sauntered to the broad fireplace of the oak room were treated gratis to hot and well butered baked potatoes.
Boldt had the first hotel room phones installed.
He began the “Bagley’s Musical Mornings,” which lasted for a generation. No one was bidden. Nothing was advertised. Yet when the musical mornings arrived, hundreds were turned away.
* * *
But it was the Bradley-Martins who made the Waldorf a social success.
On Feb. 10, 1897, they gave a ball at the Waldorf-Astoria. What a night! Almost 900 attended. That outdid Mrs. William Astor’s balls, for her ballroom could only accommodate 400 — the 400, by the way.
There were three bands! Mrs Bradley-Martin’s gown, a la Mary Stuart, cost $60,000. Her husband was masked like a courtier of Louis XV. The Lexow investigation and the Cuban troubles were swept from front pages by the Bradley-Martin ball. From ocean to ocean passed the word: “And they didn’t go home ’til 5 o’clock!”
The newspapers printed editorials on the waste of wealth.
In vain did Mrs. Bradley-Martin declare her motive in giving the ball was to provide employment for poor dressmakers, carpenters, florists, caterers and the like.
But the Waldorf-Astoria emerged a social success.
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With the advent of ladies in fine feathers in Peacock Alley, the promenade of the hotel, and men with a jingle in their pockets before the massive four-sided bar came the detective force operated at a cost of $25,000 a year.
Joe Smith, old Scotland Yard inspector, has headed it for thirty-one years. Mayor Gaynor wanted to make Joe deputy police commissioner. Joe would have none of it. He stayed with the Waldorf- Astoria.
For a while, Smith hired ex-prizefighters as assistant house detectives. They were too “dumb,” too apt to get the hotel into damage suits, thought Joe. But they never did.
The assistants who will leave the Waldorf-Astoria are smart, up-to-date young chaps, well-read, “and about as good as lawyer when it comes to skimming close to trouble and yet missing it,” according to Joe’s description.
One set of arrests was a sorrow both to employee and to Oscar.
In 1927, five servants who had been employed from three to twelve years, were arrested for stealing $40,000 in ten months from diners’ checks.
* * *
The night before the Waldorf opened, Mrs. George Merritt Smith took charge of Western Union’s telegraph desk. She has been with them for thirty-five years. The first day she sent 10 messages. Now she sends almost 500 a day.
* * *
A famous light opera star was sitting in the Myrtle room smoking. This was long before the Waldorf permitted their feminine guests to smoke in public. There she sat, knees crossed, ankles showing, a cigarette in one hand, a liqueur in the other. Tut-tut!
Had the lady been Mrs. Astor or Mrs. Belmont, says Oscar, the matter might have become the vogue. But she wasn’t.
And Mr. Boldt requested Oscar to “speak to her.”
There was the war of the whiskers.
The hotel manager decreed that employes must be sans whiskers. That in the days when whiskers covered a multitude of things! When the manager went so far as to say no bewhiskered cabby night drive into the marvelous port cochere.
What colossal nerve! Manhattan talked about it. The cabbies held meetings. Even the governor pleaded in behalf of facial foliage. The manager was adamant (reason unknown) and the Waldorf-Astoria became clean-shaven.
* * *
There was the visit of Li Hung Chang in 1896. He, the wisest of the Chinese, would have no hotel food. He brought with him a great retinue of cooks, for he would eat none of the Occidental viands.
And among the many visits of princes and potentates, that of Henry of Prussia in 1902 stands forth.
For after days of preparations without parallel, and drilling of servants to please Henry, the water pipes got out of order. And the world chuckled while Waldorf-Astoria servants rushed wooden buckets of water to the prince’s bath.
A bedtime bite at 4 in the morning
There are numerous stories about John W. (Bet a Million) Gates, who lived with his wife in a $20,000 apartment at the Waldorf for years.
How he’d stay out late playing poker. How he carried loose diamonds in his pockets to appease his wrathy wife. How, after they’d made up, she’d slip into the Waldorf kitchen to fry him a couple of eggs for a bedtime bite, at 4 am!
Gates played bridge for $100 a point. There, in informal conversation, Gates and John W. Lambert, Max Palm and others formed what is now the U S Steel Corporation.
In 1916, Boldt died. The hotel went into the hands of the Du Pont-Boomer interests. An audience of notables reviewed a parade of notables, passing through the corridors as the years fled.
Then came the world war and modernism. And the Waldorf went out of fashion.
Now it is over. A fifty-story building will stand on the site of the Waldorf-Astoria.
Were Boldt here on May 1, he might say, “Close the door, Oscar.” For the Waldorf is dead.
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