“Don’t you like positive thinking?” Heiko Kuenstle, general manager of New York City’s landmark Pierre hotel, says when I ask if he’s worried that it is about to reopen—after a four-year, $100 million renovation—in a climate of economic uncertainty. “I do believe we were lucky to be out of commission during the worst of the downturn. And I believe that because of our history, reputation, location, and exceptional service, we have a great opportunity.” If, as financial gurus say, investments in hard times pay off in better ones, then India-based Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, which took over the Pierre and launched its makeover in 2005, is poised to profit in spades.
The Pierre-by-Taj refreshes the luxury and exclusivity that have long defined the hotel. From that unparalleled location—at the southeast corner of Central Park—to a reputation for quality and discretion that has attracted and coddled guests of wealth and taste from Britain’s Prince Philip to the Rolling Stones, the Pierre has always been one of New York’s top-tier hotels. But even the top tier has its ups and downs. “It had taken a beating,” says Kuenstle, who’d worked there early in his career and returned to run it for Taj. “It looked tired.” The Pierre looks tired no longer.
The new Pierre—lighter, more contemporary, but still an assured grande dame—was unveiled in stages while the building, which also houses 74 privately owned apartments, continued to operate, its white-gloved elevator attendants always on duty, its housekeeping staff busy. First, Taj hired designer Alexandra Champalimaud to refresh the Grand Ballroom and the Cotillion Room. She brought in Portuguese artisans to restore hand-painted relief ceilings. Then, every room and suite was redesigned by James Park Associates of Singapore. They now hint at Taj’s ownership with Indian-made window treatments and handwoven carpets and South Asian art chosen by a Mumbai gallerist. The Pierre has also installed state-of-the-art electronic systems in every room, and bathrooms have been enlarged and equipped with wall-to-wall marble, deep tubs, and glass showers with rain heads.
The lobby, too, has been subtly improved. Structural columns were removed from the previously forlorn Fifth Avenue entrance, and the main 61st Street entry was enlarged. Corridors between the two were made fluid, the marble skirting and checkerboard floor expanded with new matched stone, and some hidden office space—with original Greek-style pillars and molding intact—has been turned into Two E, a new lobby lounge designed by Champalimaud. In September the first foreign branch of London’s in-crowd restaurant, Le Caprice, will open in the space once occupied by the Café Pierre. “It was a perfect match,” says Des McDonald, Caprice Holdings’ CEO. Both the Pierre and Le Caprice are “about real value,” he continues. “Gimmicks mean nothing now. You just have to look after people.”
It is no coincidence that the Pierre’s original blueprints, reprinted on silver foil, now decorate the corridors. “The art is to maintain respect for the roots of a place, pay it tribute, and create a sustaining vitality for the future,” says Champalimaud. The Pierre embraces its history. It was born almost exactly 80 years ago, early in 1929, at the apex of the last great financial bubble. After Commodore Elbridge T. Gerry, a banker and namesake of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, died in 1927, his family made a deal with financiers Otto H. Kahn and E. F. Hutton, Herbert Pratt of Standard Oil, automaker Walter P. Chrysler, and others to spend $15 million to build a majestic new hotel on the site of Gerry’s Fifth Avenue mansion. It opened late in 1930.
To run it, the financiers hired (and named the hotel for) Charles Pierre Casalasco, the son of a Corsican restaurateur, who’d passed through Monte Carlo, Paris, and London before shortening his name to Charles Pierre. He had opened the restaurant Pierre’s on Park Avenue in 1920, where he was known for watching over young heiresses, winning the trust of their parents.
The Pierre offered full hotel service to permanent residents. There was a remarkable suite of public rooms, including an oval rotunda where afternoon tea was served, a restaurant, and a 1,000-seat ballroom with 64-foot ceilings capable of holding the most elaborate social affairs. The hotel also provided social secretaries and chaperones worthy of tending the scions of wealth it expected would frequent the property. The finished product helped define the picture-postcard skyline of the elite district surrounding Grand Army Plaza—a dignified gray-white façade topped with a graceful three-story copper mansard roof.
The swells soon poured in, giving dinners and dances and filling the private Club Pierrot on the 42nd floor. One of the hotel’s early guests was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. But a mere six months after the designer checked out, the hotel was sued for foreclosure by its mortgage lender, and in March 1932 it declared bankruptcy. In the late 1930’s, J. Paul Getty, America’s richest oilman, came to the rescue, buying the place for about $2.3 million, and prominent renters—a French marquis; an Austrian prince; Aristotle Onassis; Katharine Hepburn; Cary Grant; Elizabeth Taylor—continued to nest there. Then, in 1959, the permanent tenants bought the building from Getty and turned it into a cooperative apartment house, paying from $9,500 for a single room to $130,000 for an eight-room apartment with four bathrooms. They were good investments. The Club Pierrot space became a five-bedroom triplex that was recently offered for $70 million.
From then on, the Pierre became a symbol of hope, not for more recent apartment owners like cosmetics mogul Charles Revson, movie producer Irwin Winkler, fashion executive Pierre Bergé, Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, and former Disney head Michael Eisner, who were already on top of the world when they arrived, but for foreign hotel-management firms eager to carve out a piece of the high-end American market for themselves by running a New York showplace. Though the cooperative owns the 189 hotel rooms and banquet facilities, professionals have managed them since 1967. Trusthouse Forte, a British chain, ran the Pierre from 1973 to 1980, followed by the then relatively unknown Four Seasons Hotels Ltd. of Toronto, which began an aggressive U.S. expansion soon after taking over.
Now it’s Taj’s turn. Born in 1903 at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, Taj grew over the next century into India’s largest hotel group, and then stretched its arms around the world. “The Pierre put Four Seasons on the map in America,” says a longtime hotel executive. “It will clearly do the same for Taj.”
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Michael Gross is the author of the new book, Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum.