Renovating the Waldorf Astoria New York: An Interview With Architect Frank Mahan

By Published On: March 14, 20226.2 min read

When the Waldorf Astoria first opened its doors in 1931, it became an instant New York City icon.

Known as “the world’s first skyscraper hotel,” it hosted a wide roster of celebrities, royalty and heads of state — from Marilyn Monroe to Marlene Dietrich — and is remembered for its iconic ballroom parties, earning the nickname as “the unofficial palace of New York.” (Just take a look in the sprawling Presidential Suite).

The hotel was first designed by Schultze & Weaver, a New York architecture firm that designed dozens of high-end hotels in Manhattan between the 1920s and 1940s. This one was likely their most epic project. This limestone, full-block building is a beacon of Art Deco design, with a pair of luxury twin towers at the top. It became a New York City Landmark in 1993, and has since undergone several renovations.

Now the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architecture firm is working on the hotel’s grand renovation, to be completed sometime by 2023. It’s no easy feat, as they’re converting the former 1,400-room hotel into a 375-unit residential building [to be known as The Towers of Waldorf Astoria] and a 375-room boutique hotel. There will be separate entrances for each property type. For the residents, they’ll have access to the Starlight Pool, a private cinema and a wellness center.

A rendering of the new interiors.

Image provided by Noe and Associates & The Boundary. Courtesy of the Waldorf Astoria New York

While the interiors will be modern, the façade will be brought back to its original design. SOM’s lead architect on the project, Frank Mahan, spoke to about bringing back the aura of the hotel’s storied past, Art Deco architecture and a peek inside the residences.

How is the renovation going?

Frank Mahan: Great! It’s under construction.

What can we expect to see?

There are going to be 375 condominiums in the building, the exterior is historic. It is a landmark and will remain. The interior of the residences is all new, newly created and planned. A variety of planned types. The interiors are designed by Jean-Louis Deniot. They are inspired by the Art Deco architecture of the building but interpreted in a contemporary way.

A rendering of the new interiors.

Image provided by Noe and Associates & The Boundary. Courtesy of the Waldorf Astoria New York

What materials are being used for the interiors?

There’s a rich material palette that is inspired by Art Deco architecture. There’s beautiful hardwood floors and a custom pattern, custom chevrons a shape throughout the historic building. Staining on the cabinetry, marble bathrooms, custom fixtures. It’s quite high-end.

How important is sustainability to your firm and practice?

It’s at the core of everything we do. Materials are selected very carefully for this project. Energy efficiency is taken very seriously, but the most sustainable thing we can do is redevelop an existing building, as opposed to tearing something down and building a new building. That’s a decision in and of itself. It saves a tremendous amount of embodied carbon. That single decision is the most impactful in the entire project.

How did you want to keep the original details from the façade from Schultze & Weaver?

The exterior of the building is made of limestone on the face. And brick on the tower proportions. It’s a custom brick for the project when it was first constructed, it’s called ‘Waldorf gray.’ They have that stamped on all of them. We are cleaning and repairing and restoring the entire façade, top to bottom. There’s a lot of brick replacement and repointing work, all of which had to match harmoniously to the existing exterior. Some of the exterior is being modified to allow more daylight into the residences.

We’re modifying the entrances to the ground level, a new entrance to the residential portion on Park Avenue, so that’s a proper Park Avenue entrance and a porte-cochère on the north side of the building. It is crowned by two copper pinnacles, which are being restored. High performance, energy efficient, low E-coating window replacement, too. They match the original performance of the original windows, matching the original line profile of the windows.

Can you tell us about this porte-cochère?

Portecochere interiors.

Image provided by Noe and Associates & The Boundary. Courtesy of the Waldorf Astoria New York

The building always had a porte-cochère that connected 49th Street to 50th Street, so you could drive all the way through from one street to another. We’re bifurcating that into two distinct porte-cochères. One faces 49th Street for the hotel and one facing 50th Street for the residences, so each has their own private entrances.

What is your favorite era of the building? Any point in history?

My favorite moment was almost the moment of the birth of this building. When it all originally began. The building was completed around the time of the Great Depression, but it opened to great fanfare right away. There were many superlatives said about it. It had heating and cooling and had telephones in every room, which was trailblazing for its heyday.

The presidential library.

Image provided by Noe and Associates & The Boundary. Courtesy of the Waldorf Astoria New York

It thrived for several decades before it saw a decline in the 1960s. People’s travel habits changed, rail travel ceased, and air travel became more popular. More modern hotels became more readily available. The building was renovated in response to this. Before the hotel closed, we saw a mishmash of renovations done in an ad-hoc manner over many years, without a master plan. Since the current owner is closing the building to restore it correctly from top to bottom, inside to out, that gives us the opportunity to restore it to its original design intent.

Can you give an example of what made its glory years so fantastic?

The grand ballroom was illuminated in a beautiful way. The architects decided to illuminate it throughout the public spaces throughout the hotel in an indirect or mysterious way, so you don’t see the source of the illumination. They did this with cove lights. We can see from their original drawings, they wanted the ceiling to be incredibly light, bright and modern, that floats above the space. But it never happened because the lighting technology couldn’t pull it off. Many ad hoc light fixtures have tried to fix the light fixtures over the years, but we are entirely redoing the light in the grand ballroom ceiling and lighting system to realize that original design intent.

The starlight pool.

Image provided by Noe and Associates & The Boundary. Courtesy of the Waldorf Astoria New York

The Starlight Pool is created out of a former nightclub, correct?

The Starlight Roof was an interior space, there was a nightclub. There was a roof with a skylight that opened to the open air. That has been covered over with large mechanical equipment and is permanently closed. We’re going to remove the mechanics and put in a skylight, then turn it into a pool for the residences. It’s a 25-meter-long pool, with 50,000 square feet of amenities for the rest of the residences.

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