Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (1931), New York, New York*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
On December 20, 1928, the Boomer-duPont Properties Corporation announced that the old Waldorf-Astoria would be demolished. They sold the hotel to real estate developers for $13.5 million to construct the Empire State Building. Jorgine urged him to obtain the rights to the name Waldorf-Astoria which he was able to secure for the payment of one dollar. Although he and Jorgine had just arrived in Florida for a two-week vacation, they returned to New York in just four days in response to a call from L. J. Horowitz, chairman of the Thompson-Starrett Company asking if he would head up a new Waldorf-Astoria. When Boomer learned the size and scope of the new hotel, he agreed with his wife that this was the project of a lifetime. The new Waldorf-Astoria was to be built on an entire block leased from the New York Central Railroad between Park and Lexington Avenues between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets.
Even before the original Waldorf-Astoria closed down for demolition, Lucius Boomer asked the famous architectural firm of Schultze & Weaver to begin planning a new, larger Waldorf-Astoria. The firm was established in 1921 by Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver.
Leonard B. Schultze was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 5, 1877. He was educated at the City College of New York and ranks high among the most successful pupils of Franco-American architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, founder of the Atelier Masqueray. Schultze had been an employee of the firm of Warren & Wetmore, and during his twenty years in that company's office he had worked on the designs for such projects as New York's Grand Central Terminal and several important New York hotels, including the Biltmore (1912-13) and the Commodore (1918-19).
Weaver's primary responsibilities in the new firm were in engineering, business, and real estate. Schultze & Weaver's first major commission was from owner John McEntee Bowman for the large Los Angeles hotel today known as the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
Although best known for their work on luxury hotels, Schultze & Weaver also designed schools, hospitals, residential developments, and office buildings such as the 1925 New York headquarters of the J.C. Penney Company and the U.S. Post Office in Scarsdale, New York.
Their later work included several other projects for John McEntee Bowman, including the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel and the Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel. The firm also designed the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach and the Miami Nautilus Hotel. In addition to their work outside New York, they designed several noted landmark hotels within the city, including the Park Lane Hotel, the Lexington Hotel, the Pierre Hotel and its neighbor the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Schultze & Weaver's lead architect Lloyd Morgan (1892-1970), in 1929, designed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel which, upon its completion in 1931, was the world's largest, with 2,200 rooms.
Leonard Schultze chose his best young architect, Lloyd Morgan to prepare drawings of the proposed new hotel. Viewing these classic illustrations some eighty-four years later one can only gasp with admiration for Morgan's genius. During the building stage, Boomer, Schultze and Morgan travelled to Europe and Great Britain searching for appropriate antiques and artifacts to decorate the new hotel.
The site chosen for the new Waldorf-Astoria was the whole block from 49th Street to 50th Street, from Park Avenue to Lexington Avenue. Three buildings occupied the chosen location: the American Express Company building on the Lexington side which had a loading platform adjoining the railroad tracks. A railroad YMCA stood on the corner of 50th Street and Park Avenue. A New York Central powerhouse was located on the corner of Park and 49th. At a cost of one million dollars, the powerhouse was moved to a new location under the Commodore Hotel.
The site was directly over New York Central Railroad tracks which presented special engineering and construction problems since the hotel had to rest on steel columns located between the railroad tracks. Furthermore, the placement of the columns had to be done without interrupting the train schedules. It was a complicated structure with the hotel cushioned by steel pads and vibration-absorbing spaces between the sidewalk and the building. The destruction of the buildings on the new Waldorf site went on around the clock. Guests at the Park Lane Hotel, adjoining the Waldorf on the 49th Street side, were both annoyed by the noise and fascinated by the light of acetylene torches throwing fountains of flames into the air.
Architect Lloyd Morgan later reported that Boomer's approach was "fine and big with the architect left free to create." Despite the fact that the Waldorf-Astoria was being built at the start of an economic depression, there was no attempt to pinch pennies or shave corners. In fact, the construction world was experiencing a builder's market which made the building trades union easier to get along with. Everybody needed a job.
A group of French architects arrived in town, cameras and notebooks in hand, to look over the growing hotel. They were amazed by the speed with which the project went forward, astounded by the cold water, hot water, and ice water in every room. But they were absolutely flabbergasted by the wall receptacles for used razor blades in each bathroom. In the translating they understood that the slots were for storing usable blades, not for discarding old ones. "It's all very well," they said, "to put the blades in the slot but how do you get them out?" Once a week, a waggish guide assured them, a porter would come around with a magnet, and the blades would jump out. "Ah, oui" they said comprehendingly and took pictures and scribbled notes.
The first royal visitor in the new Waldorf was the king of Siam who was in the United States for an eye operation. Boomer invited him for lunch and they rode the construction elevator together to a high and unfinished floor. The kitchens weren't ready yet so Boomer had Sherry's chef at 300 Park Avenue across the street whip up something extravagantly simple. René Black, who had come to the Waldorf from the Casino in the Park and Eugene Voigt (later manager of the New Yorker), pushed a cart across Park Avenue and reheated the food in a pantry upstairs. The king munched this make-do meal in what was to be Apartment 31-A in the Towers, later the home and office of Herbert Hoover. While the first crowned head was being entertained upstairs, the hotel ran up the Siamese flag on its brand-new flagpole. In those days the emblem featured a large white elephant, a fact which led one debunking passer-by who was doubtful of the Waldorf's future in the depression years to remark. "What's that, the house flag?"
It was true that during that precarious spring of 1930 each week would bring a new cable from London, Paris, or Rome inquiring whether it was true that work had stopped on the Waldorf-Astoria. The rumors were unfounded; the work went on.
By the first of June, 1931, some of the executive offices were moved from 230 Park Avenue, the New York Central Building where they had temporarily been lodged, to one of the ground-floor stores in the hotel. Frank Ready who had been with Boomer at the McAlpin was brought in as resident manager. He had opened the Roosevelt Hotel on Madison at 46th, later served at the Park Lane and the Barclay, both of which were, like the Waldorf, on 40th Street. Eugene Voigt was engaged as manager of the transient rooms. Oscar, of course, went to work as banquet manager. All three began to show the few finished rooms to the public, and where there were no finished rooms, they sold from plans. Oscar was signing up banquets and parties from blueprints of the public rooms. Ready and Voigt were riding prospective tenants up the construction elevators.
The elevators were operated by construction workmen who were in the habit of blowing a warning whistle at quitting time and then shutting down the elevator promptly at four P.M. One afternoon Ready was on the thirty-eighth floor showing an apartment to two ladies when the warning sounded. The ladies lingered, the elevator operator headed for home exactly at four, and Ready and his prospects had to walk thirty-eight floors.
A thirty-eight-floor walk is rather an indignity to someone considering an apartment which was to rent for $15,000 in the year 1931. In spite of the era's economic uncertainties, the idea of luxurious apartment living with superb hotel service within reach of the telephone appealed to those who were wealthy. One of the first suites was taken by E.L. Atwater, president of the Wrigley Company, who was lured away from his quarters in the Ritz Towers.
Tenants signing Tower leases were at liberty to accept the Waldorf's idea of handsome decor, or decorate themselves. The management never stinted when the responsibility was theirs, and some of the wall painting known as French glaze, applied in 1931, has never been redone.
On the 29th of September 1931, twenty-four hours before the hotel was to open to a preview crowd, rubbish filled the lobby, carpets had not been laid, furniture was still covered with paper. Work went on through the night and somehow the new Waldorf-Astoria was ready for occupancy on September 30, 1931. What's more, every room in the house was fully furnished on opening day. Usually a hotel opens with about two thirds of the rooms ready for occupancy and then gradually finishes the operation during the ensuing weeks.
On the final day of September, the Waldorf was awash with people. You needed an invitation to get inside for the preview celebration, but there were so many people standing in the lobby that some jokesters said they would come back in a day or two to see what the carpets look like. Oscar stood at the head of the stairs on the Park Avenue side as he had stationed himself at the entrance of the old Waldorf on the opening day of that hotel thirty eight years before. Graying people, some a little bent, came up to Oscar and reminded him that they had been on hand, too, for that first opening nearly four decades ago. A little elderly lady pinned a flower on his lapel. For a troubled moment Oscar forgot his graciousness, glared, and started to unpin the flower. The old lady impaled him with a look, and Oscar smiled. "It's a very fine day," he said.
Because it was such a daring gesture in those apple-selling days, President Herbert Hoover thought the opening of the Waldorf might prove an inspiration to those who had lost their confidence with their country. "The erection of this great structure," he said in his speech, "has been a contribution to the maintenance of employment, and an exhibition of courage and confidence to the whole nation."
The coup was a sensational one for Boomer. Presidents had spoken at the dedication of mammoth new dams, at national memorials, a the anniversary of ancient universities, but never within memory at the opening of so commercial a venture as a hotel. Later Boomer was to repay the favor to his old friend and fishing companion. On inauguration night, when the lonely ex-chief executive left the White House after four rugged years he asked the Boomers to have a quiet dinner with him in New York at the Waldorf Towers.
When the president concluded his short speech, Boomer stood up to say a few words of welcome. Then there was general dancing in the ballroom. Charles Hayden, who was the major financier and who had been elected Chairman of the Board was the first to sign the hotel register.
There were five hundred guests in the hotel's two thousand rooms that first night. Elsewhere in the city, Norma Shearer and Clark Gable were the stars of A Free Soul, in its second smash week at the Capitol. Ann Harding was appearing in the movie Devotion with Leslie Howard. Eddie Dowling, Ginger Rogers, Ray Dooley, and the Albertina Rasch Girls were on the stage of the new Broadway Theater at 53rd Street. Grand Hotel was the play at the National. George White's Scandals of 1931 at the Apollo featured Rudy Vallee, Ethel Merman, Willie and Eugene Howard, and Ray Bolger. Mayor Walker's dog, an Irish setter named "Chauncey Olcott," was missing from its home in Far Rockaway. David Sarnoff was celebrating twenty-five years in wireless. Katharine Cornell decided to suspend The Barretts of Wimpole Street so she could take a six weeks' rest. The Greenwich Savings Bank was offering 4 per cent interest and Brill Brothers had complete chauffeur's outfits for $169. You could get a fall suit at John David's for $36.50 and tune in the Rudy Vallee Orchestra, Eddie Cantor, songs over WEAF at eight P.M. Philadelphia was playing St. Louis in the World Series, Roxy was being given a lunch in Berlin before traveling on to Russia to sign up talent. Will Rogers was the most humorous American and Premier Laval of France was sailing for America. The Berkshire, 21 East 52nd Street, was advertising "Rents adapted to current conditions." Down in Georgia the Democratic leaders gave a rousing greeting to Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York. He was sure to be the party's nominee, they said.
That was the world of New York when the second Waldorf-Astoria opened on Park Avenue on the 1st of October, 1931. By the 4th of July, 1932, the Waldorf still had sixteen hundred people on its payroll, but in its two thousand rooms there were just two hundred and sixty guests. The flag of the white elephant had long since come down, but its symbol stalked the house like a ghost.
Although not nearly as tall as the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, the new Waldorf-Astoria share an unmistakable profile on New York City's skyline. Facing Park and Lexington Avenues are two twenty-story slabs. In between is a forty-two story tower on top of which are two turrets enclosing elevator machinery, fans, and water tank rooms.
The main entrance foyer on Park Avenue is flanked by two raised terraces and beyond, two meeting rooms: the Sert Room and the Empire Room. Proceeding easterly past a bank of elevators, visitors will cross Peacock Alley (a corridor-lounge named after the famous passageway in the original Waldorf-Astoria). Unfortunately, the current Peacock Alley has none of the glamour and excitement of the old one, Beyond is the windowless main lobby in the center of the building. It contains the usual hotel functions (front desk, concierge, cashier, bell station) as well as a restaurant and a beautiful antique clock from the original Waldorf-Astoria.
The new Waldorf-Astoria was a vast undertaking by many men and nearly as many corporations. Construction funds totaling forty million dollars were provided by a consortium of banks and railroads, including Hayden, Stone & Company; Hallgarten & Company; Kisser, Kinnicutt & Company, and the New York Central and New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads. The construction firm of Thompson and Starrett was hired to build the structure. On November 4th demolition of buildings on the site began. Excavation commenced on January 6, 1930, and the first rivet in the steel frame of the new building was driven on March 24th. Schultze & Weaver had to pay special attention to the equipment in the back-of-the-house. They had little choice since the hotel had only a small basement area, situated as it was over the New York Central railroad tracks. Still, less than two years later, on October 1, 1931, the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was opened to the public.
Describing the hotel was a little like attempting to portray the wonders of Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge—an exercise in ooh-and-ah statistics: The hotel extended 200 feet along Park and Lexington Avenues, 405 feet along Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets. Three thousand cubic feet of granite were consumed in its construction, as were 27,100 tons of steel, 76,700 barrels of cement, 1,000,000 square feet of metal lathing and furring, 2,695,000 square feet of terra cotta and gypsum blocks, 11,000,000 bricks, and 300 imported mantels of marble. The tracks of the Penn Central Railroad ran beneath the hotel, which was cushioned from vibrations by an elaborate steel carriage. From its sidewalk entrances to the top of its twin towers, the hotel soared 625 feet into the air. With just under two thousand rooms, it was the largest hotel in the United States, if not in the world.
On September 30th, the night before the official opening, thousands of New Yorkers gathered in the great ballroom as Lucius Boomer raised his hands in a gesture of silence and a voice from far away Washington squeaked through a radio loud-speaker. It was Herbert Hoover, the first President of the United States to speak at the opening of a hotel. “Our hotels have become community institutions,” said Hoover. “They are the central points of civic hospitality…The erection of this great structure,” he continued, mindful of the awful Depression that had settled over the nation, “has been a contribution to the maintenance of employment, and an exhibition of courage and confidence to the whole nation.”
Oscar of the Waldorf was on hand for the opening with his smile as broad as ever. Those who remembered the old Waldorf were as pleased to see him as anyone in the new hotel and in the broad hallway which paralleled Park Avenue. Its walls were paneled with French burl walnut inlaid with ebony, its pilasters faced with French rouge marble and topped with capitals and cornices of nickel bronze. Along the walls, at intervals rested maple vitrines fronted with glass in which leading New York merchants displayed their wares. It was a handsome corridor which captured the spirit, though it did not duplicate the appearance, of the fabled promenade in the old Waldorf. But it bore the same name, Peacock Alley, and that fact was enough to warm the hearts of nostalgics.
Despite Herbert Hoover’s brave hopes, the Waldorf did little to help the sluggish economy of New York in the 1930s. The hotel employed 1,600 people, and hundreds of thousands of guests regularly rested their heads on its pillows, but costs of operation were unexpectedly high, equaling and sometimes exceeding revenues. The beginning of World War II in 1941 marked a return to prosperity for the city and the hotel.
Even during the bleak years of the Depression, the Waldorf was widely acclaimed as the world’s greatest hotel. Top-name entertainers appeared regularly in its Empire Room. Important balls and banquets were held in its ballroom. One of the remarkable features of the hotel was a private railroad siding beneath the building where guests in private cars could come directly to the hotel via the New York Central tracks.
In a Waldorf-Astoria advertisement in 1946 which is reproduced in Lucius Boomer’s authoritative book Hotel Management, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1938, the following words appear under a Waldorf-Astoria photograph:
The Waldorf-Astoria is definitely something more than a hotel. For more than forty years, the great figures of the earth have chosen the Waldorf-Astoria as the one hotel compatible with their political dignity, their economic importance, or their artistic fame.
The Waldorf Towers with its own private entrance and elevator lobby on Fiftieth Street is exclusively for long-term tenants. Hundreds of notables, ranging from European kings to Indian maharajas, bedded down in its luxurious tower suites. President Hoover, after his departure from the White House, made his home in the Waldorf, as did General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, publishers Henry Luce and William Randolph Hearst, Jr., song writer Cole Porter, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope, the Sultan of Brunei, etc. The Towers have 115 suites and 90 rooms on the 28th to 42nd floors.
A plaque in the Presidential Suite reads:
The Waldorf- Astoria Presidential Suite.
A few of the famous occupants:
Every President of the United States since 1931
Queen Elizabeth II, England
King Hussein, Jordan
King Saud, Saudi Arabia
General Charles de Gaulle, France
Chairman Nikita Krushchev, Soviet Union
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel
Prime Minister Menachen Begin, Israel
Premier Giulio Andreotel, Italy
President Valery Giscard D’estang, France
Emperor and Empress Hirohito, Japan
King Juan Carlos I, Spain
President Nicolai Ceausescu, Romania
King Olav V, Norway
King Faisal, Saudi Arabia
The Towers provides housekeeping, room service and concierge service with the goal of encouraging every guest to feel like a king. Still, Towers guests often bring their own chefs, butlers, and housekeepers.
In the summer of 1949, a writer named Thomas Ewing Dabney readied for publication a book-length biography of hotelier Conrad Hilton. The book traced the story of Hilton’s rise from obscurity in New Mexico, his entry into the hotel business in Cisco, Texas, and his celebrated purchases of Chicago’s Palmer House and New York’s Plaza Hotel. The book, titled The Man Who Bought the Plaza, was finished and in the hands of printers when the publishers suddenly ordered work to halt. Title pages were destroyed, dust jackets discarded, and the author called in to revise the text. Conrad Hilton was a good subject for a biography but, as Dabney had learned, a very poor sitter for a portrait. Hastily updated, the book was released to book stores in 1950 under a new title— The Man Who Bought the Waldorf: The Life of Conrad N. Hilton.
Dabney wrote, " In the mind of some venerable ladies and gentlemen, the sale of the Plaza Hotel in New York several years ago could only be associated with the fall of the Bastille, the decapitation of Charles the First, and the fourth inaugural of Roosevelt. It was regarded as a disaster comparable with the San Francisco earthquake or the Johnstown flood."
Why had Hilton, who had already won hotel fame and earned enough money to live on comfortably for several lifetimes, decide to buy the Waldorf? It was a famous property with a lustrous history, a vast “city within a city” with nearly unlimited revenue-producing possibilities. It was a handsome structure that could profitably be operated in conjunction with Hilton’s growing chain of large hotels in other cities. All these reasons, and more, were summed up in a single phrase scrawled by the ambitious hotelier across a photograph of the Waldorf-Astoria: “The greatest of them all.” Because it was the greatest, Hilton was determined to own it. On October 12, 1949, the Waldorf became a Hilton hotel. More than 65 years later, it continues to carry that designation.
Visiting kings and queens made it a regular stop on visits to New York, as did presidents of the United States. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations maintained a suite in the hotel, as did ambassadors from more than thirty other nations. One day in the early 1960s ex-President Eisenhower was in the Grand Ballroom for a banquet while then-President John F. Kennedy was attending a fund-raising dinner in the Empire Room. Past President Herbert Hoover received an award that day in the hotel. Six astronauts were checking in. Francis Cardinal Spellman attended a lunch honoring General Mark Clark, while future Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon wandered about in the halls. With five American presidents and a former King of England in the building, it was not a typical day for the Waldorf, but it was not so far out the ordinary as to cause any great consternation for the hotel’s staff.
The Waldorf is the “unofficial Palace” of New York, a citadel of luxury, a center of power and wealth, and a living museum of Manhattan history. There are notes here and there that recall the old Waldorf on Fifth Avenue—portraits of hotel luminaries, including a handsome canvas of Oscar Tschirky (Oscar of the Waldorf), at whose death in 1950 all Waldorf flags were lowered to half-staff; the reconstructed Peacock Alley; a magnificent clock saved from the old hotel that has nine feet of bronze adorned with a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty, four spread-winged eagles, a series of sports scenes, and the likenesses of Queen Victoria, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Harrison.
But the grand tradition that lives in the building recalls the past even better than these relics—memories of the Astors, echoes of “Diamond Jim” Brady, “Bet-a-Million” Gates, and the Bradley Martin Ball; recollections of T. Coleman duPont, Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur and most of all, Lucius Boomer. When night descends on New York and an air of respectful silence creeps through the great lobbies and corridors, the palace inn breathes deeply—but the ghosts of Peacock Alley do not sleep, maybe because of the professional management under the Hilton Hotels Corporation and the legendary General Manager Eric Long.
Lucius M. Boomer's Accomplishments
Lucius Boomer's accomplishment as a hotel developer, owner, operator and manager should be better known. In my introduction to Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana 2009), I wrote:
"My research into the lives of great American hoteliers reveals one continuous strand: the presence of a unique entrepreneur who created a singular hotel company one hotel at a time. Most of these men did not grow up in the hospitality business but became successful through their intense on-the-job training experiences. Their tradition breaking vision and single-minded ambition led them to heights they could not have imagined. My investigation has uncovered remarkable and startling time stories about these pioneers, some of whom are well-known and others whose accomplishments are lost in the dustbin of history."
After his work in the Flagler Hotels system and his exposure to Henry Morrison Flagler, Boomer found his niche and worked hard to learn the hotel business. Boomer was an impressive figure, articulate and persuasive. His list of pioneering achievements in the management of hotels is extraordinary.
The late John Sherry, who represented the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as its attorney for decades wrote: "It had great standards in performance in every way. By 'performance' I mean including taste in the interior design and decoration, and all that goes into a hotel, which is, after all, a home away from home - that was Boomer's name for it. But the building itself, the physical structure, has a lot to do with it. You can't overlook that.
"Boomer was impressive to look at. His very appearance instantly commanded attention. Handsome face; tall but not overly tall, about 6' 1"; well-built in body; [...] marvelous mind; personality plus; a person who could get things done; who could command the respect of other people and who could also organize and operate a great luxury hotel. Totally dedicated, tops in the hotel operation. If he had been in the motorcar business, he would have become president of General Motors, that type of man. He was cut out to succeed so he was a great man[...]"
James Bennett, who became general manager of the Ritz Carlton in Boston, worked at the Waldorf as a management trainee. But it was his feeling that "Lucius Boomer was probably one of the finest hoteliers in the past century." Tony Rey called Boomer the "greatest hotelman in his era [...] he had 1800 employees, and I bet he knew everyone by name."
Boomer's son, George duPont Boomer, felt that his father's "great contribution" to the current hotel was his influence on its spare-no-expense design. "The floors had to be thick, the hardware had to be the best that money could buy. There was no skimping [...]. And that stuff looks like it is new, because it was just the finest that money could buy."
Boomer laid great stress on modern management techniques softening the harsh carrot-and-stick methods of Henry Ford and the father of scientific management, Frederick Taylor, New institutions guided this shift to a kinder, gentler form of scientific management. He introduced such U.S. hotel business "firsts" as the six-day work week, a floor reserved exclusively for women guests, a floor with Spanish-speaking clerks and maids to cater to guests from Latin America (which might not seem a novelty in New York today, but was unheard of in the 1929s) and the employment of women as front desk receptionists and clerks.
Boomer's hotel management innovations were a revelation to the industry:
- A new bookkeeping system which produced a guest hotel bill in thirty seconds. Until then, the original American system required a battery of clerks to enter each guest charge by hand into a ledger. When the guest called for his bill it was necessary to transfer everything, by hand, from the ledger to a long itemized bill. In Boomer's new system, each guest's bill was attached to his registration card and charges were entered on the bill by machine as they were received. When a guest called for his bill, the cashier would add up the entries and present the complete bill in minutes.
- Boomer was a pioneer in placing women employees into jobs they never held before. One of his first choices was Nora Foley who he hired for the Taft Hotel in New Haven when she was eighteen years old and only a few years after she emigrated from Ireland. She worked for Boomer as executive housekeeper at the McAlpin, the Claridge and at both Waldorf-Astoria's. Foley later said, "He was the only man I knew that had such confidence in women's ability in business. He felt there were certain types of work a woman could do and he believed in giving them the opportunity." Miss Foley recalled that "All we needed was for him to go through the house and say to some chambermaid "Good morning, Mary", and Mary was walking on clouds the rest of the day. When he walked through the housekeeping department, he just did something. I can't tell you what it was, but he just did something to everybody he met."
- Miss Foley told the following story about Boomer's kindness. Once, early in her career, she hired a houseman who had worked at the hotel no more than two weeks before he took sick and died. When it was discovered that he had no money or relatives, Miss Foley went to Boomer who said "Would it make you happy to have him buried the way you want him to be buried? Then do it and send me the bill. "Upon discovering that the man was a Catholic, she had him buried with a mass and a gravestone in a Catholic cemetery.
- Boomer was one of the first hotel executives to provide a six-day workweek. This proposal, commenced in July 1920, created a revolution in a hotel industry that expected around-the-clock, around-the-calendar service of all hotel employees. The Daily National Hotel Reporter and the International Hotel Industry, featured the unique and unusual Boomer personnel policies.
- Boomer's nine thousand employees were encouraged to hold sporting events, staged minstrel shows, got 6 percent interest in an employee's bank, attended classes in English and Americanization and were eligible for insurance policies.
In addition, Boomer also provided the following new and unique guest services:
1. He sent greeters and drivers to the railroad station to meet arriving women guests.
2. He dispatched good-will ambassadors around the world to drum up business, offering foreign guests special attention from hotel employees who spoke the same language.
3. When the McAlpin had trouble holding onto a pot-washing crew, Boomer recognized that it was a dirty job and directed his chief engineer to design a new mechanical scrubber that was cheaper and more efficient.
There was another side to Boomer's management style: his strictness with his staff which boosted the reputation of the Waldorf-Astoria sometimes ran roughshod over employee rights. For example, the story is told that when he saw a bellhop leaning against a pillar, he said, "you must be tired. Come put away your things, you're finished." Another Waldorf Towers bellman who saw Boomer sometimes lose patience recalled, "If there was a complaint about service, that was it, you were fired on the spot. There was no such thing as unions when I came here. But if you were right, I don't care what happened, Boomer backed you [...]."
The well-known General Manager John Isard, who managed the Savoy-Plaza at Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue (where the General Motors Building is located) described Boomer as "very approachable, kindly, knowledgeable and a man you respected but very stubborn." Boomer did not agree with George Boldt's adage that the Waldorf should bring "exclusiveness to the masses" and, therefore was opposed to attracting conventions. Isard recalled a banquet manager saying on one particularly slow day for sales: "Mr. Boomer, business is very bad. Why don't you advertise and get some conventions here? Boomer said, "Joe, never mention that word to me again or else get out!" Six months later, Boomer sent for Joe and said, "Joe, remember that conversation we had? What was that word you used? Get the goddamn conventions in here!"
Boomer's unflagging interest in guests' personal well-being and comfort also made an indelible impression on the late General Carlos Romulo of the Philippines, who recalled: "Lucius Boomer was not only a manager, but he was a friend. He had a practice as manager of the Towers that endeared him to all of us. He not only took good care of our needs, and saw to it that the facilities were always well taken care of. He took a personal interest in each case, so that every morning as I passed his office, he would ask me to sit down, and talk to me, and discuss the previous days' events, tell me what his plans were for the day, ask me whether I was interested in going to this place or that place. He took a personal interest, and I've never had that since then. For example, you see my tie - he would say, 'That's a very nice tie, but I think you should have a better one that would match your suit.' The next day I would have the tie he suggested in my room. He saw my tuxedo, for example. It was a wonderful tuxedo, excellently tailored. My tailor used to be James Bell on Fifth Avenue. He would call up Bell and say, 'I saw the tuxedo of General Romulo, and I would suggest that you make a new vest for him.' Now those are personal matters that make the guest feel that he was interested in him."
Boomer believed in MBWA: Managing by Walking Around. He would go through the hotel from the upholstery shop on the Forty-third floor to the bakery in the sub-basement. Along the way, he would walk on the floors while the housekeepers were cleaning guestrooms. It was said that he walked ten floors a day and ask if there was any physical problem in the corridors, bedrooms or bathrooms. When the housekeepers reported a problem, Boomer made note and gave his list to the engineering department with this admonishment: "When I go back those floors next week, I want every problem fixed, every scratch repainted, every stain cleaned, every drapery pull cord replaced as needed, etc." I can report regarding the efficacy of this procedure since I followed it precisely when I managed large hotels earlier in my career.
In October 1923, Lucius Boomer wrote an article for System, The Magazine of Business "How We Fitted Ford's Principles to Our Business" that extolled the virtues of applying simplification and standardization practices to the hotel industry, indicating that he and Ellsworth Statler had a lot in common. For example, Boomer included the same measures that Statler had instituted such as a common dish service in all his hotels reducing by two-thirds the styles of glassware and silverware used in meal service and reducing by 75 percent the number of different carpet patterns. Offering guidelines such as "Find the best way to do things and make that method standard," Boomer wrote about standardizing and streamlining employee responsibilities, controlling the cost of supplies by manufacturing items such as mattresses and uniforms and simplifying both products purchased and products sold. Boomer's article ostensibly drew on Henry Ford's ideology of mass production, but, in reality, he had adopted Statler's methods for running a profitable hotel empire.
When the regional American Hotel Protective Association expanded to become a truly national trade association and in 1917 became the American Hotel Association, the first president was Frank Dudley. The urbane Dudley was president of the United Hotels Company which was expanding rapidly. Dudley and J. Leslie Kincaid, chairman of the board of the American Hotels Corporation were aware of the shortage of trained hotel personnel. For many years, skilled hotel men had been imported from Europe but with the expansion of American hotels, the demand had outrun the supply. Confronting this problem, Dudley appointed an education committee to investigate and recommend a solution. He named the Waldorf-Astoria's chief executive Lucius Boomer as chairman of the committee.
The committee utilized the help and advice of the Federal Board of Vocational Training and its final report recommended:
1. An intensive educational- research program
2. The establishment of a school of hotel management at Cornell University
3. Cash grants to high schools and trade schools for vocational training, particularly of cooks and bakers
4. An investment of $2,000,000
A national search turned up a relatively obscure young man named Howard Meek who had written trade journal articles deploring the fact that while there were college courses in journalism, banking and agriculture, there were none in hotel management. When Ellsworth Statler interviewed Meek for the job of creating the Cornell hotel school, he was not impressed since Meek was short and slight of build, like Statler. But, despite his stature and name, Meek was made of tougher stuff than it appeared and was appointed the first dean of the Cornell Hotel School. While the AHA's great enthusiasm for the new school was not sufficient to produce the $2 million originally projected, in 1922, it signed a contract with Cornell for the establishment of a hotel school under the direction of Howard Meek. It pledged $20,000 for the school and $70,000 for research. When the AHA couldn't keep up its payments to the University, Ellsworth Statler came to the rescue and offered to underwrite $70,000 of the AHA's indebtedness if the other members would pay off $30,000 of the remaining debt. Despite his early resistance, Statler ultimately approved of the school and his widow Alice Statler, after selling Statler Hotel Corporation to Hilton in 1954, gave full attention to the Statler Foundation. By 1966 the Foundation had given Cornell University more than $7,500,000 for the construction of teaching facilities, faculty salaries, research projects and student scholarships. Cornell's Statler Hall was completed in 1950 and the annex, including the Alice Statler Auditorium was opened in 1958.
Boomer's best years of business and financial accomplishments were his latter years. His reputation and prestige as the most famous hotelman in the world was unsurpassed. In 1945 he was elected Chairman of the Board of the Waldorf-Astoria Corporation. Norway's King Haakon VII, presented the Boomers with the order of St. Olav, one of the highest civilian honors.
Boomer died unexpectedly on vacation in Norway with his wife and daughter Bonita on July 26, 1947. New York Post columnist Earl Wilson wrote, "Untold story of Lucius Boomer, head of the Waldorf-Astoria, was the fact that while driving through the town of Hamar, Norway, he saw a little hotel named 'Astoria'. He decided to inquire whether the hotel had any postcards which he could send to friends in America. Death (by heart attack) overtook him as he was walking up the steps of the Astoria Hotel."
Frank Ready, then president of the Waldorf-Astoria sent this memo to all department heads:
Subject Burial Service for Mr. Boomer. In order that there may be no misunderstanding regarding the arrangements for Mr. Boomer's burial, this is to inform you that some time ago he left a letter addressed to Mrs. Boomer in which he specifically and definitely gave instructions as to what he wanted done in case of his death. I am quoting a part of the letter as follows:
"To prevent unnecessary trouble and especially to prevent pressure to influence you, I make the following confirmation of my wishes as to the arrangements I wish to have made when I die- if they are possible.
"I prefer that there be no public funeral or formal ceremony of any kind. A short printed notice would be suitable. Following as soon as possible, the interment should be made in the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Chicago where my father was buried, with provision for a marker similar to that over his grave.
"In other words, when I die, I disappear and in doing so wish to cause as little trouble and disturbance as possible.
"It is my thought that your possession of this letter will simplify matters and make it easier for you to avoid well meant recommendations for a church ceremony or some form of public recognition of my passing. In Chicago the arrangements should be made the simplest possible.
"In the event I die in a foreign country, cremation would be in order. Then it would be very simple to ship an urn to this country and so carry out the idea of burial in the Mt. Hope plot in Chicago next to my father for which I find I have a sentimental consideration.
"I am sure that you are in sympathy with my thoughts about this and my sole purpose of this communication is to protect you from dealing with well-meant recommendations likely to be made by my friends, acquaintances and business associates."
Interment was made the same day in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Chicago where short services were held. Jorgine, their children, a few other family members as well as Mr. Ready, attended.
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.