The Waldorf-Astoria began as two Gilded Age hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria. The founding manager of the Waldorf, George Boldt (1851–1916), well known both for his strict management style and for his generosity to guests, helped to merge the two institutions into one establishment in 1897. The Waldorf-Astoria led the hotel industry in America during the explosion of tourism in the Steam Age, when it introduced such revolutions in comfort as room service (which it took credit for inventing) and en suite bathrooms.

As David Freeland points out in his new book American Hotel, the very size of the Waldorf-Astoria limited its exclusivity, even from the beginning. Despite the hotel’s prestige, there were never enough blue bloods to fill all those rooms every night. Nevertheless, its glamorous reputation survived intact and an element of aspiration among its clientele allowed the hotel to become, like the Ritz, an international brand, whose name could be recognized by those unlikely ever to visit it in person.

American Hotel explores the ways in which the Waldorf-Astoria shaped popular notions about hotels in the twentieth century. The concept of a hotel containing a village-like arcade of shops on site was among the many innovations that the Waldorf-Astoria pioneered. Guests were now able to shop, dine, and entertain themselves without venturing beyond the hotel’s walls. This new model, which persists to the current day (for instance, in all-inclusive resorts), was quickly copied by other hotels around the world.

The Waldorf-Astoria also benefited from having larger facilities than most of its competitors. Its massive ballroom, for instance, allowed it to host major events, including the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Unable to profit from alcohol sales during Prohibition—the wine list markup had been a major profit source for most dining venues—the hotel turned to event-hosting to sustain its  revenue during the Great Depression until the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified in 1933.

Freeland argues that American hotels offered cities a semi-public space somewhere between a railway terminal and a private club. The Waldorf-Astoria, for instance, always maintained a policy of allowing anyone to wander through its spacious lobby and corridors. This practice encouraged busybodies hoping to catch a glimpse of famous guests, and it also attracted pickpockets and swindlers—in the parlance of the hotel detectives, “bunco men.” Such detectives were an integral part of the hotel’s culture, and they were kept on hand to shoo away troublemakers and uphold morals (by rousting unmarried couples caught sharing a room, for example). 

Social change arrived unevenly at the hotel. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many New York establishments were de facto, if not de jure, open to whites only. The Waldorf-Astoria wavered in its attitude towards racial segregation. In the hotel’s early years, the manager George Boldt vacillated between welcoming all paying guests, whatever their race (risking the ire of influential white clients) and denying entry to African Americans. This attempt to dodge the issue meant that while some black guests were welcomed, others were refused. The New York World reported that three black patrons were served in the Waldorf-Astoria bar in 1895, but on other occasions non-white visitors were turned away. Some integrated social events (like a Hunter College Senior Hop in 1932) took place, but in 1934 the managers of Gimbel’s were told their staff party (planned for the ballroom) could not include black guests. The arrival of the United Nations triggered changes as the hotel agreed to accept UN delegates and guests of all races, in exchange for the UN recommending the Waldorf-Astoria to all its visitors. 

The Waldorf-Astoria was, however, one of the earliest hotels to adopt a more welcoming stance towards single women, who, through the 1920s, had not been allowed to dine alone in many of the city’s restaurants and hotels, as these “respectable” establishments wished to deter prostitutes. Boldt even claimed to be the “first man in New York to make it possible for a woman to come into a New York hotel alone.” As women took on more professional jobs in the city, ladies’ lunching at city venues became acceptable, even at restaurants that would refuse admission to unaccompanied women in the evening. The hotel took extra care to ward off “hotel pests” in order to maintain its reputation as a “hotel for the women,” going so far as to exclude the “wrong” kinds of women in order to prevent prostitution and other illicit activity that would deter most female patrons.

Freeland gives a lengthy account of the various tensions in the hospitality industry and midcentury organized labor. In 1934, the Waldorf-Astoria became the center of a major strike of hotel workers, when six hundred staff walked out in the middle of dinner service. Trouble at the Waldorf-Astoria continued for several weeks as the walkout spread to other hotels, with waiters and cooks striking across the city. The entire staff of the Savoy-Plaza walked out, for example, as well as workers from the Brevoort, the Park Central, and the Essex House. The Amalgamated Food Workers (which represented many of the hotel’s staff) were in dispute with the American Federation of Labor, which didn’t support their strikes, making it difficult for workers across the city to form any kind of unified stance. The conflict ended when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia managed to broker a deal involving the rehiring of the strikers, and unleashed his own weapon—surprise health department inspections in the middle of dinner hour—on hotels that refused to play ball.

The Waldorf-Astoria also gave a name to the Maitre d’ Oscar Tschirky. According to Freeland, Tschirky “was an 1890s celebrity chef who, though he never actually cooked a meal, captured the public's imagination with appearances in periodicals, newspaper articles, and product endorsements.” Tschirky was America’s answer to France’s Auguste Escoffier, as he made regular appearances in the press and endorsed products, such as a branded sauce featuring his picture on the label. His 1896 cookbook, which ran to multiple editions, gave readers the chance to try to replicate the Waldorf dining experience in their own homes. He also claimed to be the inventor of the Waldorf salad.

Despite its fame, the Waldorf-Astoria struggled for years to turn a profit and demand for luxury hotel rooms dwindled during the Depression. It was during World War II, which brought hordes of servicemen and their families to the city, filling every available room, that the hotel reversed its fortunes. After the war, the hotelier Conrad Hilton took over, and the Waldorf-Astoria became part of the Hilton family of hotels. Its new location—the original Waldorf-Astoria was razed to make way for the Empire State Building, moving to Park Avenue between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth—was well placed to host diplomats attending the United Nations, and it remained a marquee destination for guests from all over the world. 

In 2015, the Waldorf-Astoria was purchased by a Chinese real estate company, and it has been closed since 2017 for renovations and a planned condo conversion (now further delayed by COVID). It remains to be seen whether it will hold a central role in Manhattan's future, or become a relic of the city’s past.

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