VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

BOLD MOVES | Strategy in Perspective

The St. Moritz: The Life and Death of a Legendary Hotel

 

 

 

Long before the now ubiquitous boutique hotels with their nightclub lighting and Pee Wee’s Playhouse decor, there existed perhaps one of the most storied and iconic of New York hotels, the St. Moritz, located at 50 Central Park South in New York City.

 

Designed in 1930 by architect Emery Roth, the St. Moritz Hotel quickly became the crossroads for the political, intellectual, and cultural elite.

 

They dined at the Hotel’s famed Café de la Paix, New York’s first sidewalk cafe.  And their children clamored for the hot chocolate at Rumplemayer’s, a place that while long gone, still holds a place in the hearts of those nostalgic for the old days of New York.

 


My grandfather greeted everyone with equal grace, whether it was Judy Garland or Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century Fox.


 

My great uncle, S. Gregory Taylor and later my grandfather, Charles G. Taylor, both Greek immigrants, ran the hotel in the Old-World style that typified their philosophy of hospitality.

 

My grandfather sat at a desk in the hotel’s lobby and greeted everyone with equal grace, whether it was Judy Garland or Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century Fox. Indeed, the hotel was a kind of unofficial embassy for the Greek community.

 

Charles G. Taylor (left) and his brother S. Gregory Taylor in an undated photograph. The two partnered to develop some of New York’s biggest hotels, but the St. Moritz remained their most prized.

Meanwhile, a man named Conrad Hilton was snapping up inexpensive small hotel properties and turning them into “Hilton” hotels, and establishing the first modern hotel franchise chain in the United States.

 

By the late 1940’s he had set his sights on New York, zeroing in on the fabled Waldorf Astoria, which he bought in 1949.

 


Can one icon spawn dozens more without somehow rendering the original weaker and less magical?


 

“I found waste-space even in the greatest of them all,” bragged Hilton. “Even in the four columns of the Waldorf-Astoria.” Hilton’s strategy was to look at a property and figure out how to get another bed in there.

 

“Connie” Hilton enjoyed swinging by the St. Moritz to give my grandfather some unsolicited advice on hotel operations, but the subject usually turned to franchising. Did he have his sights set on the St. Moritz?

Probably.

 

By this time, Gregory and Charles were doing pretty well and had spent the better part of two decades building and operating some of New York’s most striking new hotels: the Buckingham, the Montclair (now the W), and the Dixie. But the St. Moritz was their jewel.

 

No doubt Hilton saw the opportunity for them to do what he was doing.

 

Conrad Hilton stands before the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which he purchased entirely on credit in 1949. His book, Be My Guest, was his rags-to-riches story and the lessons learned while building his hotel empire.

 

When my great uncle Gregory passed away in 1946, my grandfather focused even harder on the St. Moritz with the goal of further cementing its iconic status as “New York’s only truly continental hotel.”

 

I often wonder if he considered Hilton’s proposition. Could he have franchised the concept of the St. Moritz without destroying its appeal? Can one icon spawn dozens more without somehow rendering the original weaker and less magical?

 

Of course, we all know the answer to that.

 


Part of what makes an iconic destination “iconic” is that it offers an entirely unique experience that is difficult to replicate.


 

Today, franchised properties isn’t the only way a hospitality venture can remain profitable. In fact it’s a struggle to find any hotel that isn’t part of a group. The fact is, old Conrad Hilton wasn’t wrong — but neither was my grandfather.

 

Part of what makes an iconic destination “iconic” is that it offers an entirely unique experience that is difficult to replicate, by virtue of the fact that there are so many moving parts — what we often call “signatures.”

 

The very ground becomes hallowed. The “original” renders all of those that follow merely impersonators and control becomes increasingly difficult.

 

the-st-moritz-hotel-1950

At top, the St. Moritz Hotel, as seen from Central Park, in about 1950. Below, my grandfather and his wife in Central Park, 1934. The hotel looms behind them, having only recently become part of Manhattan’s skyline.

Successful franchising requires programming all of the primary, service-oriented details while eliminating the ones that are likely to disturb the overall effect if performed poorly.

 

The franchised experience delivers the high-level message of the brand but without any of the nuances. That is the inevitable trade-off.

 


The franchised experience delivers the high-level message of the brand but without any of the nuances.


 

Nevertheless, Hilton was prescient: he masterminded the concept of modern hospitality design, delivering only the top notes that mattered to the middle class traveler: convenience, consistency, and the kind of bold modernism that defined the American jet-age. As time marched on, “old world” hotel values became of less interest to the modern American traveler.

 

Meanwhile the St. Moritz became perhaps a bit more “old world” than was good for it. After my grandfather died in 1960, the hotel changed hands a half dozen times, from Leona Helmsley to Donald Trump to Ian Schrager.

 

Seeing the hotel fall from its pedestal, I had to wonder: was Hilton right?

 

If you had to name them, what are the signatures of the Hilton experience — besides a Gideon’s bible and a copy of Hilton’s Be My Guest in the bedside table drawer? I certainly can’t tell. But maybe nobody really cares anymore for the hotels of the past. Afterall, most of the classics have been renovated beyond recognition. Who really eats at a hotel restaurant anymore?

 

And while no one is likely to remember that Hilton’s first hotel was a little 40-room rooming house called the Mobley in Cisco, Texas, everyone still remembers the St. Moritz, which continues to stand in all its Art Deco splendor at 50 Central Park South. 

 

On my last visit to the hotel in the late 1990’s, I went high up to the abandoned Sky Room Lounge, and felt my grandfather standing there beside me. It was a moment I shall never forget, looking out over the inky mass that is Central Park at night and wondering how it came to pass that the hotel was no longer relevant.

 

A few months later, the hotel closed and its contents auctioned off. It is now a Ritz Carlton, with only the building’s name intact. 

 

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One Response

  1. Fascinating family history, a great lesson in going with one’s “gut” and the images, well they are priceless…

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