September 9, 2012
Few hotels in New York have closer ties to the world of literature and the arts than the Algonquin. The hotel has played host to New York’s creative elite for more than a century, thanks in part to the cultural vision of former owner Frank Case during the 1920s and 30s, who welcomed the city’s cast of literary and theatrical luminaries with open arms.
The Algonquin is the kind of hotel appreciated by culture-loving travellers who view their choice of accommodation as an integral part of a trip, rather than just somewhere to lay their head at night. The oldest continually operating hotel in the city first opened its doors in 1902, and went on to become one of the most storied establishments in Manhattan, preserving its historic heritage and details so well it was officially designated a New York City landmark in 1987.
The Algonquin was always an unconventional hotel. As someone who revelled in the company of artistic types, Mr Case hosted frequent gatherings for the literati and helped to establish a scene of artistic inspiration, which paved the way for a lifetime of creative endeavour within the walls of the property. The New Yorker magazine was founded here in 1925, My Fair Lady was written in the hotel’s Lerner’s suite and William Faulkner wrote his speech here before collecting his Nobel prize in 1950. Famous honeymooners have included Orson Welles and Douglas Fairbanks, and more recently, many musical careers were launched in the Oak Room’s previous cabaret-cum-supper club.
But the hotel is most well known for the literary legends of the Algonquin Round Table – a lauded group of young, talented New York City writers, actors, humourists, critics, columnists and wits (including Dorothy Parker, actor Robert Benchley and New Yorker editor Harold Ross) who first came together in 1919 and continued to congregate over daily lunches for the next decade. Referring to themselves as the ‘Vicious Circle’, they met six times a week to exchange literary ideas, swap barbs, play practical jokes on one another and display their wordy prowess, in a meeting of minds that would have an enduring impact long after their eventual break-up.
Frank Case was also responsible for ushering in single female visitors at a time when it was fairly radical to do so – Tallulah Bankhead lived here as a teenager, and other young actresses were frequent visitors. He also homed a stray cat called Hamlet who had the run of the house – a tradition which continues to this day. And while the quarters of today’s cat Matilda may be slightly more restricted – we have 21st century health and safety to thank for that – she still manages to attract just as much attention from her favourite perch behind the front desk.
The hotel has just completed an extensive $15 million dollar renovation, including a residential-style update of its elegant Edwardian public areas and 181 rooms and suites. When your hotel lobby is so well-known it’s regarded as ‘New York’s living room’, making changes can be a challenge. Fortunately the makeover has managed to honour the heritage of the hotel by freshening up the ambience with new furniture and subtle updates to lighting and fabrics, without diverting from the original look and feel. The sumptuous wood-panelled space designed for intimate soirées and mellow afternoon conversations remains as harmonious as ever.
To the rear, the Round Table restaurant retains its corniced ceiling, imposing columns and panelling, and the Natalie Ascencios mural of the renowned Vicious Circle still watches over groups of diners.
Next door, the famous Blue Bar – one of the best examples of an old-school New York cocktail bar and a perennial favourite of tourists – has been expanded and revitalised with a new contemporary design, including a sleek stone bar top with embedded lighting, clubby all-new seating and a statement blue glass sculpture on the rear wall. Tell the bartenders your favoured spirit and watch them whip up something just for you. Alternatively ask for the hotel’s eponymous cocktail – a sophisticated blend of rye whiskey, dry vermouth and pineapple juice.
The new guest rooms are arguably the most successful measure of the Algonquin’s facelift. The rooms are not huge – as is the case with most hotel rooms in New York City, especially those in historic properties – but the renovation has maximised every inch of available space, with a bright new tan, gold and black colour scheme, custom-designed furniture, and completely new bathrooms.
Rooms with bay windows have built-in seats for reading or watching the early-evening city lights flicker into life. Pictorial, backlit headboards have been fashioned from atmospheric 1920s street scenes by fêted New York photographer Irving Underhill. And there are more of the technological conveniences that the 21st century traveller expects as standard.
Traditionalists will not be disappointed, however. The rooms retain a timeless feel and the hotel has not dispensed with the little touches that link it to its past. Every guest still receives a complimentary copy of the New Yorker – the distinctive covers of which line the corridors outside – and each guest room door is still adorned with various witty quips from Round Table members. ‘Writers should be read but not seen. Rarely are they a winsome sight,’ said ours, appropriately.
The Algonquin is located on West 44th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Occupying such a prominent Midtown Manhattan position means almost every New York attraction worth seeing is within easy reach, but we’ve highlighted just a few of the major sights within a few blocks of the hotel.
Times Square, Broadway and the 42nd Street theatre district is a three minute walk away. Two blocks south between 42nd and 40th streets is the New York Public Library, behind which is Bryant Park, one of the most popular open spaces in Manhattan. The park hosts a year-round programme of events, festivals and classes, and open-air cinema in the summer.
Two blocks to the east is Grand Central Terminal – one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations – with the shimmering Chrysler Building one block further on at 42nd and Lexington. There’s no observation deck here but the lobby with its magnificent ceiling mural and art deco detailing is open to visitors.
A few minutes north at the Rockefeller Center is the entrance to Top of the Rock where you’ll find arguably the best panoramic views in Manhattan, as well as NBC Studio Tours and the famous winter ice skating rink, which normally opens on Columbus Day (the second Monday in October) and remains in action until April. One block further, at 50th and Sixth Avenue is Radio City Music Hall, home to the Rockettes and the famous Christmas Spectacular.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights to New York from London Heathrow.