The Algonquin Hotel

Algonquin Hotel
The Round Table Room is the home to Natalie Ascencios’ famous painting “The Vicious Circle.”
There isn’t a place in New York more important to Dorothy Parker’s enduring legacy than the Algonquin Hotel (59 West 44th Street). Any devotee of Parker worth his weight in books will know that “The Gonk” is where the Round Table met for several years beginning in June 1919. The “Vicious Circle” is the most celebrated literary group in American literature. The Algonquin Hotel functions as the headquarters and clubhouse for all fans of Parker and The New Yorker, which was founded on its second floor.

The Algonquin is New York’s most prestigious literary hotel. Except for perhaps the Hotel Chelsea, the Algonquin has more connections to literature and the arts than any other hotel in the city. For more than 100 years, it has played host to writers, editors, actors, producers and industry types. Stop in to the Algonquin lobby, day or night, and there are deals beings struck, proposals being pitched, and hand shaking across the little tables.

The Gonk was designed by architect Goldwin Starrett and opened on Nov. 22, 1902. It has a Renaissance limestone and red brick facade, is 12 stories tall, and has 174 guestrooms. It is on the same street as the New York Yacht Club (37 W. 44th), Harvard Club (27 W. 44th) and the Bar Association (42 W. 44th), hence the name “Club Row” it is near. One of the former locations of The New Yorker is just down the street at (28 W. 44th) and was the magazine office from 1935-1991. The Hippodrome, the most massive theater Broadway ever saw, sat across the street until it was demolished in 1939.

Albert T. Foster and his wife, Ann Stetson Foster, were the Algonquin’s first owners, and they controlled it for the shortest period of any of the hotel’s eight ownership groups to date. Foster, a gambler, moved to town from Buffalo at the turn of the twentieth century with his wife. The couple jointly owned the Puritan Realty Company and had the lease on the neighboring Hotel Iroquois. Foster’s stake in the new hotel came from a $50,000 loan from his wealthy wife. Not long after the Algonquin opened, Ann Foster left her husband, took their child, and sued him for ownership of the hotel. A judge appointed the hotel’s manager, Frank Case, as one of the receivers to manage the property for the couple.

Algonquin Hotel
Algonquin Hotel
Case deserves a lot of the credit for the success of the business. Case managed it until 1927, when he bought it. He curried favor with publishing and theater people, who always were welcome.

The Round Table first met in June 1919 for a luncheon to welcome home Aleck Woollcott, the drama critic for the New York Times, back from World War I. Among his friends were newspapermen Franklin P. Adams, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, and Deems Taylor. Actresses Peggy Wood and Margalo Gillmore were invited, along with magazine writer Margaret Leech and publicists John Peter Toohey and William Murray. Dottie was the drama critic at Vanity Fair at the time, working alongside Robert Benchley, the managing editor, and Robert E. Sherwood, a staff writer. The Round Table consisted of approximately 24 people, who met for close to ten years.

At first they met in the Pergola Room (today called the Oak Room) until the group grew too large and Case moved them to the main dining room. He then gave them a round table. They would meet here in the Rose Room (today the Round Table Restaurant) for long luncheons, six days a week. Some nights, there would be a poker game upstairs in one of their rooms. At the time the Round Table began meeting, Parker was 25 and starting to make a name for herself. This was the most industrious period of her life.

After Parker split from her husband, Eddie, for a second time in 1924, she moved into a furnished suite at the Algonquin on the second floor. After the group disbanded, Parker was back there in 1932 when she attempted one of her three suicide attempts, this time with sleeping pills. She awoke in her hotel bed and called her doctor.

After Frank Case died, the hotel was sold to Ben and Mary Bodne, who had made a fortune in the energy business in World War II. In 1987 the hotel changed hands for a fourth time when the Bodnes sold the hotel to the Aoki Corporation of Tokyo for $29 million. The couple remained in their tenth-floor apartment and each day sat in their favorite wingback chairs in the lobby. Ben died in 1991 at age eighty-eight, and Mary in 2003, at ninety-three. In the meantime, management company Caesar Park International sank more than $22 million into upgrading the hotel, three floors at a time, over the course of five years, also replacing the eighty-five-year-old elevators and all electrical systems.

In 1997, Aoki sold the hotel. A partnership between the Olympus Real Estate Corporation of Dallas and Camberley Hotels of Atlanta paid close to $33 million for the place. They, too, upgraded the hotel while maintaining its unique charm. They hired Alexandra Champalimaud, a Lisbon-born interior designer, to reimagine the lobby and make it appear more like it had in the past. The hotel celebrated its centennial with another change in ownership. In June 2002, Denver-based Miller Global Properties bought the hotel for $43 million.

Algonquin Hotel
The centennial of the Algonquin Hotel in 2002. (Photo: Kevin Fitzpatrick)

In October 2002, the hotel marked the occasion in a low-key way. It had a cake-cutting ceremony in the Round Table Room (formerly the Rose Room) and unveiled a beautiful painting Brooklyn artist Natalie Ascencios. Management undertook another renovation, and for the first time in a hundred years the hotel was closed for a month. It reopened firmly in the new century with flat-screen televisions and wireless Internet access.

General manager Anthony Melchiorri ran a tight ship for Miller, embracing the hotel’s history while making sure the business didn’t coast on reputation alone. His attention to detail and savvy marketing helped to rejuvenate the hotel. Brooklyn-born Melchiorri launched one of the hotel’s biggest publicity schemes: a $10,000 martini with a diamond engagement ring at the bottom of the glass. The story made international news. Miller owned the hotel for three and a half years, then sold it for a reported $74 million in late 2005 to HEI Hotels & Resorts, headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut.

In May 2008, the new owners completed a $4.5 million renovation, installing new furnishings and amenities in all suites and guest rooms. Lobby changes included recessed lighting, pendant lights, and new furniture. Also in 2008, the owners hired Gary Budge as new general manager. He came with thirty-five years of industry experience at Sheraton and Starwood properties. He also teaches hospitality industry courses at the Tisch Center of New York University.

In 2010 the hotel entered another new era. The owners partnered with Marriott International, the hospitality company founded in 1927. The Algonquin became the first New York hotel to join the Autograph Collection, a small linked group of upscale global independent properties. These hotels and resorts fall into historic, boutique, or urban hotel categories. The Algonquin benefited from using Marriott’s reservation system and affinity programs to market the hotel to new travelers.

HEI owned the Algonquin for a little more than five years. In June 2011, Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers of Hartford, Connecticut, bought the property for a little more than the previous sale price. A subsidiary of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, Cornerstone made the most significant improvements to the hotel since the foundation was poured in 1902. Cornerstone shuttered the hotel and Blue Bar from January to May 2012, investing a reported $18 million in a top-to-bottom renovation that replaced all plumbing, electrical, and environmental systems in the building. Every room and suite were renovated and refurbished, with all carpets and wall decorations replaced. A new business center, fitness center, and guest hospitality area were added. Since the reopening the Algonquin has achieved Four Diamond recognition from the American Automobile Association.

In 2014 the hotel’s first female general manager joined the team. Manuela “Manny” Rappenecker brought with her a quarter-century of experience managing hotels in Florida, New Jersey, and New York.

Stuart Y. Silverstein edited Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker, in 1996. He says that the enduring legacy of the group of newspaper writers, magazine editors, critics, actors and hangers-on is timeless. “The first lunch at what later was called the Round Table probably occurred eighty years ago,” Silverstein said in 1999. “Yet the term “The Algonquin Round Table” still holds substantial cultural resonance; for example, during the past television season at least three sitcoms employed it as an ironic punch line to skewer characters who spoke badly or stupidly. Is there any other person, or institution, or event from the interwar period that could possibly be used by a mass-market medium as an implicitly understood cultural reference? I cannot think of any — not even Lindbergh, not any more. Perhaps the Stock Market crash.”

In 1987 the Algonquin was designated a New York City landmark; however it is not protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Neither the interior or exterior are protected from renovation nor demolition. In 1996, the Friends of Libraries USA added the hotel to its list of National Literary Landmarks and a plaque was dedicated.

“Endurance is its own testament,” Silverstein says. “Ultimately, the Round Table was just a parochial literary coterie, yet somehow it has survived in the mass public consciousness for more than three-quarters of a century. That is very important.”

Drop into the hotel if you can. There are regular walking tours to explore more of the history of the hotel and its famous past.

Some of this post was adapted from The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide (Lyons Press).