|By Beth J. Harpaz, The Charlotte
Observer, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 1, 2008 - NEW YORK -- Hundreds of New Yorkers and tourists alike flocked to The Plaza Hotel on Saturday for the landmark's reopening after a three-year, $400 million renovation.
"They say this place is the world's most famous hotel," said doorman Freddy Davila, who worked for the hotel for 15 years until it closed in 2005. "It's wonderful to be back," he said as he welcomed visitors up the red-carpeted steps.
"We just had to see inside," said Owen Mathieu, visiting from Marblehead, Mass. "We've seen it in the movies. Everybody's heard of it."
The Plaza, a National Historic Landmark overlooking Central Park, first opened in 1907. Marilyn Monroe was photographed here, and guests included the Beatles and Frank Lloyd Wright. Its ballroom was the setting of Truman Capote's "Black and White Ball" and the wedding of Richard Nixon's daughter Julie. Scenes were shot at the hotel for movies including "North by Northwest," "Barefoot in the Park," "Crocodile Dundee" and "Home Alone 2." Owners have included Conrad Hilton and Donald Trump.
Many fans also know the hotel from Kay Thompson's children's books about a naughty little girl named Eloise who lives at The Plaza. A portrait of Eloise hung in the lobby for nearly 50 years; hotel officials say it will be back later this spring.
The Plaza's current owners, Elad Properties, initially planned to convert all guest rooms into condominiums, but the plan was opposed by preservationists and the hotel workers' union. Negotiations with Mayor Michael Bloomberg led to a deal that resulted in 282 hotel rooms, down from the original 805, and 181 apartments.
Rates for the hotel rooms start at $1,000 a night.
"When you hear $1,000 a night for a room it might seem like a lot, but in the end it's not about the price, it's about the experience," said Bill Carroll, a professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. "It's such a unique destination. It really is about the cachet." He honeymooned at The Plaza 41 years ago.
The restored features include gleaming mosaic floors, sparkling chandeliers and gold-trimmed ceilings. "They've done a nice job," said Ken Johns of Dallas, who remarked that it had gotten "a little dingy" before it closed.
A highlight is the stained-glass ceiling, called a laylight, in the Palm Court dining room near the lobby. It had been replaced in the 1940s by a plaster ceiling, so "it hasn't been seen in most people's lifetimes," said Sarah Carroll, director of preservation for the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which worked with the owners.
Glass shards and old photos were all researchers had to go on to re-create the laylight. Carroll called the result -- a backlit yellow-and-green geometric design trimmed with roses -- "a perfect crown for that room."
A new Champagne Bar in the lobby offers cocktails, champagne by the glass ($25-$60) or by the bottle, up to $3,350 for a magnum.
The famed Oak Bar will be back in service in time for the May 10 grand opening -- Saturday was considered a soft opening.
General manager Shane Krige said the renovated guest rooms "bridge the world between the old and the new" with flat-screen TVs, electronic key cards, iPod docks and digital touch screens that let guests change lighting and temperature or call for assistance. Touches of old-fashioned opulence include faucets plated with 24-karat gold, mosaic bathroom floors and white-gloved butlers, one per floor, on call 24 hours.
Guests of all ages can request an "Eloise" bubble bath, with milk and cookies.
Ruthann Picerno of Lyndhurst, N.J., checking in with two friends, said she was thrilled to be among the first guests. "I wanted to stay here since I was 17. When they closed, I was crushed."
All but one residential unit has been sold, including one that went for $50 million. The Plaza Residences got some bad publicity last week, however, when Joanna Cutler, renting an apartment from an owner, said she was trapped overnight in a garbage disposal room by a stuck door. She was freed by a worker who heard her screams.
The Plaza apologized, but Cutler's lawyer, Susan Karten, said in a phone interview that she was filing a lawsuit.
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