MY SEARCH FOR A GRAND (HOTEL) FINALE
By Michael Matthews
May 10, 2007 -- With a birthday coming up in a few weeks, I've started thinking that perhaps I've only got five or ten or maybe, if I'm really lucky, 20 years to go. When the time comes, where would I like to be?
Certainly not some old folks home where people are popping off every few days and one's life is made up of attending funerals, listening to the same old eulogies about how wonderful "Harry" was and wondering if yours will be next. No, when its time for me to go, I want to go in a Grand Hotel.
I want to meet my maker lying in a huge bed, propped up with soft pillows and surrounded by the softest Egyptian cotton sheets. I want incredible service available at the touch of a button. A view of the ocean from my bed, with a breeze wafting in across the balcony, would be idyllic. My dog asleep by the bed, a bottle of Champagne sweating on ice and a Yo-Yo Ma CD on the turntable. Perhaps some caviar, if there's any left in the world by then. And, of course, my darling wife fussing around me till the end.
Yes, a Grand Hotel is where I want to be when it's time to go…
But will that be possible? Is there such a thing as a Grand Hotel in these days of Ikea furniture and minimalist design? Frankly, it's hard to think of one. Maybe there's one left in Europe, in Monte Carlo or Paris or Rome. On this side of the pond, the Beverly Hills Hotel and New York's Carlyle Hotel come close, but neither has the ocean.
When I think about it, the only Grand Hotel that has been built in the last century in North America is probably The Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It opened in 1931 and it was great in its time. But it's certainly not a Grand Hotel any longer.
When The Waldorf-Astoria opened on Park Avenue, it had its own rail station, a hatter, a florist, a bank, a barber, a bookshop, a cigar store, a jeweler, a fur shop, a candle shop, a cosmetics bar, a gown shop and a haberdasher. There was a theatre and a travel agency and a telegraph office. Of course, a doctor and dentist had offices at The Waldorf, too, should you have needed either. There was a business center that provided a stenographer that came to your accommodation to take dictation.
Ladies paraded in elegant dresses and wonderful hats through the Waldorf lobby and the Peacock Alley cocktail lounges and cafes. The Waldorf Bar for Men was, in fact, for men only and cigars were de rigueur. There were at least nine eating and drinking options back in the day and, thankfully, there was a trained dietician on hand.
From its opening, The Waldorf-Astoria played host to the who's who of the world. They enjoyed the air conditioning and a guarantee of privacy. (The Waldorf even had a complete stage with dressing rooms for performers.) The Starlight Room nightclub on the 18th floor was the social spot of the time. Its ballrooms were entered from the street, so that guests in the hotel wouldn't be put off by people crowding in with ugly name badges. The main ballroom accommodated about 1,700 people with a Broadway-sized stage and a grand Moller organ. Movietone and Technicolor projection was the norm, which, needless to say, beats today's PowerPoint presentations. The hotel's banquet kitchen could serve 3,500 guests at one time in the 23 function rooms.
In those days, you were not disgorged onto Park or Lexington Avenues, either. You could arrive via a covered driveway bisecting the hotel so that "patrons"--What a lovely word for guests!--could reach any part of the hotel with full protection from the elements.
The Waldorf-Astoria once boasted 2,000 guestrooms, including 300 suites aptly named "residences." Rooms were large and some were even specifically decorated for women. Fourteen interior designers, from America, England, Sweden and France, provided the decor. The hotel featured priceless rugs, including the last Savonnerie rug shipped from France, tapestries from Belgium, hand-carved Oregon maple burl wood walls and crystal lamps.
The Waldorf was also first with many amenities for its "patrons." It had circulating ice water, a radio room that could pick up broadcasts from as far away as London, Moscow, Tokyo and Australia. Room service, something unheard of back then, was available 24 hours a day at the Waldorf. Laundry and dry-cleaning were returned the same day. And, shock of shocks, your maid called you by your title or, if you didn't have one, by your name.
Today, of course, the original Waldorf is the anchor of a new luxury brand, the Waldorf-Astoria Collection. It is being developed by Hilton Hotels, which owns the New York property. Since all of the new Waldorfs are existing properties--the Grand Wailea on Maui, the Arizona Biltmore, LaQuinta in Palm Springs, California, and Qasr Al Sharq in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia--we know that they don't have half of what the original hotel once did. The newly-built Waldorfs--properties are planned for Beverly Hills, Orlando and other cities--won't have the old-time amenities, either.
Friends, they just don't make grand hotels like that anymore. And that leaves me in the same quandary as when this column started: Where shall I rest my head for my last few days?
Hey, I've got 20 years. Maybe. I guess there's still time for someone to build a Grand Hotel where I can end my days…
ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.
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