By Maureen Orsborn
New York City's The Plaza Hotel has charmed the world for more than a century. The iconic structure overlooking Central Park and Grand Army Plaza is considered one of New York's most remarkable buildings, both for its architectural design and its social significance. When owner-developer El-Ad Group purchased the hotel for $675 million in 2004, it initiated a restoration project that would modernize the building and revive its old-style glamour. In order for the hotel to reopen in time for its 100th anniversary (it originally opened in 1907), the project had to be completed in less than 3 years.
The Plaza Hotel, and several of its interior spaces, has been granted landmark status, so accurate restoration was mandatory. The design team dug deep, researching city files for photos, drawings, and blueprints of the building. Landmark-status interior spaces had been painted numerous times over the years, so the rooms' original colors had to be uncovered through research, sampling, and scientific testing. The building's white brick and marble façade needed only a thorough cleaning, but the green mansard roof required extensive repair. Original-tile reproductions were installed, and the copper finials were replaced with vintage-style copies. From the Grand Ballroom to the marble staircases, the interior of the building required extensive restoration. Floor layouts were reconfigured to transition a portion of the hotel into residential space, and infrastructure had to be removed to make room for new mechanical systems.
The hotel's courtyard underwent a $20 million upgrade. Two levels were added above the famous Palm Court to make room for a spa and an ornate outdoor courtyard with a reflecting pool and extensive landscaping. The structural engineers devised a creative method to bring pre-assembled steel trusses into the courtyard - they threaded them through windows on 59th Street and out through 58th Street. The trusses were suspended by cables until they were aligned, infilled, and connected. The Palm Court's Louis Comfort Tiffany dome light, one of the hotel's most recognizable features, was recreated during the restoration. Chicago-based Botti Studio of Architectural Arts used photos and glass fragments from the original dome to recreate the 42-foot by 38-foot stained-glass light, which is illuminated from behind by an adjustable lighting system. The trusses used for the construction of the new courtyard also support this historic lay light.
To update the building, prior hotel space was replaced with a combination of hotel rooms, condos, and "hotel condos." Architects added curtainwall and Juliet balconies to the façade of the hotel facing the courtyard, and some hotel rooms were expanded using cantilever construction. Their frames were trimmed in aluminum finished with the look of aged copper. Roof space that formerly contained mechanical systems and storage space has been converted to a floor of penthouses. A retail component on the lower floors gives the hotel a more contemporary feel.
To ensure that the restoration was completed on time, demolition ran concurrent with the design process, and restoration was completed by doing one section of the building at a time. In 2007, the doors of The Plaza Hotel reopened, marking the start of a new century of luxury living and hospitality.
Maureen Orsborn is a contributing editor at Buildings magazine.
"This sensitive refurbishment/replacement of many lost architectural gems—including the replacement of the destroyed original dome light by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the Palm Court - has resulted in bringing this hotel to the forefront of the traveling elite. This project is highlighted by meticulous attention to detail throughout; the quality of the interior design is stunning. The original interior, based upon a French Renaissance chateau, has been respected to the fullest. Was there ever a chateau as grand as this? It's hard to imagine."
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