By Chris Shott, October 9, 2007. The Observer.
Vornado Realty Trust wants to demolish the Hotel Pennsylvania and build an office tower almost as big as the Empire State Building.
Gregory Jones was welling up. “As of Monday, scaffolding went up around the hotel,” he said, pausing. “I get a little emotional,” he sobbed. “Friends of mine work at this hotel. It means a great deal to me.”
Mr. Jones, a big burly guy with a shaved head, a goatee and a soft spot for antiquated accommodations, was speaking to a panel of elders from the local community board last week about the fate of his cherished Hotel Pennsylvania.
Voracious developer Vornado Realty Trust, which owns the ancient lodge on Seventh Avenue—along with several adjacent lots—has threatened to demolish the 22-story Beaux-Arts structure, built in 1919, and erect in its place by 2011 an enormous office tower rivaling the size of the Empire State Building.
The smashing hotel redevelopment plan is merely part of a far grander scheme to reconstruct, reconfigure and polish to a Grand Central–like shine the entire surrounding area, from the old Farley Post Office to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station below to the Manhattan Mall.
As the first metal beams of a new construction shed went up around the hotel last week—a sign of forthcoming improvements, not implosion, if you believe the hotel’s Oct. 4 press release—Mr. Jones, 38, a nearby 30th Street neighbor, rushed to lobby local officials: Tell Vornado, he pleaded, leave Hotel Pennsylvania alone!
“How much more do we have to sacrifice in our history for progress?” asked Mr. Jones, who has formally requested an historic evaluation of the McKim, Mead & White–designed building by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“If we can get this building landmarked,” he said, “they can’t touch it.”
That’s a pretty big if.
Decades ago, legendary preservationist Jane Jacobs spearheaded massive demonstrations to protect another McKim, Mead & White creation, the original Penn Station, which once stood stoic across the street. That didn’t stop developers, who ruefully razed the beloved hub in 1963.
Mr. Jones’ neo-Jacobsian revival, titled “Save The Hotel,” hasn’t generated quite the same level of public outcry.
“I have been talking to a lot of people and gotten very little interest in the Pennsylvania Hotel,” noted community board member Joyce Matz, who nonetheless volunteered to research the hotel’s history and report back to the neighborhood advisory group next month. “I don’t honestly know how worthy it is to save.”
ONCE A GLAMOROUS DESTINATION where jazz standouts Count Basie and Duke Ellington performed in the grand ballroom—a place immortalized (along with its phone number) by the Glenn Miller tune “Pennsylvania 6-5000”—the 1,700-room hotel has since devolved into a cheap, decrepit tourist trap more commonly associated with reported bedbug attacks than big-band nostalgia.
Preservationists citywide have responded to Vornado’s proposed demolition with a resounding “Eh.”
Of Manhattan’s fourth-largest hotel with its famous phone digits, Roger Lang, director of community services and programs for The New York Landmarks Conservancy, a leading private preservation advocacy group, reportedly remarked, “Size and a number do not a landmark make.”
The Municipal Art Society’s president, Kent Barwick, in an interview for another story, told The Observer, “Preserving that hotel, which has become very seedy, is not anywhere near as important as reusing the Farley building and creating a new rail station.”
“[T]he inside has been pretty much stripped,” Peg Breen, president of The New York Landmarks Conservancy, told the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I don’t think anyone who has stayed there recently has been overly in love with the place. … Whatever tears are going to be shed, they’re too late.”
An emotionally invested Mr. Jones isn’t swayed by all the naysaying: “Call it a hole in the ground. Call it a shithole. Call it whatever you like,” he said of the Hotel Pennsylvania. “If you don’t keep your past alive, then there’s no hope for the future. Are we just going to pave over our history and forget about it?”
This important history lesson coming from a self-described technophile: Part of Mr. Jones’ passion for the old hotel comes from his involvement in a biannual gathering of computer geeks, the so-called H.O.P.E. (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference, organized by the Long Island–based quarterly techie mag 2600, which last July drew nearly 3,000 conventioneers to the endangered inn. The hacker group has converged on Hotel Pennsylvania almost every other year since 1994; it’s scheduled to descend upon the premises again in July 2008 for an event called “The Last Hope.” “The hotel will still be here,” Mr. Jones said, “hopefully.”
For some participating hackers, the hotel’s looming demise has become a pet cause. “If you go to the Web site, hope.net, a funeral march will play and flash animation will come up saying ‘All good things,’” Mr. Jones pointed out. An entire section of the site is devoted to news and commentary about Vornado and its plans for the hotel site.
“Just recently, I was in Vienna and Pisa [Italy], where people expressed a great deal of concern to me over the fate of the hotel,” wrote pseudonymous 2600 publisher and WBAI radio personality Emmanuel Goldstein in an e-mail to The Observer. “It was hard (and rather embarrassing) to explain why New Yorkers might not care enough to get involved. The hotel was old; the rooms weren’t as big and luxurious as other more modern facilities; and New Yorkers simply weren’t in a position to grasp the importance of such a place since they normally don’t need cheap and easily accessible hotels if they already live here.”
Yet, even among the directly affected, it seems, the dire future of a dingy hotel isn’t enough to prompt any real action. “I looked upon the other people with 2600 to do this and nobody did much of anything,” said Mr. Jones, who has taken it upon himself to spearhead the preservation drive. “I plunked down money to have an actual, official Web site. I manage it. I host it. In the past week, I’ve probably thrown more stuff up on that Web site than when I first started it.”
But why bother with a propaganda campaign at all? Can’t hackers just crack into Vornado’s computers and sabotage the developers’ plans that way?
“Like spamming them to death?” asked Mr. Jones. “Those are destructive means. That’s not what a true hacker is about. We’re not about taking down Vornado. We’re about finding new ways around the system to get Vornado to stop what they’re doing.”
For now, though, the outsiders seem content to play an insider’s game, seeking the support of various boards and agencies. “If they can get a proposition on the books, then we can start taking political action,” the head hacktivist explained. “Everybody else uses politics as leverage. Why not us?”