What We Save, What We Throw Away
There's a story, maybe apocryphal, that back in its 1920s heyday the manager of The Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street in New York City offered struggling writers discounts on lunch and was the only hotel in the city to allow women to stay there alone. Even in my more recent personal heyday, the management of the hotel welcomed writers and book lovers into the plush, comfortable lobby to sit and talk without disturbance other than the occasional visitation from one of the friendly wait staff hustling drinks or items from the too-expensive menu, which I always declined with ease, no pressure. Ease, in fact, is the word I most associate with The Algonquin lobby. In its history, embedded in every dark oak wood panel, the extant Round Table at the back, and a Hirschfeld mural of the Round Table revelers on the wall behind it, was the promise of success, if not notoriety.
The hotel, opened in 1902, its exterior landmarked in 1987—not its interior, alas—has been sold and resold several times, renovated several times, but always in the spirit of the original lobby with its famous round table, carpeting, oak paneling, and soft lighting. I went there often before I moved upstate in 2018, to meet colleagues and friends, or to sit and read if I was early for a mid-town appointment, or before I taught an NYU class in an art deco building on 42nd Street overlooking the New York Public Library.
Last week, I went back for the first time since the pandemic began. Like so much else since Covid, the once familiar space felt alien, as though it was floating in another dimension. I was with my cousin, Karin, who needed to use the facilities before heading back uptown to Washington Heights, and as soon as we entered, I was greeted by four wait-staff from Bangladesh who have been working for the hotel for at least as long as I have been going there. They laughed and laughed, as happy to see me as I was to see them. We had all survived Covid thus far, and the fact that they were still working under new management was a miracle. I hadn't yet looked around the lobby, so focused was I on the celebratory greetings.
Karin sat on a low chair to rest before heading uptown, and a text came in from my friend, MacKay, to say he was a block away. I still hadn't noticed the new décor. At what moment I saw it, actually took it in, I cannot say. Maybe MacKay noticed it first. As soon as Karin left, we perused the changes: the floor stripped down to concrete, the plush couches, chairs and small tables replaced with plastic couches, chairs and tables, and when I asked about the big roundtable itself, I was escorted to the back where there was a small child-sized replica. And that was it. The Algonquin Round-Table was gone. So, too, the warm oak wood paneling which has been painted over in white.
Marriott is the newest owner of the hotel, which is now part of their "autograph collection," an ironic title I'd say, as they have expunged the literary history of the hotel, no writers I could see, except for myself, were there ready and willing to sign an autograph in the flyleaf of a recently published book. Contemporary reports of the lobby's gutting and $4.5 million renovation suggest various "artifacts," such as real books by famous Round-Table writers, placed on shelving somewhere, but there was no there there that I could see.
It seems that Sara Duffy of the design firm Stonehill Taylor is responsible for this historic lobby's desecration. In an April 5, 2022 article in Interior Design by Stephen Treffinger, she says, "We took all these ideas and looked at them in subtle ways, never kitschy." She mentions the obliteration of the oak paneling with white paint casually, perhaps with pride, I'm not sure. Apparently she's an established designer with a secure reputation and a lot of high-paying corporate clients. Corporate "hostile" takeover? That explains it.
Despite this unexpected disappointment, MacKay and I sat down to chat and share a pot of chamomile tea, and that was all we had. Insult to injury, the bill came in at $25.