Courtesy of Rebecca Rawlinson
Construction started on The Plaza Hotel in 2005. The $400-million renovation is slated for completion in January 2008.

The Plaza Hotel's $400-million renovation is nearing completion, with occupancy scheduled for this month.

In 2004, New York-based developer Elad Properties purchased the dilapidated hotel for $675 million and demolition began in fall of 2005. Elad Properties is the last in a long line of Plaza owners and renovators, including Conrad Hilton, Donald Trump and Prince Al-Walid from Saudi Arabia.

The hotel–a favorite of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Katherine Graham and the Beatles, as well as the setting for Kay Thompson's Eloise children's books, was originally designed by Henry Hardenbergh and completed in 1907. Lead New York architects Costas Kondylis & Partners collaborated with Gal Nauer Architects of New York and Israeli architect Ranni Ziss to restore The Plaza to its original iconic elegance.

"The Plaza sorely needed a complete renovation, not just the exterior, but also the infrastructure and mechanicals because it was no longer operating as a top tier hotel," said Stephen Hill, partner in charge of the project at Costas Kondylis & Partners.

The 805 hotel rooms have been converted into 182 luxury residences, 282 hotel rooms and suites, 152 of which are pied-á-terre spaces which tenants own and occupy for four months a year, while renting them out the remainder for revenue that operator and owner will share. Spaces will range from 11,000 to 700 sq ft.

Tom Keane, project executive for construction manager Tishman Construction said the renovation and demolition were done simultaneously, to ensure that the project was completed in the two and a half years allotted.

Courtesy of Liz Shea
The hotel had pavilions on three corners that were not usable. Each was reframed and now supports the upper floors.

"Everything we did, we did with our hair on fire," he said. "Speed-to-market was our biggest challenge. We wanted to move from non-revenue generating to revenue generating as quickly as possible."

The demolition team, which included about 200 workers from New York contractors Breeze National Inc. and Venetian Enterprises as well as Waldorf Holding Corp. of New Jersey, left only the original perimeter wall and seven elevator shafts.

"This was a gut renovation," said Keane.

During the demolition process, asbestos abatement was a top priority because of the building's age.

"It's a century-old building, asbestos was everywhere, even in the plaster and pipe and duct installation," Keane said. The project team had Nova Development Group of New Jersey conduct a pre-abatement evaluation and demolition was adjusted accordingly.

Top Concern for Preservation

New York-based historic preservation consultants Walter B. Melvin Architects and Higgins & Quasebarth were retained to attend to the numerous interior and exterior landmark areas.

Courtesy of Bernstein Associates Photographers
The 15th floor on the north end of The Plaza had old copper finials which were replaced with vintage-style copies and artisans installed reproductions of the original green-glazed terra-cotta tiles.

The Grand Ballroom, the Terrace Room, the Edwardian Room, the Oak Room and bar, the Palm Court and the two separate lobbies have recently been designated historical landmarks.

"The original plan was to keep most of the spaces, a few had other programs, but the landmarks came into play after we were pretty far along in the design," said Hill.

Two new levels have been created over the historic Palm Court in the new $20-million courtyard. The design of the levels called for Vierendeel trusses, weighing more than 165 tons. Since the Palm Court is an official landmark, the trusses had to be inserted without disturbing the structure. Cranes were used to slide the top and bottom chords through the Plaza's windows. Cables suspended above held them in place until they were aligned.

Chimney preservation was also considered as they have found new life as bedrooms. "They were closed up a long time ago and we discovered that they probably never operated correctly and leaked right from the beginning, so what we found was a spaghetti maze of flues," said Hill. "And if you have 10 to 15 floors of flues, you combine them together and have great spaces."

Refreshed Grandeur

"We took a few months at the beginning to really research the old Plaza, because the original wasn't what we found," said Gal Nauer, interior design architect for the project. "There were many layers and we wanted to interpret the original elegance in a contemporary way, so we found the old molding, stonework and tiles and introduced them in a new light."

The layers of the many Plaza rehabilitations were constantly being discovered by the team, including three different ceilings covering the original.

"No one removed anything during previous renovations. They just put a Band-Aid on it," said Keane.

Layers were not the only surprise.

"We were working within a building that did not have an existing, full-set of architectural drawings," said Hill. "We found some engineering and mechanical drawings, but creating drawings was such a challenge because we were working with almost one million sq ft."

During renovation, the five-story Mansard roof–space previously used only for storage and housing mechanicals–was raised by 14 ft to create a new floor of penthouses with sloping glass setbacks. "Donald Trump got approval to increase the Floor Area Ratio of The Plaza so we had additional FAR available and decided to use it," said Keane.

But the roof could not be completed until mechanicals were installed on the new penthouse floor. As a result, temporary roofs over various sections were installed during construction. The copper finials were replaced with vintage-style copies and artisans installed reproductions of the original green-glazed terra-cotta tiles.

Cantilevered residences in the interior courtyard and Juliet balconies on the hotel side were also added. "Everywhere you see a Juliet balcony, we added that opening," said Keane.

The 19-story hotel will also have substantive retail space. "Much of the historic ballroom and landmark spaces with the exception of Palm Court will be retail," explained Keane. When renovation is complete, the retail component will comprise between 200,000 and 300,000 sq ft of The Plaza.

The Plaza has been closed to the public since May 2005, and in April 2007, it started opening sections as they were completed. But the project team is not overly concerned about the closure. "It is the best-owned building in the entire world, it never loses interest," said Keane. "Being closed creates a mystique."