Meet Me at the Hyphen

Peter Nicholas Otis, Sean Fitzell, and Carolyn Li-Madeo

How many stories can one block tell? Before there were skyscrapers and yellow taxis, there were a multitude of different New York Cities. Parceled off as plots of land and sold to individuals by the City of New York during the 1700’s, what was once the home of the Lenape people slowly evolved into the New York City of today.

The busy corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue was once owned by John Thomspson, a farmer who purchased it as part of a virgin tract of land that stretched from present day 33rd Street to 36th Street for $2,600. Thompson’s farm was eventually bought in 1827 by William Backhouse Astor, the son of a German fur trader and the largest private owner of real estate in New York. Astor purchased the farm as an investment for $20,500 – a small portion of his $100 million dollar estate.

William Backhouse Astor along with his older brother each built mansions for their families on the Astor Farm. Their mansions were eventually passed down to their sons, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV, cousins and namesakes of the famous Waldorf=Astoria hotel. Despite their close quarters the cousins and their families famously did not get along. From their attached mansions the Astor heirs lavishly campaigned against each other for the favor of New York high-society, throwing lavish dances for crowds up to 300 guests. Finally exhausted by his wife’s fights with his aunt Caroline Astor, William Waldorf Astor decided to move his family to England in 1890.

Afraid of seeing the Waldorf residence fall into disrepair under the hands of someone outside of his family, William Waldorf Astor decided to demolish his mansion. Unrestricted by the zoning laws that exist today William decided to build a grand hotel to stand as a stable source of revenue and a lasting monument to his family. There was of course another attraction to William and his family, the added bonus that his aunt Caroline would hate to live next to a hotel.

And Caroline Astor did in fact hate living next to her nephew’s popular hotel. She and her son John Jacob Astor IV watched as William received praise and revenue for his famous namesake. So when the hotel’s first proprietor approached the Astors with the idea of building a second hotel next to the Waldorf they agreed.

The calculative Mrs. Caroline Astor did add stipulations to the construction however, her family’s hotel was to stand at least 30 inches away from the Waldorf and the corridor that connected to two hotels would have to be easy to wall up in case the two families found it impossible to work together, finally the new Astoria hotel would stand three stories taller than the 13 story Waldorf.

When the new hotel opened, the Waldorf-Astoria consisted of 1000 guest rooms as well as numerous ballrooms, bathes, roof gardens and bars. The ‘hyphenated’ hotel was connected by a 300-foot-long marble corridor known lovingly by New Yorkers as Peacock Alley, after all of the well dressed visitors who promenaded down the hall and congregated at its many side tables.

For New Yorkers, both rich and poor during the early 1900’s, The Waldorf=Astoria came to represent the city. Innovations such as the Waldorf Salad, cultural icons like the Bull and Bear bar, each lavish soiree or tabloid covered affair that took place at the hotel all made it a cultural icon for New Yorkers and visitors from around the world.

Prohibition, World War II, an interest in over-seas travel and the death of the hotels’ first proprietors lead to a steady decline in the hotel’s revenue. Eventually on December 20th, 1928 it was announced that the Waldorf-Astoria would be hosting its last guests in May of 1929.

In the months that lead up to the hotel’s closing guests stole extra towels and other ephemera and whatever could be sold was auctioned off. New Yorkers who couldn’t afford to stay at the hotel celebrated its demise by watching as wreckers drove trucks down the beloved Peacock Alley and grumbled over the necessity of the next building that was to be built on the property. The world’s largest office building: the Empire State Building.

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