New York’s Great Hotel Ballrooms
Grand Central and Penn Station Areas
Just about a mile South from Times Square, Pennsylvania Terminal is the final station for trains originating west and south of New York City and from the East via the Long Island Rail Road. The Hotel New Yorker was built cater-cornered to the Western end of the terminal. In the intervening years, the magnificent McKim, Mead and White terminal edifice, recalling Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, was shorn off and replaced by a drum-shaped incarnation of Madison Square Garden. The station itself has been extended into the former General Post Office, today rebranded as the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station. The hotel’s relationship to its surroundings has changed. Nowadays the New Yorker is celebrated as a moderately-priced and convenient 1000-room place to spend the night after sporting events or concerts at “The Garden.” As numerous alternative hostels have grown in the neighboring side streets, replacing the sweat shops and showrooms of the old Garment Center, the New Yorker has the benefit of heritage and nostalgia to sell itself.
It has been some storied history. The New Yorker opened as an Art Deco masterpiece in 1930 following the trendiest style of that period, which inspired the Chanin (1929 at 122 E. 42nd Street) Chrysler (1930), and Empire State (1931) Buildings just to the East. Opening with 2,503 rooms starting at $3.50, the 43-story New Yorker became a prominent feature of the City’s Western skyline. Instantly a hit with New York’s politicians and entrepreneurs, the hotel’s primary claim to nighttime fame was in its Terrace Room that showcased the top Swing bands of its era – Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, and Benny Goodman. The music was so hot that in 1939 WNBC started its radio broadcasts direct from the Terrace Room.
It was a rough ride for the hotel following the city’s decline in the 1960s and 70s, through numerous changes of ownership, closures and indecision about strategic direction. New York City postcard collectors and numerous guests visiting from outside the city and abroad have had a love/hate relationship with the New Yorker, following the hotel through its changes while it has been the venue for Metro Postcard Club shows and events for the last four decades.
On the opposite side of Penn Station at 7th Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets stood a competitor to the New Yorker with equal shares of character and elan, The Hotel Pennsylvania. Following the construction of New York’s great railroad terminals Penn Station (1910) and the reconstructed and expanded Grand Central Terminal in 1913, standing to the East at Park Avenue and 42nd Street, it made sense for the corporations owning the trains, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad, to sponsor the development of hotels nearby that could now siphon business and convention traffic. Construction began on the Hotel Commodore to the East and named after its owner, The Hotel Pennsylvania to the West.
Like the terminal, following a design by the firm of McKim, Mead and White and facing the station’s monumental colonnade, The Hotel Pennsylvania’s 2,200 rooms were an instant sensation when construction was completed in 1919. The largest hotel in the world at that time, it was slightly larger than the Commodore, which opened a few days later. The Hotel Pennsylvania offered a range of services and amenities, including being among the first hotels to offer telegraph service in 1922.
The Pennsylvania provided several entertainment spaces, featuring eclectic designs in French, Italian, and English styles that vied for action during the Swing Era. Many of the bands in demand at other venues around New York made sure to spend some time at the Pennsylvania – the Dorsey Brothers, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the Andrews Sisters. The Glenn Miller Band added notably to the establishment’s reputation when they recorded a song that featured the hotel’s phone number Pennsylvania 6-5000 in its title and lyrics.
Time was not kind to the Pennsylvania. Going through a series of ownership and branding changes, unsympathetic reconstruction and restaging, the hotel finally reached its terminal gasps during the Covid pandemic and is now being demolished and rebuilt as an office tower.
Going just a short distance East to 6th Avenue, you reach the Herald Square area, the heart of New York’s shopping district, where formerly many legitimate theaters stood, before the theater district moved north to Times Square and Lincoln Center. Several hotels were built to compete for visitors coming to take advantage of these attractions.
from a 1924 message:
“Monday night dined up here
–H–O–T– Wonderful music.”
The Hotel McAlpin was the largest hotel in the world when it was constructed by General Edwin A. McAlpin in 1912 though its bragging rights did not last long. Sharing a city block with the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, it had a significant new neighbor in 1931 after that hostelry moved north and was replaced by The Empire State Building. During its prime time, the hotel was known as a respite for busy women doing their marketing at Herald Square’s many alluring stores, including Macy’s and Gimbel’s, and by offering quite a few gender-specific restaurants and floors at the hotel. The men’s floors were compensated for the absence of women by Turkish and Russian baths, stock tickers, stenographers, and military officers’ clubs. Entertainment was offered on the roof garden and food was served in their Guastavino-tiled Marine Grill in the basement.
The Hotel McAlpin soldiered on until 1976 when, after spending some time as the Sheraton Atlantic, it was converted to residential apartments today known as the Herald Towers.
Located just down the street along Herald Square, the Hotel Martinique has also had a checkered though storied history. Built in 1897-98 according to a French Renaissance design by Henry J. Hardenburgh, designer of many important residential buildings and hotels in New York and elsewhere in the United States, including the Dakota Apartments, the original Walford-Astoria Hotel, the Plaza Hotel, The Home of the Art Students League of New York, The Copley Plaza Hotel (Boston) and the Willard Hotel (Washington,) the hostelry today once again welcomes guests as part of the Curio Collection of Historic Hotels by Hilton.
32nd Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue, fronted by the Martinique is nowadays known as “Koreatown” which features cheek by jowl Korean restaurants, groceries, bubble tea shops, soju bars and massage parlors. In recognition of its neighborhood, the Hotel Martinique today makes efforts to appeal to its Asian and Asian-American clientele.
Owing to the ethnic heritage of its designer and architectural style, the hotel offered the Dutch Room and the Pierrot Room for entertainment during its nightclub days, preserved in many attractive postcards. The French connection survives in the Petit Poulet restaurant that offers an alternative to the Korean cuisine on the street.
Like other hotels, The Martinique declined during the 1960s and was turned into a welfare hotel from 1973 to 1988 housing 1,400 children within 389 families when a count was made in 1985. In better times the hotel was the birthplace of the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) in 1916.
Marching East to Park Avenue, then North to Grand Central Terminal will bring you to the third neighborhood covered by our survey. As we have already noted, the Commodore Hotel was completed in the same month as the Pennsylvania Hotel to the West because the New York Central was determined to hold on to its own customers coming in from the Hudson Valley and Connecticut suburbs and from locations to the Northeast and Northwest of New York City. Connected to the completion of the terminal also was the creation of a development district, Terminal City, committed to stimulating the creation of infrastructure, including construction of hotels and commercial buildings. The Roosevelt and Biltmore Hotels emerged from this process and offered entertainment spaces promoted by postcards during the city’s golden age of nightclubbing. It will be instructive to look at the fate of all these hotels since the 1950s.
The Commodore whose Century Room is depicted on the postcard below was closest to Grand Central and no doubt took the deepest dive – low occupancy rates, dirt, and derelicts. The owners were looking for a buyer who could take over the place and turn it around. They found a young, up and coming real estate developer eager to make a name for himself as a turnaround artist. His name was Donald J. Trump.
After being closed in 1976, the 2000 room Commodore was reinvented as the 1,400 room Grand Hyatt New York by Trump working with the Hyatt hotel chain owned by the politically connected Pritzker Family. It was supposed to spur redevelopment of the entire Grand Central area and it did over time. Newly clad in dark glass with a cantilevered restaurant perched over 42nd Street, the new Hyatt encouraged the Terminal to dispossess the derelicts, renovate the retail shops and install a food court with many tasty options and an upscale food market to join its doyen of New York seafood restaurants, the Grand Central Oyster Bar.
Even good things don’t last forever. The hotel, now called the Hyatt Grand Central is scheduled to close permanently in 2023 to be replaced by Project Commodore, an 83-story mixed-use tower with office space and a truncated 500-room Grand Hyatt on the 65th to 83rd floors. The anticipated completion date is 2030.
Two other hotels, the Biltmore and Roosevelt, were created during the Terminal City years, both initially connected to the train station through private walkways. Each came to dark final curtains despite their allure as luxurious and desirable havens during their prime.
1918 message from the Hotel Biltmore Cascades:
“Enjoying this trip so much. Having fine time.
1939 message from the Biltmore Royal Palm Roof:
“N.Y. same as ever – Whatta place”
1948 message from the Roosevelt Grill: “Dear Ma, The weather is getting cooler.
I met the Mayor of New York this morning.”
The New York Biltmore Hotel operated between 1913 and 1981 and is today remembered primarily for its clock, which was a notable New York meeting spot, and for its Men’s Bar, which was subjected to protests during the height of the women’s movement until it admitted females. It was also known as a favored location for college reunions and those who liked to crash those parties. It avoided reinvestment during the dodgy ‘70s so by the end of that decade was deemed no longer usable as a hotel. Developer Paul Milstein took advantage of the situation and ripped it down to its steel beams, much to the chagrin of preservationists and nostalgists, replacing the Biltmore with an office building which still occupies the site.
A small piece of the old Biltmore survives and will soon be resurrected. The old walkway between the Terminal and the hotel has been recreated as a component of the long-anticipated connection of the Long Island Rail Road and Grand Central. The Madison Concourse will be a dramatic new art space featuring work by Yayoi Kusama and Kiki Smith.
The Roosevelt Hotel, the Biltmore’s partner abutting Grand Central Terminal, did complete renovations and was able to compete favorably as a location for meetings and conferences during the business boom of the 1980s. During the 1940s and ‘50s, the Roosevelt Grill prided itself as the “Winter Home of Guy Lombardo,” who owned New Years Eve during the radio era and early years of television. The orchestral strains of “Auld Lang Syne” by the Ontario-born bandleader and his “Royal Canadiens,” continue to define the year’s passage for many Baby-Boomers. Time has caught up with the Roosevelt, though. It was closed permanently during the Covid Pandemic and its site faces an uncertain future.
Two more hotels popular during the clubgoing era continue to thrive. We have already described how the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel left its original perch at 5th Avenue and 34th Street to make room for the iconic Empire State Building. Its 1931 resurrection on an entire city block between 49th and 50th Streets and Park and Lexington Avenue was the largest hotel in the world when completed and has set the standard for luxury and style among New York City hotels. The Art Deco masterpiece has also reestablished traditions in hospitality, entertainment, and fine dining. Its Towers section has served as the home for leaders in politics and the arts: Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra have numbered among the Waldorf’s long-term tenants.
The hotel’s private and public ballrooms have been the stage for leading social events for the last seven decades. During New York’s Mambo craze in the 1950s, its Xavier Cugat Room was the setting for many deliriously shaken tushies. The Empire Room has hosted numerous top-shelf performers from Count Basie to Victor Borge, Gordon MacRae, Liza Minnelli, George M. Cohan, and Lena Horne, the first black star at the hotel.
Just a block down from the Waldorf, there’s another place the Hotel Lexington that has some claim to famous former residents – Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe shacked up here when they were an item. They surely enjoyed the Aloha kitsch that was in vogue in the early 1950s or the clean mid-century modern look that evolved in the hotel’s Hawaiian Room. Ray Kinney and the Aloha Maids are securely locked in the Lexington’s past and today the hotel aims to be sleek and chic as a member of the Marriott chain’s Autograph Collection of top urban hostelries. Good beds, pleasant amenities, and a solid location – the Lexington is a New York treasure.
What this overview of hotel ballrooms should prove is that New York never has and never will stay the same. The city is always adapting, always changing, always getting drawn in one way or another by various demographic groups, technologies, aesthetic ideas, and psychological types. Time is our greatest friend but also a thieving foe.
The 1960s and 1970s
As a sociologist and social historian, I’m often asked, “What happened? Why did New York City decline so precipitously in the 1960s and ‘70s? The answer is simple although it involved the complex intersection of several social forces. Most importantly, returning World War II warriors were entitled to housing and education benefits under the G. I. Bill. A good portion chose to move outside the city and to undertake careers that were no longer in demand in New York. This trend, which we call “suburbanization,” coincided with the reduction of rail traffic as highways and airports were expanded. At the same time, the returning G. I.s were eager to have children and expand their families. This stimulated what we call the “Postwar Baby Boom,” which encouraged families to stay home and stop going out to the movies, theaters, and nightclubs. Simultaneously, people found an alternative in the “Golden Age of Television,” which offered many alluring attractions and motivated people to stay close to home. “Changing tastes” – youngsters moved on to Blues, Doo-wop, Rock, Folk, and beyond. Mom and Dad’s preferences suddenly seemed so-o-o-o yesterday. Finally, New York’s economy began shifting away from one based on manufacturing and trade. The growth of the “Service Economy” diminished the need for personal commercial encounters and stimulated the use of electronic communications via telephones and computers.
– Hy Mariampolski