In a city where glitzy debuts fade to boring old spots within a matter of months, the iconic Waldorf Astoria has endured for 85 years. Newcomers like the Baccarat and the Park Hyatt have a sleeker, more modern sense of luxury. Some classic spots, such as the St. Regis, with its beloved King Cole Bar, draw in New York’s socialites by the droves. But the Waldorf’s timeless allure is a result of something else entirely: mystery.
Why have all sitting presidents since Herbert Hoover—including the ever-stylish Obamas—picked this spot despite the myriad of more modern options within a 10-block radius? Was this really where the Waldorf salad was created? And what is the story behind the strange, two-entrance lobby with the gilded clock at its center?
Those are the questions you may already know to ask—but there’s an entire world of political secrecy and pop culture intrigue here that you’ve likely never heard of before. So on the eve of the hotel’s 85th birthday, we got an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour to uncover its least-exposed secrets. Read on for the ultimate tell-all from what may just be the world’s most fascinating hotel.
Below the hotel is a secret train station
There’s no way to detect it from above ground, but right below the Waldorf is a little-known extension of Grand Central Station, built in the 1930s to help Franklin Delano Roosevelt keep his polio diagnosis private. (More on that below.) Rumors swirl about the station’s continued use, but on a rare tour, we saw proof that it still caters to commanders-in-chief. “It takes seven minutes to get from here to JFK [Airport],” said Grand Central historian Daniel Brucker, neatly dodging my question about evacuation protocols on the elevator doors.
Though he swore confidentiality to the Secret Service on some of the site’s features, he did gesture toward the absence of an electrified third rail on the escape platform. Why? Visiting presidents use dual-mode diesel locomotives that don’t need outside power to function; it’s a precaution in case of power outages or larger catastrophes.
FDR’s custom locomotive sits abandoned under the hotel
Roosevelt didn’t want the world to know that he had polio, so he commissioned the Waldorf train station—and a bespoke locomotive—so that he could commute between New York and Washington with ease and privacy. The train’s last car was built to accommodate his presidential limousine; its two, ultra-wide pocket doors allowed his driver to three-point-turn the limo off the train and into a custom elevator leading to the hotel’s garage.
But the train, with its ironclad construction and pop-out gun turrets, has been permanently abandoned under the Waldorf. “It was housed there to be protected from the elements,” explained Brucker, “but in 1945, it was being prepped [for a presidential voyage] when FDR suddenly died. It hasn’t moved since.” It probably won’t move any time in the near future, either—unless the federal government, which owns it, decides to update the train and make it compatible with current railroad administration standards.
You can see evidence of the secret station on 49th street
Since the access points to the underground station change frequently, the only trace of the secret station that you’ll ever see above ground is on 49th Street between Park and Lexington avenues, where the numbers “101-121” indicate an exit. It's the elevator that once fit FDR's limousine.
The grand ballroom is laid out so that 38 law enforcement agencies can survey it at once
The calendar for fall and spring events at the Waldorf's grand ballroom is basically set in stone for the next five years—annual gatherings, such as the September United Nations General Assembly and the December debutante balls, happen on roughly the same day each year, booking out as far as the hotel will allow. The reason why they won’t look at any other space? It’s not just because of the gorgeous, three-tiered space, with its 15 balconies and 1940’s chandelier made from thousands of German crystals. It’s because the room is designed so that dignitaries from dozens of countries—and their security details—can all be accommodated simultaneously. The coolest Secret Service perch is also one of the hardest to see: It’s in the audio control room, up in the catwalk that’s opposite the stage. (Just look for the black box in the top right corner.)
The hotel staffs an entire department to look after utensils
Shining silver is not one person’s job at the Waldorf Astoria. It’s a task that’s relegated to a small army of eight full-time staffers. They’re among 100 employees in the “stewarding” department, which looks after the upkeep of glasses, cutlery, linens, and serving ware across nine on-property kitchens. As for the silver team, they polish bespoke Waldorf Astoria utensils for ballroom galas of up to 2,000 guests, with an annual budget of $150,000 to refurbish and replace worn pieces.
It’s the birthplace of red velvet cupcakes
Perhaps you already know that the Waldorf salad is a namesake of the hotel—it was created in the 1890s at the Waldorf Hotel before it merged with the next-door Astoria. But the hotel also lays claim to red velvet cupcakes, which were created at the Waldorf Astoria in the 1940s, with beets as the coloring agent. As rumor has it, the chef who invented the recipe gave it to a VIP guest upon request—along with an invoice for $350. Enraged, the guest spread the recipe like wildfire until it become a staple of every New York bakery. Today, executive pastry chef Calogero Romano serves an updated version of the classic, with mascarpone instead of cream cheese in the frosting—and it remains a popular hotel request.
It was a massive technological pioneer in the 1930s
The most cutting-edge amenity that the Waldorf Astoria offered when it opened in 1931 was a radio in every room. This required massive technological infrastructure, including a huge antenna that was built between the two cupolas of the hotel. It was seen as such a pioneering move that the hotel’s opening was commemorated with a live radio address from the White House with then-President Herbert Hoover.
In order to provide broadcasts and patch in phone calls for guests, the hotel maintained a massive switch room, which is still operational today on the hotel’s sixth floor. Much of the equipment has been replaced, but some of the original stuff is still functional—it’s used to provide audio feeds of political gatherings to relevant media.
The restaurant has not one, but two secret entrances
La Chine was one of New York’s buzziest restaurants when it opened this past winter, but if Kim and Kanye ever ate there, you’d never know it. The private dining room in the back, called Meng by La Chine, has a secret entrance through the hotel’s kitchen for guests who are staying at the hotel. Not spending the night? A doorway is hidden in the back corner of the dining room and opens discreetly onto the street.
There’s a mini-museum inside the main lobby, if you know where to look
Behind the reception desk, on the northeast side of the main lobby, you’ll find a few glass vitrines filled with odds and ends from the Waldorf and Astoria hotels’ early days. A ledger from 1915 itemizes the costs for a midnight dance party at the Waldorf: it cost $3,718 for 36 guests. Closer to the in-house FedEx shop, you’ll find a smaller, subtler display of antiquities: It includes a set of gold utensils from 1893. (There’s no placard to indicate their uniqueness because the hotel would rather not reveal their value; the rest of the surviving gold utensils are kept in the Waldorf vault.)
Perhaps the rarest treasure on display in the hotel’s common spaces is a solid gold plate from the mid-1890s; it’s the only piece that has a W logo, rather than a WA. Find it by the ballroom elevators.
The hotel actually has three lobbies, originally for different types of people
Most New Yorkers know that you can enter the Waldorf from both Park and Lexington avenues; since the hotel cuts across the whole block, it has two separate entrances. What they’re less likely to know is that the brighter Park Avenue side was meant to be used by women and families while the darkly lit Lexington entrance, with its proximity to the cigar-friendly Peacock Alley lounge, was intended for businessmen.
On 49th Street, however, there’s yet another entrance: This one leads straight into the Tower Suites. It was created for VIPs and apartment residents, many of whom entertained copiously during Prohibition.
You can still order a drink from Frank Sinatra’s old bartender
Frank Sinatra was one of the hotel’s most famous residents, and his legacy still lives on in subtle ways. Concerts are still performed in the Empire Room, where Sinatra’s career began and where Louis Armstrong played his last show. And drinks are still served by Sinatra’s onetime bartender, Cenko “Sonny” Koltouski, in the space next door. Ask Sonny how he’s seen the hotel change in 35 years, and he’ll tell you that when he started pouring drinks, the bar was called “Safari,” with zebra-striped wallpaper and bent-cane furnishings. Now it’s a sleeker oak-paneled space called Sir Harry’s, but you can still take Sinatra’s favorite table: the first one to the left of the entrance. As for his signature drink? Dewars on the rocks.
Want to toast the Waldorf’s 85th? The hotel is celebrating with $2,500 shots of Balvenie 50 year at the Bull & Bear bar and a pop-up rosé champagne lounge at Sir Harry’s.