Legendary Hotels : Traditions + Tech at St. Regis New York

The Gilded Age is a legendary period in American history, Manhattan being its unmistakable epicenter. It was truly the epitome of America’s wealth and entrepreneurial prowess just as today’s unicorn tech founders amass power and wealth in Silicon Valley. This was the time before Uncle Sam began collecting taxes. I have been an ardent follower of this age of voluptuary and ascendancy since my high school. It has taken me 8 years to write on this topic since I was formally introduced to a jewel in the crown of The Astors.

Yes, the Astors from Waldorf Germany, who rose to unattainable power thanks to John Jacob Astor I’s beaver pelt trade and later made Manhattan the most valued real estate market. The Astors had sprawling mansions across Fifth Avenue as they migrated from downtown to the Upper East Side. But their legacy pervades beyond the commerce. Their legacy is the infusion of traditions imported from 19th century Europe to the 20th-century technological advancements of America. John Jacob Astor IV envisioned to build the finest hotel in America that would host Europe’s aristocrats. His vision manifested on 55th Street on 5 Avenue as St. Regis New York in 1904. 

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Astor spared no expense in creating a hotel of world-class luxury complete with marble floors and crystal chandeliers, furnished with antique tapestries, oriental rugs, antique Louis XV furniture and a library of 3000 leather-bound, gold-tooled classic and current books, many from Astor’s original collection. He introduced round the clock butler service for his guests. After him, St. Regis continued with its legacy to be innovative not just in terms of technology but libation as well. In 1934, Fernand Petiot  the bartender at King Cole Bar created the cocktail Red Snapper which was then renamed as Bloody Mary.  There have been many St. Regis Hotels around the world since it was acquired by Starwood Hotels but then an original is original for a reason. I wanted to learn more about this legendary grand old hotel’s legacy of being the custodian of traditions and an early adopter of new technology. I posed some questions to Katie Donald, Director of Sales and Marketing at St. Regis New York and this is what she had to share with me.

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Katie Donald – Director of Sales and Marketing, St Regis New York

What inspired the architecture of the hotel during its foundation?

Built over a century ago, the iconic St. Regis New York’s Beaux Arts landmark building was originally designed by architects Trowbridge and Livingston and was hailed as New York’s first “skyscraper”, as it was the tallest building in the area at the time. The site of the hotel, at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, was largely a residential neighborhood when Colonel John Jacob Astor IV broke ground there in 1902, which added to its appeal for visitors from around the globe. Astor spared no expense in creating a hotel of world-class luxury and taste. A source of wonder for a century of travelers, The St. Regis New York was declared a New York City Landmark in 1988.

The Astor family has had hotels across the East Coast and West even before St. Regis New York. What makes this one so legendary even back in 1904?

Astor’s vision was to create a hotel which rivaled the finest hotels in Europe, where his close friends and family could feel as though they were guests in a private home and The St. Regis New York accomplished this task.  One of the reasons that the St. Regis was so legendary was due to their glamourous, creative, and iconic clientele including Colonel Serge Obolensky, the Russian Prince who grew up to marry Alice Astor. Michael Arlen, the novelist and author of “The Green Hat” lived and lunched at The St. Regis at the same table for years. Marlene Dietrich, William Paley and his wife Barbara “Babe” Paley also resided at The St. Regis, as did Salvador Dali and his wife Gala (who brought with them many an exotic guest). Actress Gertrude Lawrence instructed her agent to arrange all her press appointments at The St. Regis, while Alfred Hitchcock was known to wander the halls, frightening other guests with shocking fabricated tales told in the lifts.  Throughout the years, The St. Regis New York has always attracted the legendary personalities of each era.

Mail Chute at The St Regis New York
Mail Chute at The St. Regis New York

Innovation has always been integral to St. Regis New York. Do share the first path breaking technological amenity offered to guests.

The St. Regis New York has always been a hallmark of innovation. In the 1900s John Jacob Astor introduced “modern” conveniences such as telephones in every room, a fire alarm system, central heating and an air-cooling system that efficiently predated modern air conditioning and allowed each guest to control the temperature of his room. Mail chutes were installed on each floor, a newsworthy innovation at that time. An equally innovative feature was a special design “for the disposition of dust and refuse” – one of the first central vacuum systems. All the maids had to do was plug their vacuum cleaner’s hose into sockets situated throughout the hotel.

How did the guests react to such technological advancements back in the early 1900s?

Since first opening its doors in 1904, The St. Regis New York has delighted guests with its technological advancements and immediately drew visitors from around the world, securing its place as Manhattan’s best address.

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Poised to charge the electric cars of your guests how has the amenity impacted your guest experience?

Many of guests at the St. Regis New York now travel with electric cars so this amenity offers our convenience and  true door-to-door service.  Guests are thrilled that they can now leave their car with a St. Regis doorman and return to a fully charged vehicle.

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Before you read what Katie Donald has to say on my next question let me build a historic backdrop to it. I take you back to 1860s, in a time when women had neither voting rights nor political stage, one member of the Astor family single-handedly brought the concept of ‘Society’ to the American shores thereby making her the absolute authority. Daughter in law of JJ Astor I and the wife of his second son – Caroline Astor (Mrs William Backhouse Astor) turned more than a few heads when she dropped her husband’s name and had her calling cards printed as ‘Mrs Astor’. Of course she wasn’t the only Mrs Astor in the family but Manhattan soon began referring to her as ‘The’ Mrs Astor. Mrs Astor took her duty as the society doyenne very seriously and her calendar included cotillions, paying calls, afternoon tea, attending weddings and hosting private dinners. She socialised with Old New York (families of Dutch and English settlers in America) and Nouveau Riche were to stay strictly at arm’s length from her. She is most remembered for her guest list ‘Astor 400’ to the annual Astor Ball which has inspired today’s power lists. So why does she have such an indelible mark on today’s New York or the traditions that are followed in America?

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Caroline Astor must have had a monumental impact on the traditions at the hotel. Could you share some of the most significant?

As the premier authority on New York society in New York’s Gilded Age, Caroline Astor made sure that The St. Regis was the center of Manhattan social life, and the headquarters for the original “Astor 400”– the elite social group. The “Astor 400” would join the Astor’s in their home following the season’s most exclusive social affairs, an evening at the theater or a day of polo in the summer months.  The “Astor 400” would celebrate into the morning, wining and dining in The St. Regis ballroom, at her famed Midnight Suppers.

Let me add to that about Astor 400, the reason she chose under 400 guests was because her ballroom at the famous 350, Fifth Avenue mansion (now the site of Empire State Building) and later the Versailles Ballroom at St. Regis New York could accommodate only 400 people. Ward McAllister a family friend of Caroline Astor helped her handpick the guests to send out calling cards. Of course, they weren’t always exactly 400 people evident from the list he released to New York Times in 1892 which had around 319 invitees.

Caroline's 400 St Regis Fragrance
Caroline’s Four Hundred – St Regis Fragrance

How has Astor 400 evolved over 112 years at the hotel?

Elements of the Astor 400 have continued to evolve throughout the St. Regis New York’s rich history.  This year The St. Regis Resorts & Hotels collaborated with Arquiste to bottle the Caroline’s Four Hundred fragrance, a room spray inspired by the fragrance used by Caroline to adorn her ballroom in the 1900s.  Caroline’s Four Hundred by Arquiste is based on a crisp, green and floral fragrance capturing all of the blooms that adorned Caroline Astor’s famous balls.  Ingredients include American Beauty roses, hyacinth, white lilies, green stems and delicate quince, apple and cherry blossom. It can be purchased as a candle & room spray at www.stregisboutique.com The St. Regis New York continues to celebrate this unique history and tradition and have brought back the Midnight Supper in recent years, with hosts ranging from Jason Wu to Lauren Santo Domingo, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig of Marchesa and Nacho Figueras.

Presidential Suite - St Regis New York
Presidential Suite – St Regis New York

The hotel underwent renovation last year what were the advancements made and what aspects were retained as a part of its heritage?

The St. Regis New York was renovated in 2013 with redesigned guestrooms, suites and public spaces and an expanded King Cole Bar.  The lobby of the hotel reincorporated lost architectural elements, by opening up oval windows above the front desk which were part of the original design of the hotel.  The lobby also updated the furnishings and amenities.  Guestrooms were updated to include marble tiled entryways, rich color schemes with bold accent colors, sumptuous fabrics and luxe leather details, custom furnishings and state of the art technologies. The St. Regis’ master suites underwent an extensive renovation complementing the reimagined guestrooms and hotel aesthetic.  Throughout the renovation, the hotel remained committed to the preservation of the St. Regis’ heritage and legacy.

St. Regis New York - King Cole Bar and Restaurant
St. Regis New York – King Cole Mural

Now as a part of Marriott Hotels what can the guests look forward to in  terms of upholding traditions and innovative experiences?

The St. Regis New York is proud to be part of Marriott Hotels and is committed to upholding the same traditions and exceptional guest experiences as they have done for the last century.  

Last but not the least – What is the secret of the King Cole mural that the bartender needs to be coaxed to share?

The puckish mural by Maxfield Parrish had been given to Colonel Astor by the artist to be hung over the bar at Astor’s Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. In 1932 it found its new home above the King Cole Bar. Only our St. Regis bartenders can be coaxed to reveal the secret hidden in the mural, so stop by the bar to see if you can get them to share it!

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