Charismatic concierges, poolside relaxation, continental breakfasts and of course, room service; there are many reasons why travelers far and wide may choose to lodge at a hotel. Americans have overwhelmingly chosen hotels as their most popular vacation accommodations, with over 55 percent of travelers selecting to stay in a hotel over any other establishment. With over 91,000 hotels and motels dotted across America, tourists and travelers of all types have their pick of the litter: New York city however offers some of the most quintessential, historic and luxurious hotels this side of the country. Below you’ll find CitySignal’s guide to a few of the most iconic hotels in New York City; some to stay in, some to sightsee, and some to simply remember very fondly.
Hotels to Sightsee
The Ansonia Hotel, in operation from its erection in 1904 to its conversion to condominiums in the early 90s, has one of the most complex, controversial, and fabulous histories of any pre-war hotel in the city. Built by the “All Time Black Sheep” heir to the Phelps-Dodge copper fortune, William Earle Dodge Stokes, the intention was to put Grande Boulevard (now known as Broadway) on the map by building the grandest, tallest, biggest building in the city. With over 1400 rooms, 550,000 square feet of space, a chicken farm on the roof, and an egg market in the basement, the Ansonia was never the chicest spot to stay; but its long list of historic residences has cemented its importance. From baseball player Babe Ruth to Four Seasons composer Igor Stravinsky, the seedy, infamous reputation of the hotel drew many eccentric guests. In one of its most famous stints, the basement of the hotel served as the base for a gay bathhouse where a young Bette Mindler performed alongside Barry Manilow, her accompanist.
The hotel also played a key role in the blackmail of Edward R. West, the Black Sox Scandal, and as a safe house for bank robber Willie Sutton. One resident, Thomas The Cat, never left the location and has reportedly been haunting the halls since 1903. With a major stripping of the face for World War I steel, and a series of less-than-scrupulous owners, the building, now a historic landmark, retains only a shadow of its former glory. The building is now home to 385 condominiums, rearranged in 2007 to recreate the grand apartments of history long since past, with units going for as low as $800,000 per year up to over $5.5 million and renting for $9,500 a month; A small ask to live in a pre-war condominium with a sharp Parisian-style exterior and refurbished interior. Part of the building also serves as a secondary facility for The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA).
Fifth Avenue Hotel
Considered at the time to be not only the finest hotel in not just New York City but the world, the Fifth Avenue hotel was located at 200 Fifth Avenue and was in operation from 1859 to 1908. Built on what many considered to be cursed ground (as dozens of skeletons were unearthed during construction), Amos Richard Eno, a wealthy businessman, was not deterred. Influenced heavily by European architecture, the hotel’s interior was modeled after French hotels, while the exterior was all imported Italian marble. The location also featured the first steam-powered passenger elevator built in the United States. Politicians appreciated the hotel for its luxury but also its security; with soundproofed rooms and discreet staff; except in the case of Robert Montague, a famous bank robber, who was arrested after his chambermaid tipped off the police.
James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, had a specifically involved history in the hotel, having to pander to Republican support at the convention in 1880. Chester A. Arthur, the eventual successor, also frequented the hotel before Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau, who also found himself in the hotel from time to time, truly a very small world.
In 1908 the Fifth Avenue Hotel was officially torn down and rebuilt into the Fifth Avenue Toy Center, which according to the Toy Manufacturer’s association, was responsible for 95% of the toy business by 1981. In 2007 however, the building at 200 Fifth Avenue was sold again to L&L Holding company to be transitioned into a Class A office building and where Eataly is currently located.
A new hotel has risen nearby at 250 Park Ave that has taken the name Fifth Ave Hotel that visitors can sight-see. It is not open for bookings just yet.
Closed for Renovations
With legendary service and a long, celebrated history, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel is one of the most well-known hotels in New York City. Synonymous with celebrity, the original Waldorf Hotel was built in 1893 by William Waldorf Astor, an attorney, and scion to the grotesquely wealthy Astor Family of New York City. Like a plot out of some plutocratic fantasy, Waldorf’s cousin and rival, John Jacob Astor IV, built an even taller hotel next door in a startling show of one-upmanship. Eventually, following a truce, the buildings were connected by Peacock Alley, a long marble corridor, and hence was renamed the Waldorf-Astoria.
The first hotel to have electricity on every floor, en suite baths, and 24-hour room service, the Waldorf Astoria set a precedent for luxury hotel living. After its grand reopening in 1931 as a dual tower hotel in a new location, celebrities such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Andy Warhol, and every president from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama have graced the halls and rooms: The late Queen Elizabeth II even stayed at the location with Prince Phillip in 1957. The location is currently undergoing a $1 billion renovation but will be open again in 2023, when you’ll again be able to walk the halls and brush elbows with celebrities of yesteryear. Units in the building are currently for sale, all the way up to $19 million.
Hotels to book now
The Plaza Hotel
Possibly the most famous hotel in New York City, it’s said that “Nothing unimportant ever happens at The Plaza.” Opening in 1907, for over 100 years, the hotel has been the location of critical meetings, classic films, and glitzy nightlife. Built on the site of the Original Plaza hotel after it was demolished in 1905, it was rebuilt two years later by Bernhard Beinecke, Fred Sterry, and Harry S. Black for $12 million (which at the time was unprecedented). It took about twenty-seven months to demolish the old Plaza and build the new one, but the investment was well worth it. Reportedly, the single largest order for gold-encrusted china was placed with L. Straus and Sons to furnish the new hotel, truly sparing no expense for the decadence.
From 1959 to 2013 and beyond, the hotel has served as a set piece to some of the most important and influential films of their times. Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was the first time the Plaza made its way to the silver screen but it was followed by The Way We Were, The Front, Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby, and perhaps most famously, Home Alone 2, where a hapless Macaulay Culkin wandered the halls of the hotel unchaperoned. Guests today can even pick from several themed offers, including a Home Alone 2: Fun In New York package that includes a Limousine ride to the filming locations, a large cheese pizza, and a Home Alone Sundae.
Originally conceived as a socialist utopian commune by architect Philip Hubert, this eccentric, bohemian hotel has a rich cultural history and has hosted some of the most famous names in the art world: From Bob Dylan to Janis Joplin, Mark Twain to Jimmy Hendrix. Andy Warhol shot several films with actress Viva, while Madonna, who lived there during the 80s, has used the location for photo shoots and public appearances.
Arthur C. Clark is said to have written 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Chelsea, while Jack Kerouac is said to have had a one-night stand with Gore Vidal. In the 70s, The Chelsea was run as an informal artists’ colony for a period of time, where artists traded paintings for rent or lived free, subsidized by the super-rich, who also called the hotel home. It was curated and run by Stanley Bard, who has been called everything from ”the best landlord in history” to “the biggest starfucker of all time.”
Closed for eleven years due to renovations, the hotel has recently reopened and is accepting new guests at all-time-low “hard hat” rates to encourage those who don’t mind a little bit of construction to have a stay. Some 50-odd guests call the 12-story building a permanent home, many of who have been there for decades. The renovations on the nearly 140-year-old building have brought a restored lobby, refurbished apartments and rooms for vistors, two restaurants, an event space, and a rooftop fitness center and spa. Additionally, El Quijote, an old-school Spanish restaurant next door that was closed in 2018, is scheduled to reopen alongside the hotel.
At around $200 to $600 a night, it’s a steal for the amount of history and legacy you get to interact with. You may even be joined by a few spectral friends.
A building’s life is often long, complicated, and dotted with scandals and mysteries, even more so for a hotel where hundreds of thousands of fascinating guests filter in and out yearly. These fabulous, historic New York hotels are fascinating and well worth a stay if you’re able; You might even share the halls with a ghostly cat or artistic royalty if you’re lucky!
Josiah Thomas Turner is writer and musician based out of Washington Heights, New York. Turner received his undergraduate degree in Drama from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point before earning an M.F.A. in Playwriting from The University of Texas at Austin. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Turner trained as a multi-instrumentalist from a young age and spent much of his early years creating and performing music. Josiah’s current interest include animation, video-games and French-Canadian prog-rock.