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.