New York’s famous Hotel Pennsylvania, immortalized by Glenn Miller Orchestra, to be torn down
For more than 100 years, it was situated just across Seventh Ave. from the previously demolished Pennsylvania Station. The station’s demolition in 1963 — sold for the air rights its massive footprint controlled — fired up New Yorkers and it was vowed that never again would such sacrilege be wrought on such an historic Manhattan building.
Well, that is, until now. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s (PRR) historic hotel, built in 1919, and once the world’s largest with 1,200 rooms, wasn’t deemed worthy of preservation by the commission in charge of such things.
At first, things looked good when the Hotel Pennsylvania Preservation Society was formed to lobby for the hotel’s preservation. In November, 2007, the Manhattan Community Board 5 voted 21-8 in support of a landmark designation. Three months later, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) rejected the landmark request. Demolition, taking place from the top down, will be completed this July. The hotel will be replaced by a skyscraper to be called PENN15.
The hotel underwent many changes in ownership, and names, over the years, but reverted back to the original Hotel Pennsylvania in 1995. It was finally closed in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hotel had a portico with Ionic columns, just like those of the PRR railway station across the road. It stood 22 storeys tall with four wings that all faced south on 32nd Street.
As well as all those guest rooms, it had many elegant function rooms on the first four floors. The most celebrated of these was the ground-level Cafe Rouge, made famous by the many big-band broadcasts originating there during the swing era by Jimmy Dorsey, Les Brown, Artie Shaw and, most notably, the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
The Cafe Rouge gig was one of the most coveted events for New York bands because they were booked for the entire winter season, commonly running for 13 or 14 weeks, sometimes a little longer, starting in October. Miller made the hotel’s phone number one of the most famous in the world when he introduced Jerry Gay’s composition, “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” in October, 1940. When you dialled that number, one of the hotel’s 60 switchboard operators would connect you with the Cafe Rouge so you could make reservations, either for dinner or a late supper (cover charge: $1.50).
The Cafe Rouge had a permanent radio connection with NBC and gave the network’s listeners some memorable music. Typically, the suppertime broadcasts started at midnight or 12:30 a.m. ET, up to three hours earlier as the signal travelled west to California.
This Sunday, the bulk of The Big Band Show will feature complete Glenn Miller broadcasts from the Cafe Rouge between 1940 and 1942.
Highlights from the big band era include Les Brown’s first performance of his wartime classic “Sentimental Journey” (1944) with Doris Day singing, and the night Artie Shaw walked off the bandstand between sets in 1939 and never came back.
Those big bands may be gone, but they never will be forgotten.