I took a private tour of every floor of the Algonquin Hotel—conducted by general manager Gary Budge—where we talked about everything from plumbing to wallpaper. I was about to exit into a rainy Manhattan afternoon via the service doorway when he told me something that summed up the whole reason the hotel has been closed since New Year’s Day. “I like the fact we’re still the 110-year-old Algonquin and ready for the next 100 years,” he said.
For months I’d been angling to get into the Algonquin and see it during the renovation. It is scheduled to re-open to the public on May 24, a little more than three weeks away. What I saw knocked me out. I’m someone who has been to the hotel at least twice a month, every month, for more than 12 years. I’ve been to the Algonquin more times than Yankee Stadium, so I was eager to know what was happening. Mr. Budge, who’s been running the place since May 2008, was glad to show off the dusty landmark. “There’s been a lot of interest in when we are opening,” he said.
One thing I learned on my walking tour that begins and ends in the Algonquin lobby is that people are extremely attached to the hotel. They are sentimental and protective towards their memories of the Algonquin, or what they think the hotel should be. Since I was the first person to be let inside that isn’t in the hotel business, I can report that what has been happening since January was not only critical for the building to survive into the future, but the business needed to make the updates to compete in the marketplace. Remaining open during the five-month job was never an option.
“The owner did the right thing,” Mr. Budge said. “Trying to keep the operation going to do the work would not be possible.” He’s referring to Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers, who bought the hotel from HEI Hotels and Resorts in June 2011 for a reported $76 million. Cornerstone is a subsidiary of the real estate division of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Mr. Budge would not say how much is being spent on the renovations, only that it’s “a substantial expense in the millions.” Cornerstone tapped one of the most well known architects in the industry, William B. Tabler, Jr., whose firm has worked on most of the major hotel properties in Manhattan.
Budge commented on what it was like to watch the layers of the building be peeled back to its very skin. “The smell of time was very interesting,” he said. “Stuff dumped in here in 1901 was coming back out.” He pointed out that the flat-arch construction with steel built in a grid was a building practice he saw unveiled first hand. Each six-foot by six-foot section of floor interlocked with each other, with clay tile and rebar materials. All of the walls are of clay blocks, very sturdy, and the plumbing was embedded in the walls as each floor went up. Every wall had to be opened up to have the 110-year old pipes replaced.
The Algonquin is actually two separate buildings. If you’ve ever been to the Blue Bar, that is located in the “annex” next door, which was a carriage house built in the 1860s when West Forty-Fourth Street was lined with stables on the north side of the block. When the Algonquin was built in 1901-1902, the hotel did not own the adjoining property, and only acquired it in 1905. It was a two-story brick and wood building, and a third floor addition was added later.
Here’s what I saw, from the ground floor to the top floor.
I stood in the lobby on dusty tiles that date to 1902. When the hotel opened in November that year, the lobby didn’t have wall-to-wall carpet. The first owner, Albert T. Foster, installed a tiled floor. It has since been covered and uncovered multiple times. For months the lobby has been used as the staging area for the work crews, Mr. Budge told me, and today workmen were using shovels to get the debris out. When the hotel opens back up, this is what you’ll see.
First, the ceiling will be a shade lighter white. Overall, wherever I went, any time the hotel could make a room or space lighter or brighter, they did. In the lobby, the Asian-theme wallpaper from the 1998 renovation has been replaced by something lighter and less dramatic. All new furniture will be in place. Actually, unless I’m mistaken, every stick of furniture in the building is being replaced with new custom-built pieces from California. All of the old furniture has been removed; certain pieces are retained, such as the grandfather clock that legendary manager Frank Case installed.
The lobby will still have the front desk in the same location and the tile floor in the entranceway, also from the 1998 renovation, has been preserved. The woodwork and details are preserved and look beautiful. But it’s what is in the back of the lobby that has generated interest.
The Round Table Room is still in place, but it will be getting new furniture. Hopefully, a round table will be installed and not the oblong one of recent years. This room is the restaurant and will remain so. The painting by Natalie Ascencios of the Vicious Circle will go back up.
Nearby is a new doorway to the Oak Room. The Oak Room is still in place, however it has been reduced in size by about ten feet. The Oak Room will have breakfast service in the morning for Marriott’s two highest levels of gold and platinum card members. “Considering the number who stay here each week,” Mr. Budge said, breakfast service was added. The Oak Room will still be available for music and entertainment. The piano is in storage and will be placed in the left corner of the room, and theatrical lighting will be in the ceiling.
One of my favorite spots in the hotel is the Blue Bar. It’s a relative newcomer to the Algonquin, and has only been in its current location for less than 25 years, but it is a fine place for cocktails. This space was probably most in need of fixing up, and it is getting it. The room has been expanded deeper towards the year, taking away some of the space from the Oak Room behind it, which adds more seating. The bar itself has been lengthened several more feet and a new entranceway to the lobby has been knocked through the common walls.
The Blue Bar is an “interesting gathering spot, great for groups or couples to meet,” Mr. Budge said. The banquettes have been reupholstered. New custom-built furniture will be added. The prints of Al Hirschfeld artwork will return to the walls. The Blue Bar will probably open about a week after the hotel re-opens, according to Mr. Budge.
Unless you are a guest of the hotel, you’ll never see the rooms. That’s a shame, because the guestrooms and suites have all been renovated, every square inch of space. There will also be more of them when the hotel opens. Due to changes in the configuration of some floors (“We’re known for awkward configurations,” Mr. Budge joked), there are seven more rooms, including one all-new suite. There are 181 rooms, up from 174, which includes 25 suites. An important part of the renovation was making the rooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The hotel had been grandfathered in, but now has made the upgrades in the rooms and places such as the Blue Bar and second floor handicap-accessible restrooms.
We went to the top floor, the 10th, to see a suite I’ve always wanted a peek inside. For 100 years room 1010 was the owner’s apartment, and at one time took up most of the south side of the tenth floor. It was where Frank Case raised two children; later owners Ben and Mary Bodne resided here for more than 45 years. Today, the Noel Coward Suite is room 1010, formerly part of the owner’s apartment. There are bookcases built into the walls, different finishes and upholstery. All of the furniture is custom. It’s an eye-popping room that is both cozy and spacious. Just to think of the names who came to this room when it was the owner’s apartment, the Barrymores, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Robert Benchley…
I was shown many of the rooms. All of them will have new furniture and finishes throughout. Every bathroom has been gutted and replaced. There are reproductions of classic New York City photographs expertly matted and displayed; I wanted to take home the one over a bed that showed Times Square circa 1910. While the rooms have all the modern amenities, such as 37” flat-screen TVs and iHome docking stations, it also was a like a time capsule with old photos and color schemes. A makeup mirror on a side table is the kind you see in old movies.
The rooms have lots of plugs for gadgets. I thought the reading lights over the beds were clever for a literary hotel. Safes are mounted on the closet wall (not the floor) and are bigger, so laptops and iPads can fit inside.
I asked Mr. Budge what the owners are trying to do with the room renovations. He said they read the online reviews, and that’s a big reason for making the changes. “We are positioning the asset up,” he said. “(The Algonquin) is not a luxury product, but it pushes it up” with higher-end hotels. I have to agree, I’ve been in luxury hotels and the Algonquin isn’t being put into that category with the renovation, it is coming fully in line with what other high-end hotels deliver to travelers today. A guest wants outlets for their chargers and hot water when the taps are turned. All of the 1901-1902 plumbing has been replaced in all rooms and the air conditioning and heating upgraded.
In a previous renovation the hallways were covered in custom wallpaper of vintage cartoons from The New Yorker. The wallpaper has been replaced with a light cream color with design motifs; it makes the hallways brighter and even seems a little wider. The hotel is framing some of the pieces of the salvaged wallpaper, along with classic magazine covers such as Vanity Fair. The suites will also have artwork tied to the names of the personalities of each one. Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and 20 others all have suites named for them.
Speaking of suites, let me tell you about the most special one of all, and it’s brand new. It’s the John Barrymore Suite, and it’s on the second floor, directly above the Blue Bar (how convenient). It’s an extra-large size room because until the renovation, this was part of the public gallery space used for special events, and a storage room. It has been carved out into a suite, and the best part is it has a sitting area directly in front of the picture windows overlooking Forty-Fourth Street. Mr. Budge called it “loft-like” and it is. The renovation didn’t uncover too many secrets, but finding this new space was a bonus.
There are three other new changes to the second floor. The fitness center has been moved from the third floor, and takes up the space opposite the Barrymore Suite where a public gallery was located. The Helen Hayes Room, a small private meeting space, has been replaced by a new business center with work stations. The Library, which has a large bookcase of signed books from visiting authors, remains in its place but has been done over in lighter colors. A self-service coffee bar for guests is also located on the second floor.
Occupancy rates at the Algonquin were never a problem. In New York City hotels, according to Mr. Budge, the average occupancy rate hovers in the upper 80 percent on most nights. At the Algonquin, it is always booked up 90-95 percent. Improvements to the infrastructure to the hotel will make for a better guest and visitor experience.
However, the renovation is just Phase I in Cornerstone’s plans for the Algonquin. In July is Phase II: scaffoldings and a sidewalk shed will go up for façade restoration and roof repairs. The exterior work will be on the façade, masonry, cornices for stabilization and repair. Because of the building’s landmark status, the exterior will not have any changes made. Mr. Budge estimates the work will take about four months.
When the doors open in a few weeks, most of the staff will return to their positions. Matilda will come home from her vacation upstate. The hotel will be ready for another 100 years of business.
“I like to think we are authentic,” Mr. Budge said. Swiping his keycard into another renovated room, it is clear to me that each space in the hotel is ready for the next century in New York.