Inside of The Plaza’s Secret History

Photographer: Corey Stovin

New York City is full of storied buildings. From The Empire State Building to Rockefeller Plaza, these skyscrapers define the city. One though stands above the rest in history and adding to the colorful story of NYC: The Plaza Hotel.

The Plaza has become a part of the pop culture zeitgeist and has constantly reflected the city it sits in the center of. Anyone who is anyone has stayed at the posh, luxury hotel. A few of those names have even owned it at one point or another. One even led it into bankruptcy. This is the history of The Plaza that no one talks about.

Not Original

While the iconic hotel currently sits on 58th and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, it is not the original structure. In 1890, an 8-story building sat in the space and was considered a luxurious hotel. However, owners wanted something grander… and bigger.

The one hitch in their plans was that the building could not be built up. So they tore down the building and had it rebuilt to new specifications. The current site opened in 1907 to great fanfare.

Murder Most Foul

That fanfare should have dampened by a criminal situation. Michael Butler, a retired NYPD officer was murdered as the new building was being constructed. Tensions had been high between unionized and nonunionized laborers. As the sun turned the city hot one summer afternoon, the tensions boiled over. Butler, who had been hired as a security guard, was killed.

The news traveled around the shocked city. Yet, nothing was going to stop the construction and opening from happening. Soon the murder scene was lost among the opulent hotel exteriors. The murder faded from memory and no one was ever convicted of the crime. It remains one of NYC’s greatest mysteries.

Spy Thy Name

After such a scandalous start, it’s no wonder The Plaza became home to some notorious criminals. Count von Bernstoff, the German Ambassador, was staying in The Plaza in 1917. The year the U.S. entered World War I against Germany. The Count used his stay to take in horse shows at Madison Square Garden, and conduct a bit of spying. Normal stuff.

Paul Bolo Pasha was a spy for the French Army. He worked with the count on ways to broker a peace between France and Germany. Unsuccessfully. Pasha was eventually found guilty of being a traitor and was sentenced to death in France. Bernstorff faced his own scandals, including allegations of infidelity, which ultimately brought down his political career.

Owned and Owners

As with many buildings in Manhattan, The Plaza has changed ownership more times than the A train is delayed. Fred Sterry, Harry S. Black, and German financier Bernhard Beinecke were the first ones to possess the building. They had an idea for a grand hotel, one that would not be outmatched in luxury.

Hotelier legend and curmudgeon Conrad Hilton bought The Plaza in 1943. Julie Satow writes in her book The Plaza: “From the start, Conrad Hilton, a six-foot-two Westerner with a movie star wife and a mansion in Los Angeles, struck fear in the hearts of Plaza traditionalists.” The argument is that he was not popular with those who love the building. It’s not a surprise since he cut the budget, and made changes that were not well-received. After business picked up, some of the traditionalists saw that Hilton was trying to save the hotel.

A.M. “Sonny” Sonnabend was the next to buy the hotel but leased it back to Hilton shortly after his purchase in 1953. The two men ran the hotel until 1956 when Sonnabend started a corporation and took full control of The Plaza. For a little less than 20 years, Sonnabend and his company ran the hotel and made a lot of money. Which is what attracted Western International Hotels to the property. They wanted it badly and paid $25 million to own it. There was just one man who wanted it more.

Trump of it All

Donald J. Trump wanted to own The Plaza more than anything. He had made several bids for it, to no avail. That is until Westin Hotels (fka Westen International Hotels) took notice of his offer. Trump borrowed more than $400 million to buy The Plaza. He immediately put his then-wife Ivana in charge.

Everything seemed to be going well. At least for a few years. Then crushing debt caused Trump to lose the hotel. Citibank, the main creditor, was working on a deal to keep The Plaza opened. Trump, ever the sorest of losers, had one of his executives hide in a secret room in the Vanderbilt Suite, where negotiations were taking place, for 10 days. In the end, he still lost the hotel.

Social Meetings

Before Trump led the hotel into its first bankruptcy, a few brave women pulled it into the 20th Century. Before 1969, The Plaza had a men’s only policy when it came to lunch in the Oakley room and what not. This infuriated the National Organization for Women.

They protested outside of the hotel, drawing throngs of the press to their plight. The Plaza decided to do away with the men’s only luncheons and invited everyone to join them.

Another big social event that took place at The Plaza: Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. This was the social event of all social events. Such luminous stars as Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Babe and William Paley were among the guests.

These are just a few of the stories that have contributed to the historical significance of The Plaza. And it’s just getting started.