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HomeBuildingsThe not-lost elegance of old East Side Hotels

The not-lost elegance of old East Side Hotels

Old East Side hotels try to keep up standards

The southern swath of Midtown East owes much of its elegance to ornate hotels that stand alone or peek from between the austere corporate towers. From late-19th century structures to chic modern residences, the hotels evoke globalist New York at its best.

Photo at top: President John F. Kennedy arriving at The Carlyle.


The American Institute of Architects lists at least 15 notable hotels in Midtown East and the blocks slightly north. They include such storied names as The Plaza, the Waldorf Astoria and the St. Regis. One or two minutes in these otherworldly enclaves opens up a different world. For it is not really New York at all, but the visitors from Europe, Japan, Russia and elsewhere who have come to see the city.

They are not caught in the competitive web for a race to the top. Their vantage point is the furnished rooms at the purported center of activity. These guests may one day join the melting pot of the metropolis. But for two, three or five days they are a transient milieu, a shimmering film over the griminess of much daily life. They remind us all that New York still shines in the world.

East Side hotels try to maintain standards

The Carlyle, Madison Avenue at East 76th Street

Yet perhaps because the tenants are fleeting, few have really bothered to compile a thorough account of the buildings. Architectural books appear more interested in apartment buildings and office towers. It seems only the movies try to capture the hotels.  The recent opening of “Always at The Carlyle” is a testament to that.


‘Always at The Carlyle’

Matthew Miele’s documentary of the East 76th Street hotel takes viewers through revolving gold doors into the $20,000-a-night Empire Suite.  From there one looks down on a sweeping vista of Central Park and the twin-peaked San Remo apartments on the Upper West Side. The film is criticized for failing to flesh out hints of scandal, and instead focusing on the tight relationship between staff and their distinguished guests. Princess Diana, Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson are said to have shared an elevator ride here.

“Discretion” is the watchword throughout the 92-minute film. But celebrity gossip aside, there are enough wonders in the art alone: murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, the illustrator of “Madeline,” (in the aptly named Bemelmans Bar), 17th-century paintings hanging in the lobby and a New York capsule of interior design by the legendary Renzo Mongiardino. Then there is the music of late singer and pianist Bobby Short, and the performances of late actress Elaine Stritch. Cafe Carlyle still has regular shows.


A less genteel world

The Carlyle is not just an old hotel. It is New York.

‘We all look like messengers now. With the costumes comes the mentality’

But changing times may value that essence less. “The world is less genteel,” Dwight, who retired as The Carlyle’s concierge, says in the film. “Society lost its sense of dignity.”

When taking stock of the casual turn in street fashion, Dwight says, “We all look like messengers now. With the costumes comes the mentality.”

The East Side's elegant hotels try to keep up standards

The Lotte New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue.

New York tourism is at a record, and modern boutique hotels are creeping into the city. But the hotels that captured Roaring Twenties New York are slowly being turned into condominiums. Waldorf Astoria owner Anbang is planning to cut the number of hotel rooms by nearly three-quarters to make way for massive condominiums. The Plaza over by Central Park has already converted many units to condominiums.  The Carlyle and The Sherry-Netherland Hotel at the southeast corner of Central Park also house some apartments.


Glorious rooms locked up into condos

If this trend continues, some of these architectural wonders may one day be locked up to the exclusive use of condo owners and their friends. That would be a shame. For one of the benefits of these hotels is that the lobby and the accompanying restaurants and bars let visitors get a taste of old-school grandeur.

Will the meeting take place in the inner chambers of the Villard House, an 1882 collection of what were once six neo-Italian Renaissance townhouses at Madison and 50th? It’s now part of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel. Or will the dimly lit gallery lounge of The Carlyle be more appropriate? Finally, the meeting lands on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel, completed in 1905 by Hiss and Weekes.

one of the benefits of these hotels is that the lobby and the accompanying restaurants and bars let visitors get a taste of old-school grandeur.

And when the ordinary Manhattanite wanders into the Waldorf Astoria, she is transported immediately to some charming New York of the 1920s and Audrey Hepburn and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”  She then remembers why she puts up with many other unpleasantries of the city.

Then there are the glimpses of greenery. In the Plaza Hotel, palm tree fronds filter out the grime and gently soothe haggard souls rushing around Midtown. The Peninsula Hotel rooftop bar takes the lowly New Yorker up into the clouds, to sit among thick, pruned bushes and, just perhaps, to catch a moment with the stars.




Evelyn Cheng