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How Five Historic New York Hotels Wooed Their First Guests

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It's never been enough to just open a new luxury hotel; you need to offer the latest and greatest to show why your establishment belongs at the top of society. This was especially true in the early 20th century, when excess was the norm and power was brokered in smoky, ornate back-rooms. How did five iconic hotels angle to cement their reputations among the crème de la crème of New York's elite? Let's have a look.

St. Regis, 1904

Of all of the creature comforts offered by the St. Regis, then the most expensive hotel in New York history, perhaps the most impressive was the $300,000 ventilation system. For the first time, air could circulate internally instead of through opened windows and doors. This purity offered protection from "the viewless jungles of which crouches the omnipresent microbe" (and the cigarette smoke from the smoking room). Chief Engineer J.C. Jurgensen and his assistant kept tabs on the building's lungs, which cost the hotel $1,250 (around $32,000 today) to remove a barrel of dust from the air each day. This was justified by the nightly $125 fee paid by the hotel's guests. And even though the filtration room was located 60 feet below Fifth Avenue, it still had marble stairs. Now that's luxury!

The Plaza Hotel, 1907

Guests the Plaza's opening gala on October 1, 1907 got a special ride home: they were the first in New York to use motorized cabs. These taxis, 50 in number, marked the opening replacements for horse-drawn carriages. The red-and-green Darracq automobiles had 16-horsepower, 4-cylinder engines. The hacks were "in uniform not unlike that of the West Point cadet, a gray blue, trimmed with black braid." The initial fare was 30 cents for the first half-mile, 10 cents for each quarter-mile thereafter, and 10 cents for each six minutes of waiting. The well-to-do on this foray didn't have to reach into their deep pockets, though: the rides on this evening were complimentary.

Hotel Pennsylvania, 1919

With 2,200 rooms, the Hotel Pennsylvania was the largest hotel in the world when it opened on January 25, 1919. The exterior of its first four floors was designed to complement the now-demolished Penn Station across the street. The Statler Hotel company, which built and managed the property, was known for gimmicky draws. Here, guests could take advantage of a device called a servidor, a box on each room's door. Visitors could insert clothes or shoes from inside the room, which would be "noiselessly extracted by an attendant from the outside and returned pressed and shined"; clerks could drop off room-service items or newspapers without disturbing the guest. Think of it like a two-way mail slot.

Hotel Beacon, 1928

When the Hotel Beacon opened in 1928—the theatre below would raise its curtain the following year, after the Wall Street crash—it was home to the brightest manmade object in the world. Atop the 24-story hotel was an airplane beacon visible from at least 70 and as far as 400 miles away (contemporary sources vary wildly in their estimates). Its light was the equivalent of 1.2 billion candles. To christen the building, the Army Reserve Air Corps flew a plane directly over the light, with the pilot giving the dedicatory address. The plane had taken off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, which became famous in 1927 as the starting point for Charles Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight. Clarence D. Chamberlin, the second man to fly across the Atlantic, did the honors and flipped the switch to illuminate the beacon.

The Pierre Hotel, 1930

In spite of the Depression, the Pierre spared no expense in luring 85-year-old Frenche chef Auguste Escoffier across the Atlantic to celebrate the hotel's opening. Escoffier was charged with overseeing the hotel's gala opening dinner, which hosted a who's who of business titans and socialites. He also helped develop the hotel's menu, aiming to slow the frantic pace of American eating. But the legendary Frenchman had a challenge: Prohibition. "Ah, but the wines and the liqueurs," he said, "they are gone, and a meal is nothing without them. The greatest chef is helpless without their aid. It is too bad." Then he sailed home, never to return to New York.
— Keith Williams
· Hotels Week 2014 [Curbed]

The Plaza

768 5th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10019 Visit Website

The Pierre – A Taj Hotel

2 E 61st St, New York, NY 10065