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Grand City Hotels
Photo: Eric Barb
What makes a great city? According to a new book, grand hotels should be added to factors such as political power and dominating world trade.

“It was time for New York to reassert its claim as the nation’s first and dominant city, and it fell to the Astor cousins to do the job,” states Jonathan Yardley in a book review of “When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age.” (Washington Post—June 21, 2006)

Born sixteen years apart, cousins Willy (William Waldorf Astor) and Jack (John Jacob Astor IV) were completely different. Yet together (after intense disagreements), they created a hotel structure whose name even today signifies the epitome of luxury—the Waldorf-Astoria.

Author Justin Kaplan describes the hotel and its impact on New York City’s reputation, “This immense establishment comprised over a thousand guest rooms and half a hundred public rooms. Pleasure dome and social force, theater and theme park, the Astors’ great hotel, the most expensive of its kind, was a place of artistic, mechanical, and sybaritic wonders. Its splendor legitimized the open existence of an American leisure class.

“In its unashamed pride and opulence the Waldorf-Astoria declared that New York was now a world capital with a place in history like Athens, Rome, and London.”

A Celebrity Mecca

This book gives readers a dramatic look at the cousins who were great-grandsons of John Jacob Astor, a fur trader who built a fortune and founded a dynasty. Among his other achievements, he built Astor House in the 1830s. Located on Broadway south of City Hall Park, Astor House was “six stories high, with a Greek Revival granite portico. . .a self-contained, virtually perfected world of luxury and dream fulfillment, evidence of what money could accomplish when joined with vision, energy, mechanical ingenuity, running water, indoor plumbing, and Medician magnificence. . .the mecca and transmission center for a growing cult of celebrity.”

By the time Willy and Jack were born in the mid-1800s, Astor House was no longer a wonder. The center of New York City was moving steadily northward, and the landmark hotel aged. Worth the equivalent of billions of dollars, each cousin pursued a variety of interests. Willy decided to restore the luster of the family’s reputation as hoteliers by building a new hotel, the Waldorf. Unfortunately, Jack became unhappy about its location next to his mother’s home. After intense and lengthy negotiations, he was persuaded to build another hotel adjacent to the Waldorf. Linked by connecting corridors, the structure would be known as the Waldorf-Astoria.

This world-class hotel no longer stands (the Empire State Building occupies the site now), nor does the original hotel, nor the Astor that anchored part of Times Square. Justin Kaplan pulls back the curtain on a family that “had chosen hotels to be the stage for a family drama of pride, spite, rivalry, self-projection, and the love of grandeur and prominence.”

In doing so, they drew leaders of industry and society to New York City, ensuring its place in history.

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