DECONSTRUCTED: Calling it a day

Vornado has finally won approval to demolish the New York hotel that inspired the famed “Pennsylvania 6-5,000” song. PERE Magazine October 2010 issue

It has perhaps the world’s most famous phone number, was once a glamorous destination where jazz standouts Count Basie and Duke Ellington performed, and at the time of its construction was the world’s largest hotel. Yet, despite its legacy, New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania is set to be demolished amid plans to replace it with a skyscraper almost as tall as the neighbouring Empire State Building.

In late August, New York’s City Council approved plans by current owner Vornado Realty Trust to tear down the 1,700-room hotel built in 1919 and replace it with a 1,200-foot-high office skyscraper.

The proposals are part of a long-running drama over the future of the hotel, which has seen real estate traditionalists pitted against progressives as they fight it out to determine the architectural landscape of this Midtown location. 

 Originally built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and opened on 25 January, 1919, the Hotel Pennsylvania has had a storied history. In 1940, Glenn Miller and the Glenn Miller Orchestra performed extended concerts at the hotel’s Cafe Rouge, while Charlie Chaplin, Count Basie and Duke Ellington have been guests.

In 1953, US Army biochemist Dr Frank Olson, who also secretly worked for the CIA, crashed through a window of the hotel, plunging 150 feet to the sidewalk where he died. Authorities reported Olson’s death as a suicide, although official documents later revealed that just days before the CIA had surreptitiously dosed Olson with LSD. And of course, it’s phone number is the inspiration behind the famous song, “Pennsylvania 6-5,000”.

The hotel though has seen better days, devolving into a cheap, decrepit tourist trap more commonly associated with reported bedbug attacks than big-band nostalgia. 

 In calling for the demolition of the hotel though, Vornado faced fierce criticism from Hotel Pennsylvania fans. In 2007, New York resident Gregory Jones, who tried to get the building designated a landmark, told the New York Observer: “Call it a hole in the ground. Call it a shithole. Call it whatever you like. If you don’t keep your past alive, then there’s no hope for the future. Are we just going to pave over our history and forget about it?”

 Ultimately, Vornado won the day, winning backing from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg along the way. With plans to create 2.04 million-square-feet of office space, 11,126-square-feet of retail space and as many as 100 underground parking spaces, 15 Penn Plaza, as the tower will be known, will no doubt be a modern marvel – and in stark contrast to what the hotel has become today.

In saying goodbye to the Hotel Pennsylvania though, Vornado should take some time to preserve some of the site’s history – if not that famous phone number – just a little while longer.