Farewell to the Hotel Pennsylvania

On this fine spring day I found myself walking up Seventh Avenue past the once stately Hotel Pennsylvania, which opened 102 years ago and closed in April of last year during the peak of the pandemic in New York. Vornado Realty Trust, the current owner, announced the other day that the Hotel Pennsylvania will never see another guest and the building will be razed. At one time the hotel was the biggest in New York City with 2,200 rooms. Its Café Rouge was the home to many of the top dance bands in the land during the swing era and the Glenn Miller Orchestra performed a novelty song which became a big hit, “PEnnsylvania 6–5000,” which was the hotel’s phone number.

The Hotel Pennsylvania was built by the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, whose magnificent Pennsylvania Station was across the street. Both the train station and the hotel shared the same architects, McKim, Mead & White. The original Penn Station was torn down in 1963 and a newer, far uglier one was built in its place. The destruction of the original Penn Station spawned a landmarks preservation movement in New York and elsewhere in the country.

The hotel and the original Penn Station were designed to burnish the image of the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose rival, the New York Central Railroad, constructed the opulent Grand Central Terminal and three nearby hotels, the Commodore, the Biltmore and the Roosevelt. The Biltmore was torn down in 1981 by its owners, Paul and Seymour Milstein, despite the fact the building had New York City landmark status and couldn’t be touched. The Commodore was renovated and encased in glass and steel in 1980 by a young developer, Donald Trump, in his first solo project, turning the Commodore into the Grand Hyatt New York. The Architectural Guidebook to New York City would describe the Grand Hyatt’s exterior as “an utter and inexcusable outrage.” (A side note: Mr. Trump’s father, Fred, had a close political relationship with then-Mayor Abe Beame and the project received a $400-million tax abatement, pushed through by Deputy Mayor Stanley Friedman, who later went to prison after a federal corruption conviction prosecuted by the United States Attorney in Manhattan, Rudy Giuliani. Ironically, after Friedman did his time, he became manager of a much more modest hotel himself — on Staten Island.) As for the Roosevelt, it closed late last year, another victim of the pandemic.

Tonight I dialed PEnnsylvania 6–5000 one last time (1 212 736–5000)…and I heard the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Try it.

The 102-year old Hotel Pennsylvania, which is about to encounter a wrecking ball.