The Hotel Pennsylvania is going to come down, Steven Roth has told his Vornado shareholders. That’s not a shock. It’s an old-fashioned hotel with a great many small rooms, on an extremely valuable site directly across from Pennsylvania Station, fronting on Seventh Avenue. Because it’s lost some luster over the years, the hotel probably has a rough time drawing business travelers. I stayed there as a young person around 1984, and by that time it was passable but dowdy. Judging by some of the recent reviews on TripAdvisor (e.g., “a real life episode of American Horror Story” and “there were blood stains on the pillows”), it’s slipped further since then. Eight years ago, Roth said that he was planning to renovate and turn it into something great, but we live in a different economic climate now, and the empty air above that giant site at 401 Seventh is apparently just too tempting to resist. A 1,270-foot tower, bearing the not-at-all-phallic name of PENN15, is its likely replacement.
There is inevitably, when a building of this age is about to come down, someone who wants to landmark it. Frankly, the Hotel Pennsylvania is a building that could be made handsome and appealing again, but it’s just not quite significant enough to fight over. Architecturally, it is like a lot of early-20th-century midsize hotels and office buildings around the city, only larger; it is surely a better-quality example from its period, designed by McKim, Mead & White, but it’s bulky enough that it already takes up a big bite of light and air, so you can’t make much of a case regarding scale. Even if you’re a hardcore preservationist, your energies might be better spent elsewhere. The best argument in favor of keeping it is that midtown has relatively few hotel rooms at low prices for college kids and budget travelers, and the Pennsylvania, owing to its frumpiness, couldn’t charge too much. In the abstract, it’s a pretty good argument, for sure, but “we should preserve this indefinitely as a dump because it fills an economic niche” is a hard one to win, at least when it comes to one of the most well-positioned privately owned pieces of land in town.
Which is not to say it doesn’t deserve recognition. It was once the biggest hotel on Earth, and it survived a full century, having opened as the last pandemic began to wane in 1919. (Its contemporary next to Grand Central, the old Hotel Commodore — now the Grand Hyatt — is also likely to be replaced by a supertall in the near future.) It claims to have been the first hotel that had “valet doors” — little compartments next to the room door where guests could leave shoes and clothes to be polished or laundered overnight — and it’s also one of the last, because those valet doors are still there. It has gone through a whole list of names: the Hotel Pennsylvania became the Hotel Statler, then the Statler Hilton, then the Statler again, then the New York Penta, and finally, coming full circle, it went back to being the Hotel Pennsylvania. Most famously, it was the hotel where, in the 1930s and ’40s, Glenn Miller and his orchestra stayed when in New York, playing the club downstairs — so regularly, in fact, that Jerry Gray and Carl Sigman wrote Miller a playful song around its phone number, PEnnsylvania 6-5000. That’s still the number you call to reach the hotel, and it is said to be New York’s longest in continuous use.
And in February 1947, the hotel hosted a scientific conference at which a breakthrough new product was introduced: Edwin Land showed off his invention, Polaroid instant photography. There were dark dramas, too: In 1928, a young man who was polishing silverware in the hotel’s storage vault was found stabbed to death with a steak knife. (It was adjudged a suicide because none of the silver had been stolen.) Another man fell out a window to his death in 2002, in what his family’s lawyer claimed was a horrifying treadmill accident. More recently, the hotel was probably best known among discount-seekers, especially students who were in town en masse for their Model Congress or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marching-band trips. We bid it good-bye at the end of its once-glamorous run, and we hope that the city’s most celebrated phone number ends up in deserving hands.