A Look at the Plaza in 1907

October 16, 2019


I have always had a fondness for the storied and elegant Plaza Hotel in New York City. Back in the day I interviewed a delightful fashion editor in the Plaza’s famous Palm Court. I found the whole experience fascinating so when I came across an article about the history of the Plaza I started reading at once.

The famous Plaza Hotel in New York City

This four-page piece in the Travel & Leisure of June 2019 is excerpted from a recently published book written by Julie Satow that is titled The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel. The author relates how the most opulent hotel in New York City became the heart of the city’s social life, and in turn, ushered in an entirely new era of social behavior that left its mark on New York for generations to come.

FIRST, wealthy folks began to embrace a wider public life. In fact, 90% of those who checked into the Plaza on October 1, 1907 were permanent residents who had plans to stay indefinitely – some for a lifetime. By living in hotels, these new apartment dwellers avoided what was called, “the servant problem” or finding and keeping affordable and well-trained help.

SECOND, there was also an awareness of the Plaza’s modern amenities, namely: thermostats, telephones and automatic winding clocks. In addition, there were three-button panels stationed on every floor that allowed guests to call for a bellboy, maid or waiter.

THIRD, it became fashionable to dine in the Plaza’s popular subterranean Grill Room and to go dancing in the spectacular ballroom. The Plaza and similar sophisticated venues became the preeminent places to show off, enjoy one’s wealth and ensure one’s place in high society.

The original Palm Court tearoom

FOURTH, the service offered to patrons who had pets was even more astounding. “Like their owners, Plaza dogs tend to be exceptionally well dressed and well fed. They find life at the hotel unhurried and pleasant,” Life magazine noted. An example was Nana, a French poodle who had her own room featuring a miniature bath, a dog tutor and nurse plus a specially designed dog-food menu.

FIFTH, stellar service was necessary for a hotel the size of the Plaza – so there was a staff of roughly 1,500 that included: 50 each of chambermaids, housemaids and bellboys; plus 200 waiters, 75 laundresses, 25 porters, 20 bartenders, 10 wine cellar men and 15 barbers. In later years there were two men whose sole job was to dust the hundreds of Plaza chandeliers.

SIXTH, the furnishings were definitely top drawer and, despite the money lavished on the interiors, the new Plaza was considered restrained. It was “rich, but not gaudy,” wrote the Hotel Monthly. In the end, the hotel shattered records and drew broad applause. The price of construction was unrivaled, running to an astounding $12.5 million (or $340 million in today’s dollars).

Taxis lined up outside the Plaza on opening day

Even the most jaded observers gazed in awe. “I stood in Central Park at night and marveled,” wrote one besotted tourist who came to see the Plaza one evening and marveled at the many chandeliers casting a soft yellow glow into the darkness. “The tiers of irregular light and shade make one think of all humanity living in one building. The Plaza is surely one of the most moving sights in all of New York,” he said with an air of finality.

I totally agree.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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