Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The History Behind the Luxury: A Series About the Finest Historic Hotels in the World

 The History Behind the Luxury, Part 1
The Waldorf-Astoria and St. Regis

Fans of the movie Titanic may remember John Jacob Astor IV.  He's the New York millionaire sailing with his "little wifey", only 18 and pregnant and part of quite a scandal. Astor was unquestionably the most wealthy of the Titanic's passengers, and he did, indeed, go down with the ship.  His wife, Madeline, survived and gave birth to their son, known as Jakey, four months after the sinking. Before the tragedy of the Titanic, however, Astor used his fortune to build the Astoria hotel in New York in 1897.  You may be more familiar with the name Waldorf-Astoria, and that has a family connection as well.  In 1893, William Waldorf Astor (John Jacob's cousin) built the Waldorf on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street in New York City, and it's said he did so partly to spite his cousin.  In retaliation, John Jacob built the Astoria on an adjacent corner four years later, but it wasn't long before the cousins realized that joining both hotels would be a smart business decision, so they connected the Waldorf and Astoria with a marble walkway, and the Waldorf-Astoria was born.  The original hotel was demolished in 1928 to make room for the Empire State Building, and the new Waldorf-Astoria was built farther uptown in 1931. 


In 2014, Blackstone Group sold the Waldorf-Astoria to Anbang, a Chinese investment group for close to $2 billion. In 2017, the Waldorf-Astoria closed to the public in order to undergo an extensive renovation.  Set to reopen in 2022 and 2023, the newly imagined complex will boast 375 condominium residences and 375 hotel rooms. Studio residences will start at $1.7 million and amenities include a 25-meter pool with skylights above, wellness lounges, landscaped terraces, a movie theater, game room and a co-working lounge. Although Hilton no longer owns the property, the company agreed to manage the Waldorf-Astoria for 100 years.

Although the Astor family started making some money as fur traders, their true fortune came from real estate investments.  One of the original John Jacob Astor's first big purchases was a large area of land in the middle of Manhattan - today we know it as Times Square. John Jacob Astor IV continued his family's tradition and, having enjoyed success with the Astoria hotel, opened the St. Regis in 1904.  The New York Times called it the "finest hotel in America" upon its opening, and Astor wanted to provide a memorable experience, placing a telephone in each room.  Considering that in the 1890's there were less than three telephones per thousand people in the US, having a private phone in each room set the standard for luxury. The St. Regis NYC still stands today and is owned by Marriott International.  In 1991, the hotel became the flagship for a line of luxury hotels that were part of Sheraton known as the ITT Sheraton Luxury Collection.  When Marriott acquired Starwood hotels in 2016 (which acquired Sheraton in 1998), they gained the St. Regis brand.  Interestingly, the St. Regis name cannot be used in lower British Columbia because the name is legally owned by the independent St. Regis Hotel in Vancouver which was built in 1913, a year after John Jacob Astor perished on the Titanic. As of 2020, there are 46 St. Regis properties in such diverse places as Atlanta, Bora Bora, Istanbul and the Maldives. Continuing in the St. Regis traditions, Marriott states "All hotels within the St. Regis portfolio draw from the vision of our founder, John Jacob Astor IV, to create a sense of home in a foreign place.  Designed to feel like a luxury residence, St. Regis calls upon a commitment to its longstanding heritage to cultivate the "best address", and invite guests to a world long lauded as the place to see and be seen." 

Waldorf-Astoria New York 

St. Regis Hotels 

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