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.
Ballrooms, foyers & gardens: The original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1903
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.
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.
Top text excerpted and adapted from “Story of a great hotel: The Waldorf-Astoria” (hotel brochure, publication date 1929; Additional text excerpted from “The Story of the Waldorf-Astoria,” by Edward Hungerford (published after 1916); Photos from the hotel brochure, Waldorf-Astoria, New York (Publication date 1903)