Plan would see some small additions, cleaning and restoration of facades, a new residential entrance, re-opening of historic interiors, and replacement of unsympathetic later elements. On April 25, 2017, Landmarks considered and approved applications to renovate the exterior and interior of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel at 301 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. The 1931 Art Deco hotel’s exterior was landmarked in 1993, and continuous interiors on the first three levels were designated earlier in 2017. The iconic block-sized hotel has been acquired by Chinese investment firm Anbang, who have closed the hotel in anticipation of extensive renovations. The new owners intend to convert a substantial portion of the hotel to residential use.
At the hearing, Anbang Managing Director Philip Yee said the owners had been “awestruck” by the beauty of the historic hotel, and had come to appreciate its significance to New York City during the interior designation process. Yee said the owners were approaching the renovations to the exterior and interior as a unified whole, and the work would serve to return the building to its original intent as conceived by the architects, Schultze & Weaver, as well as to being a “lively, thriving and vital destination.”
Consultant Bill Higgins noted that the hotel had always contained transient, residential, retail and event space, and the historic uses would be continued forward by the new owners. Higgins said the proposed changes would update the programmatic uses of the building, while following the original design intent or making changes harmonious with the original design, and were not intended to make a “big statement.”
Architect Frank Mahan, of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, presented the proposed renovations in detail. On the exterior, new energy efficient windows, matching the hotel’s original windows, would replace existing openings, with some windows enlarged on the upper stories. Existing cooling towers would be removed and new ones installed out of sight. Some punched windows would be created to accommodate mechanical equipment.
A new one-story addition would be built on top of the building, between its two towers. It would be minimally visible from street vantages, and would not interfere with the legibility of the towers or the building’s crenellated parapet.
The building’s exterior would be cleaned, reclaiming the original effect of the limestone cladding, and the facades’ limestone and brick repaired where necessary. Decorative spandrels would also be restored.
At the base, which has been heavily altered over the years, storefronts would be replaced to match the originals, and to conform in design with one another. New loading docks would be created to replace the obsolete existing ones. A new entrance would be created for residential tenants on Park Avenue, with a smaller door and lower canopy than other openings to make it secondary to the hotel entrance. Non-original marquees would be altered and standardized.
All new exterior work would occur where the fabric was non-original.
Higgins said the residential entrance on Park Avenue was a necessity for the condominiums’ “identity, use, and allure.”
Inside the hotel, the proposal would see the restoration of the original configuration of the first floor. Ceilings would be restored and wood paneling returned to its original conditions. On the first floor, the spaces known as Peacock Alley and East Lounge, which have had portions closed off, would be reopened and the original symmetry reestablished. The Lexington Avenue foyer would be made into a double-height space to match the Park Avenue Lobby and to allow in natural light. All four circulation axes would be restored to the Main Lobby, which will be made into a food and beverage outlet.
Originally, the interiors were designed to be illuminated primarily by indirect lighting, which has been lost in intervening years, leaving the interiors either brighter or dimmer than originally intended. The applicants proposed new indirect and semi-direct lighting systems, using reproductions of original fixtures and sconces. New carpeting and flooring would also be installed throughout the interiors.
On the third floor, work would be mostly limited to restoration work and replacing the lighting.
A representative of Congress Member Carolyn Maloney endorsed the proposal. Another representative read a joint statement from Borough President Gale Brewer and State Senator Brad Hoylman commending the applicants for their respect for the landmarked building and their “restraint” in their alterations. Members of the Historic Districts Council and the Society for the Architecture of the City were also supportive, but asked that lost chandeliers in the third floor’s Silver Room be recreated. Meghan Weatherby, of the Art Deco Society of New York, expressed concerns about the “unnecessary” new residential entrance and the new lighting, which she feared would fail to preserve the hotel’s “specific ambiance.”
Landmarks Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that the Commission had received a letter from Council Member Daniel Garodnick in favor of the application. Community Board 5 issued a recommendation in conditional support, advocating that all interior lighting be indirect, and stating that the marquees were too modern, and that the new residential entrance detracted from the symmetry of the building’s Park Avenue base.
Chair Srinivasan called the proposal “a great project,” and an opportunity to bring back many important lost features of the hotel. Commissioner Diana Chapin praised the holistic approach to the interior work. Chapin said that changes to storefronts on landmarked properties were frequently approved, and the new elements were more than offset by the extensive restoration work. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron noted that advances in technology potentially made feasible the recreation of the lost chandeliers, and encouraged the applicants to explore the possibility. Commissioner Michael Devonshire heralded the applicants for their scholarship and taste.
Chair Srinivasan encouraged the applicants to look into recreating the historic chandeliers, but did not make it a condition of approval. The Chair then led a unanimous vote for approval of the applications.
LPC: Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Interiors, 301 Park Avenue, Manhattan (19-09647; 19-09644) (April 25, 2017) (Architects: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill).
By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).