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Tour the Plaza Hotel

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by Joann Jovinelly (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published April 8th 2010
Little can eclipse the elegance of the Plaza Hotel, New York's premiere and perhaps most storied address. At just over a century old, the majestic 18-story French Renaissance château-like structure has defined Fifth Avenue since 1907 and has been home to as many celebrities as celebrated recluses. And this month, the newest leg of the Plaza's $450 million restoration project is revealed: the magnificent Palm Court restaurant's breathtaking ceiling (removed in 1944 to accommodate air conditioning) will again enable patrons to dine under the stained glass Gilded Age wonder.

If you're more charmed by architecture than by a formal afternoon tea, join historian and author Francis Morrone for an intimate 45-minute Architecture Society Tour of New York's most prized hotel as he leads small groups through the Plaza twice each week on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons. Sights to behold include the restored Palm Court restaurant, the refurbished Oak Room, and the not-to-be-missed Grand Ballroom.

The late author Truman Capote called the Plaza's 1920s neo-Rococo ballroom the "most beautiful place in New York." His fondness for the cream- and gold-colored space became fully known when he hosted the Plaza's night of all nights on November 28, 1966. All of Manhattan was abuzz while witnessing the celebrated among them don eveningwear and masks and head to Capote's infamous Black and White Ball, eventually known as the Party of the Century. The guest list was months in the making. It included such notable personalities as Edward Albee, Candice Bergen, Andy Warhol, Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow, Henry Fonda, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, and more than 500 other famous attendees. With so many of his friends and associates clamoring for months to get an invitation, Capote later lamented that the much lauded event cemented his friendships with hundreds while making him enemies with thousands.

Historian Morrone's tour, aplomb with beguiling anecdotes that span the hotel's rich history, is as fascinating as the hotel itself. Over the last century it has housed rooms that have evolved into just about any décor guests could imagine. It has boasted, at one time or another, a Turkish bathhouse, an art deco nightclub, a disco, an ice cream parlor, and even a tiki lounge. And there's also that precocious six-year-old, Eloise.

The tour continues in the refurbished Oak Room, once a gentlemen-only bar that closed during Prohibition and reopened in 1934 as a full-service restaurant. A favorite retreat of Plaza architect Henry Hardenbergh, it features ornately carved English oak, a barrel-vaulted ceiling, and wall after wall of expertly restored murals of German feudal castles. Modern updates include opulent copper, gold, and leather accents and soft mohair benches for a touch of feminine in an otherwise masculine interior that would still be recognizable to F. Scott Fitzgerald, a one time regular.

This spring, take one rainy afternoon to drift back in time into an older, aristocratic New York that remains as haunting as it is charming. Sip afternoon tea in a room that will leave you breathless. Walk the dimly lit halls that lead to the Grand Ballroom. And if you're among the lucky few, stay the night to bask in the sort of opulence from which dreams are made.

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Why? Because reality is better than film.
When: Tuesday and Saturday Afternoons, 3:00 PM
Where: 10 Central Park South (at Fifth Avenue)
Cost: $15, Advance Reservations Required, (212) 588-8012
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