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The Pierre – A Taj Hotel:  Manhattan’s Peerless Property

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer


As native New Yorkers and also oral historians, who -- in the process of interviewing people for our book “Manhattan at Mid Century”-- have visited just about every neighborhood in the city, we figured we knew New York. And then we checked into the Pierre.

Entering our suite on the 28th floor, we headed straight to the nearest window anxious to see the splendid view such an altitude promised. And it did not disappoint. Before us lay a carpet of treetops bordered by skyscrapers lining 59th Street and Central Park West, radiant in the dappled sunlight of a late August afternoon. The scene was stunning, familiar -- yet colored by a perspective we’d never seen before -- Central Park from the top down, embraced by a jumble of fairy tale-like towers. We stood there transfixed. The city we knew so well had become an Oz-like metropolis, minus  the clutter, minus the noise, unimpeded, set apart. And therefore so fittingly viewed from a window inside the Pierre.

Just a few blocks uptown of Bergdorf’s, the Plaza, and the Sherry Netherland, the landmarked 189-room hotel of gold-colored brick and granite stands on a corner of Fifth Avenue at the point where the shops have given way to the beginning of Central Park. An integral part of New York, across the decades the favored site for gala gatherings, the Pierre has– at the same time – stood apart in both location and possession of a singular aura, a mystique.  After a rough start – it was built in 1929 and sold at public auction four years later for pennies on the dollar – the hotel was purchased by John Paul Getty in 1938 (the oil magnate would brag it was the only above-ground property he ever owned) and subsequently moved into the coveted position in the firmament of New York City hotels it has occupied ever since.

Looking directly across at Central Park, the Pierre takes up  half a Fifth Avenue block. Yet the entrance bypasses two revolving doors for a third one around the corner on less flamboyant East 61st  Street. Give it a spin, and you’re inside a cool, wide lobby that, despite stunning ceiling moldings, frosted chandeliers, and a grand sweep of  black and white slabs of Italian marble, remains low-keyed and welcoming. You’ll  be warmly greeted, swiftly checked-in, and escorted to an elevator bank where a charming operator will invite you into his or her cab for a lift to the floor of your room -- the first in the series of pleasant diversions that will accompany your every up and down at the Pierre.

Stroll through the lobby and you’ll notice works of contemporary art are hanging on the walls, a brass plates beside each reveals the provenance and artist’s name. All are masterworks from India that, along with displays of treasured artifacts and a spa featuring holistic treatments based on Indian fragrances and oils, contribute to an understated, yet exotic ambience that permeates the hotel, lending an effect that has defined the Pierre experience since Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces assumed management of the then 75-year-old-property in 2005.

“Having the Taj group undertake managing this hotel was the best kind of thing that could have happened here,” general manager Heiko Kuenstie tells us. “They have a history of taking authentic palaces and turning them into beautiful hotels.  In our case, we wanted subtle influences: art work in the hallways, textiles in the rooms – all from India, but not meant to be obvious.”

We’re having drinks with the genial general manager from Germany in Two E Bar/Lounge (named for 2 East 61st Street, the hotel’s address), the popular retreat off the lobby where light fare, afternoon tea and a no-cover jazz series on Tuesday nights attract a lively crowd.

“This is one of the original rooms of the hotel,” Heiko says as we take note of how easily the classical pilasters and pillars co-exist with a stunning bronze bar of Art Deco design. “Some time ago it had been turned into a space for executive offices.  My office used to be right here, exactly where I’m sitting now. I felt it was a terrible use of such a beautiful space and was so glad to see it returned to its original use.        

“When I first came to the Pierre in 1993, the hotel was a Four Seasons property,” he goes on. “After five years, I moved to the Plaza Athénée and from there, to the Lowell House where I was General Manager and oversaw a lot of renovations.

“Then one day, I got a call asking whether I’d be interested in taking over the Pierre. It was a Taj property by that time, and they wanted to do a full renovation of the hotel. This was an offer I could not pass up.  The property had become tired; there was a great need for a sprucing up and renovation, and Taj’s understanding of this kind of landmarked historical building would be enormously helpful. I felt I was being given an opportunity to take an iconic property and do something significant with it. But, at the same time, I realized there’s nothing worse than having the opportunity to do something with an iconic property and messing it up.”

Of course, nothing of the sort occurred. In 2006, the year following Taj’s takeover and with Heiko at the helm, a $100-million renovation began. In 2008, the entire hotel – with the exception of banquet spaces – closed down for a year and half as all guest accommodations and public areas were renovated.

Heiko still recalls a major obstacle confronted during this period: “One of our main goals was to increase the size of the bathrooms,” he tells us. “In 1929 when the hotel was built, people traveled with a lot more luggage in steamer trunks. They needed space in the rooms; and the bathroom was not that important. Today it’s just the opposite. People arrive with one little suitcase. They need less room space and more bathroom space.       

“The problem was we have 80 apartments in this building,” he goes on. (The Pierre had become a cooperative in 1959.) “The owners of the apartments are the owners of the building; they lease the property to the hotel. When you work in plumbing you’re looking at vertical lines. There were occupied apartments on every floor, and when one was in our line, we had to figure out how to move through it. That made enlarging the bathrooms one of our biggest challenges.”

Obviously the challenge was met. Every bathroom is sizeable, luxuriant, furnished with double-sinks, electric makeup mirrors and equipped with all manner of 21st-century comforts and state-of-the-art technological features. Still the feel of the original property in every guestroom and each suite has been retained. They bear a creamy, peaches-and-cream tonality, dreamy high ceilings, detailed old-fashioned moldings, and quality, individually-styled furnishings.

Heiko Kuenstle, General Manager

The smallest guestroom at the Pierre, according to sales and marketing director Leslie Shulman, Marketing Account Executive, larger than what you would expect from a hotel room in New York.  Hallways remain wide; framed architectural drawings of  original plans and layouts for the hotel decorate the walls and invite interesting inspection while waiting for the elevator.

Marketing Account Executive Leslie Shulman
Marketing Account Executive Leslie Shulman

But as far as the general manager was concerned, the key change is in the lobby. “It was

elegant but darker and understated when I began here,” Heiko says. “Nothing was in the center. The concierge’s desk was small and behind a corner; the front desk was  even smaller. I thought something was needed something to give the lobby more oomph, something that would cause a guest to make immediate eye contact with the person behind a concierge desk that stood away from the wall as soon as he or she walked in. Coming from Europe, I knew that was the most important thing. Today I have a world-class, truly excellent concierge and team taking take center stage in a bright and spacious lobby.”

Throughout the restoration period and beyond, Heiko was insistent that every element in the hotel bear some relevance to the New York scene. “The banquet space here is incredible, not only in their number but in the kinds of functions they house. That is a factor that contributes to the hotel’s iconic structure,” he says.

A tour of the banquet rooms reveals their possibilities. From the extravagant to the subdued, from palatial ballrooms to places for intimate gatherings, from spaces suitable forroyal-like weddings to fund raising, celebratory, organizational and personal events, they reflect the splendor of the Pierre and the imagination and dedication of a staff committed to fulfilling a client’s vision.

For us, the loveliest spot in “The Pierre, A Taj Hotel” – as the property is formally called -- is the rotunda directly off the lobby where, beneath a relief ceiling of fluffy clouds in a pink and blue sky painted by Portuguese artisans who specialize in historic restoration, a frescoed Italianate fantasy of garden scenes wraps around the circular room while Baroque double stairways face each other across its diameter, each climbing to a small balcony that opens into an extraordinary banquet space.

“The rotunda had been a banquet space during the Four Seasons tenure,” Heiko tells us. “There were suggestions we use it as a bar or tearoom. But I felt that wasn’t right as you would have hundreds of people gathering in this small area to go into or come out of one of the banquet rooms.” So, for the moment, it seems to serve no specific function beyond inspiring gasps of wonderment each time it is seen and providing an interior entry to Sirio’s.        

Sirio’s, after Sirio Maccioni, the legendary restaurateur from Tuscany who, having established fine-dining rooms in New York, Las Vegas, New Delhi, the Holland American Line and the Dominican Republic, forming a chain of restaurants together with his three sons: Mario, Marco, and Mauro, added the Pierre to the list at a fabulous opening on October 24, 2012 attended by “an incredible amount of important people,” according to Heiko.  Actually it is the Pierre redux.  In the early 1970s, Sirio had been maître d’ and director of La Forêt at the Pierre before moving on to found Le Cirque at the Palace Hotel in 1974.

The main entrance to Sirio’s, through one of the two revolving doors on Fifth Avenue (the other is nominally for Pierre residents although it is used by everyone) opens into the elongated space that has been the site for Pierre restaurants throughout its existence. But with Sirio’s, it is something entirely new. Designed by Adam Tihany, the dining room is a contemporary, understated room that a press release recalls “the casual elegance of Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita.’” A long bar runs along one side, small booths line the other. We thought it had the feel of a first-class dining room on a continental express.

Chef Massimo Bebber

“Most hotel restaurants are stuffy, overpriced,” Heiko had told us. “The last thing we wanted was a restaurant that felt like a hotel restaurant. Instead we have a restaurant that happens to be in a hotel.”

A trio of Sirio staffers. (Lucas Momo, assistant  restaurant manager is on the left)
A trio of Sirio staffers. (Lucas Momo, assistant  restaurant manager is on the left)

It also happens to have a young, creative executive chef from Roncengo, a small town in the northern Italian province Trento. The son and brother of chefs, Chef Massimo Bebber brought his own touch, aided by his DNA, to a dinner he prepared of buffalo mozzarella tomatoes, pepper and basil with black olive pesto, porcini mushroom soup, ricotta gnocchi, spaghetti with clams, and sea scallops with a chanterelle puree which was accompanied by a smooth and fruity Sauvignon Blanc Sancerre from the Loire Valley. Assistant restaurant manager Lucas Momo, who moved over to Sirio from Le Cirque, told us “I feel so lucky to be here. Sirio’s  a place you can come into and know you will have the best Italian food: oysters, pasta, old dishes and some new.”

You will also find the best, most attentive staff in hoteldom -- from folks in F & B to housekeepers, elevator operators, front-office people, porters, security. Leo Zeng was one of the many. We met him in Two East 61st Street soon after we arrived. He’s been at the Pierre for fifteen years –“That’s almost as long as I’ve been in the United States,” he tells us.

“I came here in 1998 when I was 27. I was single then; now I’m married. Then I came into contact with an organization that helps Chinese immigrants. I joined, took the training they offered, learned how to act in an interview. I had no experience at the time I was interviewed, but I showed my personality and  got a job here. My final interview was with the G.M. here in this room.”

He goes on: “This hotel gave me an American life. I came here like empty luggage, like a blank piece of paper. Whatever I have, I learned here. They taught me how to be a bartender, a waiter. They trained me. Gave me a chance.  I lived in Chinatown at the time. Now I live in Kew Garden Hills. I have my own apartment, my own car. And I’m an American. I really appreciate it.”

“What makes this hotel distinctive?” Heiko poses the question. “It more than just being around for so long, for being one of the most desired to live in. That is something the guests have to answer. For me it’s an oasis of calm and truly and refined elegant service. Outside is the buzzing and noise. Inside there is the old world charm.”

He pauses and smiles. “The Pierre is a hotel to which people have a strong emotional connection,” he says.

Now we do too. Although we’d attended functions at the Pierre through the years, this was our first time as guests, and interestingly, over the couple of days of our stay, the stars seemed to align as our attachment to the place grew.

Our first morning, a dear friend called unexpectedly. He had hosted and organized a trip to India for us last year and now was in town from Mumbai. Meeting him for lunch at Sirio’s, reminiscing about our time it Kerala, we fell under the spell of the hotel’s Indian connection.

Leo Zeng at the bar 

At the same time, we had just received an advance copy of our book Manhattan at Mid-Century (a re-issue of the original It Happened in Manhattan). An oral history of Manhattan in the post-war years, it includes a memoir by Sirio Maccioni beginning with his arrival in New York and continuing through the journey he took that led to his becoming a famous restaurateur.  Among his recollections is one that describes the time he spent as maître d’ and director of La Floret, “a beautiful restaurant” (he calls it) at the Pierre. Now, forty years later, he has returned to the same space with restaurant of his own.

Our book concludes with the late Bill Gallo, for many years a sports cartoonist for the “Daily News,” reflecting on the New York theater scene. “It’s still the champ,” he says. We were reminded of this as we prepared to leave. It seemed an apt metaphor. There are many hotels in New York, but only one Pierre. It stands apart; a true champion.

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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