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Secrets of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel

Category General

|by Craig Nelson |

From a secret train tunnel to the origins of the signature salad, here are 11 fascinating facts about one of New York's classic five-star hotels

New York City is not suffering from a lack of five-star hotels, but few can live up to the incredible history of the Waldorf Astoria. The building is one of the largest Art Deco structures still standing anywhere in the world. In 1993 the city named it—and its spectacular interiors—an official New York City landmark. And even though there are currently 1,416 guest rooms, the Waldorf Astoria takes pride in a design philosophy where no two rooms are exactly the same. You’ll also find three restaurants, five lounges and, of course, 47 stories of unique New York history. If you have around $400 to spare, you can spend the night and experience the Waldorf for yourself. If not, you can still visit the lobby to get a taste of old-school New York. Either way, we have compiled a list of this legendary destination’s very best secrets (there is a reason why this place is still attracting visitors from around the world over eight decades after it first opened its doors). Did we mention that the Waldorf is also the first choice of sitting presidents when visiting the city? There’s a very special reason why—read on to find out.

A look inside the Presidential Suite (Photo: Courtesy of The Waldorf Astoria)

A look inside the Presidential Suite (Photo: Courtesy of The Waldorf Astoria)

The Hotel Grew Out of a Family Feud
No one would have guessed back in the 1890s that two rich, feuding cousins would have created one of the most lasting names in the hotel business. In 1893, William Waldorf Astor opened a 13-story hotel at Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street called the Waldorf Hotel. In 1897, his cousin John Jacob Astor IV (who later died on the Titanic) opened a new 17-story hotel named the Astoria Hotel in an adjacent property. The buildings were eventually connected by a corridor, becoming the Waldorf=Astoria (the = was to symbolize the bridge between the buildings, and has since been phased out). The hotels stood together in harmony until the last 1920s, when the decision was made to move uptown and the land was sold to the developers of the Empire State Building. The brand-new Waldorf Astoria hotel opened on October 1, 1931 and immediately made history — it was the largest and tallest hotel in the world at the time. It spans an entire city block on Park and Lexington Avenue between 49th and 50th streets.

How the Waldorf Changed the Hotel Industry Forever
Service has always been a top priority at the Waldorf Astoria, so it’s no surprise it was the first hotel in the world to offer room service for guests. This luxurious perk was unheard of in the 1930s, but it changed the hotel industry forever. Today you can get almost anything during regular meal hours, and the Waldorf has a select menu that runs from midnight to 5am. Want a Reuben Sandwich and bottle of Champagne in the middle of the night? The staff will fulfill your request without hesitation. And with dignitaries and celebrities part of the regular clientele, the crew has to be ready to whip up almost anything at a moment’s notice.

Why the Hotel Still Celebrates the End of Prohibition
The hotel industry was hit hard by Prohibition, and the Waldorf-Astoria was no exception. The original properties were sold in part to make up for lost revenues, and the new Waldorf Astoria was open for two years before they were able to sell liquor. They even had to rethink their child policies once booze wasn’t an option, and the Waldorf Astoria was the first hotel to serve a kids menu to guests starting in 1921. When the alcohol ban was finally lifted, there was a huge sigh of relief and there were plenty of parties to celebrate. Eighty years later, they’re still celebrating. Peacock Alley, one of the most famous hotel lobby bars in the city, sometimes still holds Repeal Day parties on December 5th. But no matter what time of year, it’s worth it to slip into one of the leather chairs at this classic cocktail bar for a sip of old New York.

The Secret Underground Train Platform
Walking along bustling Park Avenue, you’d never guess there’s a big secret hidden just below your feet. An abandoned train platform, known as Track 61, was originally built to carry freight from Grand Central Terminal just a few blocks away. As the years went by, it was transformed into an underground station for VIPs to enter the Waldorf Astoria in a clandestine manner. President Franklin Roosevelt was the most famous to take advantage of this perk, and there was even an elevator big enough to hold his bulletproof automobile. A train car still sits waiting to be boarded, but don’t hold your breath on seeing it anytime soon. This amazing underground space is rarely opened to the public. It was opened once for Andy Warhol, however, who hosted a legendary video art exhibition down there in 1965.)

The Famous Salad
Who would have guessed that a simple mix of apples, celery, grapes and walnuts tossed in a mayonnaise-based dressing and served on a bed of lettuce would have created an international sensation. But that’s exactly what happened when maitre d’ Oscar Tschirky created this new salad at the original hotel back in the mid-1890s. It became popular enough to be featured in the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top” from the musical Anything Goes. And it’s still a staple on many restaurant menus across the country, including, of course, the restaurants at the Waldorf. It is on the menu at the hotel’s Bull & Bear, Peacock Alley and Oscar’s, a breakfast and lunch spot named after the famous maitre d’.

The Hotel Hits the Big Screen
Starring Ginger Rogers, one of the biggest actresses of her day, the 1945 hit movie Weekend at the Waldorf filmed many scenes on location, capturing external and internal shots of the hotel as well as scenes on the streets of New York. Ironically, the movie was almost filmed in San Francisco, because the Waldorf management insisted the movie be shot in full color to show off the splendor of the hotel. The producers won the argument in the end, and the black and white film debuted to large audiences who helped make it one of the top ten grossing films that year. The hotel has been featured in many movies since, from Scent of a Woman to Coming to America.

It’s Called the Presidential Suite for a Reason
It’s not the finest suite in the city or even at the Waldorf Astoria, but unique amenities like multiple adjacent rooms for staff, bulletproof glass windows, and an interior design similar to the White House make this grand accommodation high up on the 35th floor the number one choice of sitting presidents when they visit New York. Every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed here, including President Obama, who sleeps here every time he’s in town. Each president has also left the hotel a gift that is now featured in the suite (JFK left a rocking chair), so check back in a couple years to see what Obama leaves.

Famous Faces Moving In
There have been several notable Americans to call the hotel home over the years including Herbert Hoover (after his presidency), Cole Porter, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and three five-star generals (MacArthur, Eisenhower & Bradley). These guests didn’t just book a room or suite for the weekend. They rented one-of-a-kind apartments. There are several residential units in the hotel, located on the 28th to 42nd floors known as the Waldorf Towers. These are some of New York’s most desired homes, the smallest coming it at 1,600 square feet and many with a private terrace. All include 24-hour maid service, a private entrance and sky high price tags—some of these rent for upwards of $100,000 per month.

Stolen Treasures Returned Without Guilt
Many a hotel guest has slipped a towel or two into their luggage, but what about a silver platter? So many mementos have been stolen from the Waldorf Astoria over the years that in July 2012 the management company announced an amnesty period where any item could be returned without penalty. Mementos came in from all over the country including spoons, a silver coffee creamer, butter knives and more basic memorabilia like Do Not Disturb signs. It’s all part of grand plan to revive the storied history of the iconic hotel and promote the brand to new generations. Featured items are on display in the lobby for all guests to see up close, and unique discoveries, from a sweet pink teapot dating back to the late 1930s to a 51-piece set of cutlery, will be posted the hotel’s digital archive site.

The Nightclub Still Draws Society’s Elite
Nestled on the 19th floor, the Starlight Roof is a spacious banquet room elaborately decked out in Art Deco style. When it first opened in 1931, it featured a retractable roof, a grand innovation at the time. This supper club gained a quick following among New York society, and at its peak in the 1930s and 40s, it was packed every night with the biggest names in show biz. Many famous entertainers played here, including Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, as the city’s elite dined on gourmet food and hit the dance floor for a spin. For 16 years the house band was led by Rumba King Xavier Cugat, a popular Latin music conductor who earned his chops in Cuba. There was even a terrace for summer dining with a city view. The retractable roof is long gone, but the Starlight Room is still available to host special events. Just this year, there was a gala honoring the memory of British singer Amy Winehouse with entertainment by Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte and Jennifer Hudson.

Another Famous Family Takes Over
It’s no coincidence that this iconic hotel is now connected to one of the most famous names in the hotel industry. It was a lifelong dream of Conrad Hilton to manage the Waldorf Astoria. In 1949 he finally realized his dream and took over the management duties at the Waldorf Astoria. In 1972, the Hilton corporation bought the property outright, which was a lucky move for the famous socialite (and great-grand daughter of Conrad) Paris Hilton. Thanks to her family fortune, she was already a jetsetter as a young child living between Beverly Hills, the Hamptons, and yes, a fancy suite in the Waldorf Astoria. She was running around the Art Deco halls with her sister Nicky meeting presidents, crashing fun parties, and enjoying the luxurious amenities of the hotel as a kid. Not a bad way to grow up.

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