Maids, butlers, and bellhops save iconic New York hotel

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The Independent US

The drastic surgery planned for the fabled Plaza Hotel in New York, which would have seen most of its rooms converted to apartments and some of its famous public spaces given over to shops, is to be dramatically scaled back.

The drastic surgery planned for the fabled Plaza Hotel in New York, which would have seen most of its rooms converted to apartments and some of its famous public spaces given over to shops, is to be dramatically scaled back.

The beaux arts monolith on the south-eastern corner of Central Park is one of the most beloved landmarks in the city and has featured in many Hollywood films including North by Northwest, Home Alone 2 and Plaza Suite.

It will still close for renovation as originally scheduled at the end of this month for nearly two years. But its refurbishment will now be considerably more modest, under an agreement reached between the new owners and New York's hotel union.

The bones of the hotel, which has welcomed kings, queens, presidents and movie stars, will still change but its soul may have been saved.

Indeed, its many distinguished ghosts, from Ernest Hemingway to Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote - not to mention roller-skating Eloise of the children's books - who before were surely preparing to check out in disgust may now just be persuaded to stay.

Most strikingly, the opportunity to sip tea and eat sandwiches - cucumber even - in its gilded Palm Court will not be lost when it reopens.

Under the new blueprint the owner will conserve all the Plaza's most important public spaces, including the Oak Room and the huge ballroom, the wedding reception venue for celebrities such as Donald Trump and Catherine Zeta Jones.

The deal, brokered in marathon talks by the New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, should also ensure that the Plaza will remain, above all, a hotel.

Under the original plans announced earlier this year, the number of rooms was to have been slashed from 800 to just 150, with the rest becoming luxury apartments. But Elad Properties, which purchased the 18-storey building for $675mlast autumn, has now promised to retain nearly 350 rooms. And it has abandoned its vision of a giant luxury goods shop, which would have devoured most of the public spaces, in favour of more modest retail units.

"The legend lives. The Plaza continues," boasted Miki Naftali, Elad's president and chief executive, who promised the $350m refit would ensure that the Plaza "will continue to entertain visitors to New York for another 100 years".

The original plans for the Plaza sparked fury both from the hotel union and from several high-profile New Yorkers concerned that one of the city's most symbolic structures, with its marble, gilt and chandeliers, was to be butchered. Among them was Ronald S Lauder, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, who recently flew to Israel to plead with its owners to reconsider their original plans.

For the staff and its union, the settlement is a signal victory, achieved after days of negotiations that on several instances almost broke down. About 350 of the hotels workers - about double the original number - will now reclaim their jobs at the Plaza when it reopens.

It also promises a political boon for Mr Bloomberg, who was welcomed with loud cheers and whistles when he announced the new agreement in a room packed with hotel staff late on Thursday.

In particular, it will put him in good stead with the city's unions just six months before he tries for re-election as Mayor.

The grimaces worn of late on the faces of its doormen and porters were mostly replaced by smiles. "I'm elated," conceded Joseph Lamont, a Plaza bellman for 17 years. "The children and families really love this hotel." So too was Marguerite Callendar, a 27-year-old veteran of the hotel who said she was "proud of what we have accomplished".

The leader of the New York Hotel Trades Council, Peter Ward, warned, however, that the Plaza was not the only hotel that has been threatened by the rush by owners to convert guest rooms to apartments.

The trend has seen the loss of about 3,400 hotel rooms in New York with more conversions now planned, some at equally well known establishments like the St Regis Hotel, just a few blocks from the Plaza.

"We made a good deal at the Plaza," Mr Ward said, "but it's one battle. The war is a bigger issue".

His union is pressing the city council to pass legislation to limit the number of hotel conversions.

The Plaza

* Opened its doors in 1907, with no fewer than 1,650 crystal chandeliers. With its beaux arts exterior and 18 storeys, the hotel aimed to create a bit of Versailles in New York with marble and mirror interiors.

* It has featured in many films and books, such as F Scott Fitzgerald's ''The Great Gatsby''. A famous fictional guest was Eloise, the naughty little girl of Kay Thompson's 1955 classic children's book.

* A standard room in 1907 was $2.50. Rooms available today: $459.

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