Service of Leave it Alone, Already

July 11th, 2016

Categories: History, Hotels, Landmark, Real Estate, Remodeling

I thought, “Why did they have to pick on this house to ruin?” I’ve written before about the Brooklyn Heights house that had one thing going for it: All of the original plaster and woodwork were intact, which was unusual. We didn’t get the house but revisited it during a house tour. The new owners had stripped away every trace of original architectural element and transformed the 19th century brownstone into a 20th century monument to the innocuous and bland.

Wall Street Journal Urban Gardner columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. similarly mourned the news of the Waldorf Astoria’s conversion to condos and reminded us of the Plaza’s—that took the soul out of the place. In “Another Condo-Conversion Casualty The Waldorf Astoria is going the lamentable way of the Plaza,” he spells out his prediction.

He pointed out that Paris and London have their grand hotels and now New York no longer will have any. Like fortunate people of a certain age who grew up in NYC or visited, he reminisced about having lunch at the Plaza with his father when he was a child. I remember tea with my mother.

“These days the Plaza feels like the victim of some genteel version of a neutron bomb—the property remains intact but the people are largely missing.” Gardner wrote, and he asks: “Aren’t there enough shiny new billionaire condo developments rising along 57th Street and Central Park South to satisfy demand? Must we squander our inheritance?”

A few days before Gardner’s article, the New York Post covered the demise of the Campbell Apartment. In “Cocktail Shakeup at Grand Central Terminal,” Julia Marsh and Laura Italiano reported that the 1920s glam office-turned vintage bar–and Mark Grossich—lost the lease after 17 years. Grossich’s rent was $350,000/year and he offered $800,000 on a 10-year lease, but  Scott Gerber, who said he was approached by MTA advisors and didn’t seek out the property, will pay $1.1 million/year. Grossich said he’d counter offer on the highest bid plus 2.5 percent. He said the MTA told him: “They way overbid you. We can’t do that.”

The reporters wrote that last year “the MTA began aggressively overhauling Grand Central’s restaurants and bars hoping for higher rents and ever-more-high-end lease holders.”

After years of neglect, Grossich restored the space almost two decades ago. It had served for a while as a “pokey; a cell for all the wastrels and drifters that came through Grand Central.” He spent $millions. Marsh and Italiano described him as a “master of the timeless, intimate cocktail lounge, temples to single-malt scotch, fine cigars and tufted upholstery.”

The new lease holder “plans to modernize.” Marsh and Italiano described what Gerber—who runs “hip, jangly and galvanic lounges”—has in mind. It will be “something less Brooks Brothers, more limited edition sneakers and Gucci-T-shirts.” He caters to athletes, musicians and celebrities who don’t wear jackets. The space is landmarked, so he can’t touch the walls, ceiling or windows. “But he’s installing a costly new stone bar top, new bar and kitchen equipment, a new heating and air conditioning system.” He’ll add chandeliers, high-tech lighting and instead of big band tunes Gerber promises “eclectic music.”

Funny. Americans travel the world to visit and admire ancient ruins, churches, mosques, estates, chateaux and celebrated historic landmarks but they don’t seem to have the same sensibility about their own history. Increasingly the past is considered fuddy duddy and proponents are fatally old fashioned and terminally wrong. And there are fewer and fewer places for them to enjoy around here. Why is this? Will we eventually be sorry? Will you miss NYC’s last grand hotel? Does the city need yet another luxury condo?


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9 Responses to “Service of Leave it Alone, Already”

  1. Martha Takayama Said:

    My first reaction is Ugh!

    Next is to shake my head in despair.

    Tacky, gauche, ignorant, tasteless, boring, depressing and foolish are the next words that come to mind. The behavior is so prevalent that it seems to fit in with our mass shoot-outs, racial profiling and pointless police and civilian violence, news coverage that makes 19th century journalism look distinctly academic, and the loss of any line between the personal and the private, topped with manifest tactlessness, and outright incantations of fascist and Nazi style propaganda. This should cover everything that we certainly will be missed, perhaps even by those who are making this reality!

  2. Lucrezia Said:

    Not all Americans are ignorant, and not all ignore their history. There were huge, but futile outcries when 1960s NYC mayors Richard Wagner & John Lindsay tore down Penn Station and the Metropolitan Opera House. Now, it’s not possible to purchase certain homes, designated as “landmarks” without making all manner of oaths regarding so much as “touching” original fixtures. Unfortunately a number of treasures will fall through the cracks, but fewer, possibly thanks to the blunders of these insensitive mayors.

    Some wonders remain untouched: Try the New York City Marble Cemetery in the East Village. The oldest burial ground in Manhattan, it was in use from 1830-1937. Future predatory officials may well hesitate to disturb the 2000+ spirits in residence!

    America is full of societies involved in preserving ancient lore, everything from Alaskan Tlingit, to Colonials and Civil War memorials. Many members of these organizations are very possibly those who enjoy going abroad to learn more.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    NYC has so many hip, cool, trendy places to sleep, eat and drink in and as more sections of the city become gentrified, opportunities for so many more. I think Americans are ashamed of enjoying older things–it’s almost un-American! We market what’s new and if it’s new, it must be good. Shortsighted but realistic. [Take a look at how long your new appliances last as compared to the more expensive ones you bought 20 years ago.]

    Lucrezia mentioned the trashing of Penn Station which has become an uncomfortable, impractical, disgusting dump as a result. Thank goodness we saved Grand Central which clearly, as the Campbell Apartment part of the post illustrated, is one of the great places to conduct business–retail or culinary.

    This “toss the old, who cares, and on with the new” approach is symbolic of the disappearing 10 then five year business plan. Business moves at warp speed with the Internet and so many revolutionary discoveries, which doesn’t mean a company shouldn’t plan. In fact it should do so with a plan to make adjustments more often.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    As I read your comment about the great preservers of our history–and thank goodness for them–I kept thinking of how many doors we’ve closed after the horse escaped and how we so often don’t learn from these mistakes. I’ve enjoyed visiting the historic houses on the Hudson and throughout New England and in the South and am grateful for the local societies that preserve them for us all. I’ve never been to Newport and would love to see some of the estates that are open to the public and countless others around the country.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    This just published––“Parisians Rally In Defense of Vintage Newsstands” by Erik Sass.

    Sass wrote: “The French have long enjoyed a reputation for defending things that would never occur to Anglophones as needing defense, like the French language. To the long list of quixotic causes embraced by the French, we can now add another – newsstands.”

    He continued: “Yes, the citizens of Paris are organizing to protect the iconic lozenge-shaped newspaper kiosks dotting the city, whose domed roofs provide a perfect backdrop for artsy black-and-white photos of couples kissing or what have you. The city’s government is proposing to replace them with updated designs, which some observers have compared, not at all favorably, to a ‘sardine can.’”

    Here here!

  6. hb Said:

    I saw somewhere today that a developer is putting up a new building in Manhattan to be used as “assisted living” housing for the elderly in which one bedroom apartments will rent for $20,000 a month. There is still plenty of money around to pay for “extras.” The question is which extra is more worth paying for — hot and cold running help or preserving beautiful buildings?

    I think tastes have shifted. Today, rich people appear to prefer the former to the latter, and as painful as this is to write, the new rich are probably right at least to some extent. I’ve attended, since my first in 1939, perhaps 500 opera performances, including several at the old Met, and heard most of the “greats” from Gigli to Pavarotti and Callas to Freni. Such singers no longer exist, and to hear mediocre singing in such grand surroundings at a per seat, per performance cost, probably, of at least $1,000 a performance makes no sense given how shabbily audiences dress these days. Supposing they had saved the old Met, who would be keeping it going these days? Look at what has happened to Carnegie Hall; unless it’s the Vienna Philharmonic, you can’t fill the place. Now it is mostly pointless “cross-over” noise.

    The same goes for the Campbell Apartment. It may be an attractive place, but obviously you can make more money being noisy, ugly and garish. How do you fix the problem? Make the gracious and attractive seem worth paying for once again.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’ve heard of elderly people signing up for cruise after cruise after cruise. It’s cheaper than the $20,000 month deal and can be less than the assisted living places and far more fun.

    I would guess that the Campbell Apartment does very well if the man who leased it for 17 years was willing to match and beat the over $1million/month new rent. I don’t think he has any trouble filling the room. It is the MTA that is “upgrading.” It’s just that their idea of an upgrade might not agree with mine.

    I love new things and am in awe of the imaginations of great minds that create them. I also love gracious, often magnificent older places such as the Waldorf. I think of all the ordinary and famous feet that have also tread on the floors and leaned on the walls; all the weddings and awards ceremonies that have take place. What fun it is/was to walk through the bustling lobbies. Similarly, I marveled at my first serious antique: An English gateleg table said to date to 1690. I thought of all those elbows that had leaned on it and the conversations it was part of. To many it’s just an old table. To me, it is something special. It is out of fashion today. I couldn’t give it away. Why? It is considered “brown furniture.” In spite of its clean lines, the hand of the wood and its history, it has no value. Clearly, neither did the Plaza nor the Waldorf, at least for what these handsome structures were originally intended.

  8. Martha Takayama Said:

    There are numerous smaller scale beautiful and historic venues preserved by historical and antiquarian societies. However it is worth noting that the desire for development of style-of-the moment buildings reflect neither savvy urban design or even logic seems to prevail over preservation and history. Today’s New York Times describes this phenomenon at

    Remember the long running disagreeable dispute over the stage curtain at the the Four Seasons between the New York Landmarks Conservancy and Real Estate figure and conspicuous collector of art, Aby J. Rosen? The curtain painted by Pablo Picasso for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in 1919 was part of the the Four Seasons since 1959, and was valued by Christie’s at $1.6 million. But then Mr. Rosen’s taste runs to less subtle works such as Damien Hirst’s “The Virgin Mother,” which might just cause indigestion!

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The Four Seasons’ July 16 closing in its original space in the Seagram Building is a perfect example of what this post is about. [It is expected to reopen elsewhere next year.] According to, Aby Rosen has brought in Philip Johnson to design the space for another restaurant. His reason is similar to that of the MTA in kicking out the Campbell Apartment tenant. “Rosen…has regarded the Four Seasons as tired and part of the past.”

    God forbid.

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