The Hilton hotel chain announced yesterday that it had sold New York City’s storied Waldorf Astoria to China’s Anbang Insurance Group for $1.95 billion. As one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels prepares to change hands, explore 10 surprising facts about the Waldorf Astoria.
1. The hotel was born out of a millionaire family feud.
In the late 19th century, two great-grandsons of patriarch John Jacob Astor (and principal heirs to the family fortune) lived in neighboring mansions on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets. However, more than just a private garden separated cousins William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV, who despised each other. Declaring that “America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live,” William Waldorf Astor moved to England, and to spite the other branch of the family tree, he leveled his mansion and built the 13-story Waldorf Hotel, which opened in 1893—and dwarfed his cousin’s four-story brownstone. Upset to be living next to what he called “a glorified tavern,” John Jacob Astor IV tore down his mansion in 1895 to build the even grander 17-story Astoria Hotel, which opened in 1897. The cousins agreed to a truce and to unify the neighboring hotels under the Waldorf-Astoria name, with the hyphen serving as the tenuous connector between the two properties. (At times during the hotel’s history, a double hyphen was also used in its name. The hyphen, though, is no longer part of the hotel’s official name.)
2. A single hallway connected the Hotel Waldorf and the Astoria Hotel.
So uneasy was the relationship between the two cousins that they agreed to connect their adjoining hotels by only a single hallway that could be quickly sealed up by bricks should their business partnership sour. That glamorous, 300-foot-long marble corridor quickly became a hotel signature dubbed “Peacock Alley” for the fashionable Gilded Age aristocrats who preened down the hallway while the public gawked.
3. The hotel was nearly called the Waldorf-Schermerhorn.
When John Jacob Astor IV was building his hotel, he wanted to name it for his socialite mother, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. The press referred to her as “the Mrs. Astor,” which infuriated William Waldorf Astor to no end. He refused to name the joint hotel the Waldorf-Schermerhorn, and instead the two cousins agreed to the name Astoria in honor of the fur-trading outpost that their great-grandfather had established at the mouth of Oregon’s Columbia River in 1811.
4. The Waldorf Astoria has a strong connection to the Titanic sinking.
After John Jacob Astor IV divorced his first wife, the 47-year-old married 18-year-old socialite Madeline Force. To escape the gossip and controversy, the newlyweds took an extended honeymoon in Europe and the Middle East. They were returning to the United States aboard RMS Titanic when it sank on April 15, 1912. Madeline and the couple’s unborn son survived, but Astor was among the approximately 1,500 fatalities. Ironically, four days after the disaster United States senators gathered inside a Waldorf Astoria ballroom to hear testimony from survivors as part of a congressional investigation.
5. The original hotel was demolished to make way for a famous skyscraper.
Given the pace of technological change, the Victorian-era Waldorf Astoria had become outdated by the 1920s. In addition, Prohibition was drying out not only the country but the hotel’s nightlife as well. In 1928, the hotel was sold to developers who tore it down the following year to make way for the construction of the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest skyscraper when it opened in 1931. Manager Lucius Boomer purchased the Waldorf Astoria name for the grand total of $1 and conveyed it to a new hotel that was built further uptown.
6. The Waldorf Astoria’s second incarnation was the world’s largest hotel when it opened.
When the present Waldorf Astoria opened in October 1931, the Art Deco classic surpassed even its predecessor in grandeur. The hotel contained 2,200 rooms and towered 47 stories above Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets.
7. Franklin D. Roosevelt used a secret basement train platform.
The hotel’s murky basement holds an abandoned subway station, known as Track 61, that’s connected to nearby Grand Central Station. The once-secret entrance was designed to serve VIP guests with private rail cars, and the paralyzed Roosevelt used it as president as part of the effort to shield his use of a wheelchair from the American public. Roosevelt’s special train could pull into the platform, and his armor-plated Pierce Arrow limousine could drive down a ramp and into an elevator that led to the hotel’s garage.
8. Two American presidents lived in the Waldorf Astoria after leaving office.
When the new Waldorf Astoria opened in 1931, President Herbert Hoover delivered a congratulatory message on live radio from the White House. After leaving office in 1933, Hoover moved into the hotel’s residential Waldorf Towers and lived there until he passed away in his suite in 1964. Dwight Eisenhower also lived in the hotel from 1967 until his death in 1969. In addition to Eisenhower, two other five-star generals lived at the Waldorf Astoria—Douglas MacArthur and Omar Bradley. A plaque with a circle of five stars is still mounted above the doorway to the Eisenhowers’ seventh-floor suite. (Every sitting president since Hoover has stayed in the hotel’s four-bedroom Presidential Suite, which includes MacArthur’s personal desk and a rocking chair that once belonged to John F. Kennedy.)
9. The Waldorf salad wasn’t the only culinary concoction launched there.
The Waldorf Astoria’s legendary maitre d’hotel Oscar Tschirky, known as “Oscar of the Waldorf,” developed the signature Waldorf salad in the 1890s. The original recipe consisted of chopped apples and celery tossed with mayonnaise. The recipe later included walnuts and grapes, and to keep the dish lighter and healthier the hotel now uses yogurt and crème fraiche rather than mayonnaise for the dressing. Although not a chef, Tschirky is also credited with the creation of veal Oscar and eggs Benedict, and Thousand Island dressing is thought to have first appeared on menus at the hotel at the behest of proprietor George Boldt.
10. The Waldorf Astoria initiated an amnesty program for the return of its pilfered items.
Waldorf Astoria guests have stolen more than just a few towels over the decades. In fact so many items have been pilfered that the hotel announced in July 2012 an amnesty under which any item could be returned without penalty. Items returned to the Waldorf Astoria included pink teapots, silverware, ashtrays, serving trays, frying pans and even a 51-piece cutlery set.