A few weeks ago I walked past the Mark Hotel, at 77th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues, and noticed nothing out of the ordinary. The epauletted doormen, resplendent in their gold froggings, stood fastidiously at the door. The immemorial entrance, done up in the Federalist style, preserved that consoling scent of eucalyptus that it had always had. Inside, beyond the conciergerie, the restaurant and the bar were teeming with their well-heeled clientele chattering away in a Babel of languages.
And now, only a few weeks on, there is silence. Quite by chance I discovered, as I approached the place again, a sign advertising the sale of everything — everything! — that could be removed from the interior of the hotel. But I had come too late. The glorious chandeliers and sconces had been ripped away, and a few bare bulbs guided you through the twilit gloom. Nero's Domus Aurea, after 10 centuries of barbarian predations, looked scarcely more ravaged or forlorn than the lobby of the Mark Hotel. What remained within, a few battered night tables and breakfronts, could be had almost for the asking.
Among these slim pickings I managed to find two lamp shades I could use, though I bought them more for sentimental reasons than for anything else. Together they cost me $10, which I handed to one of the casually clad out-of-towners who officiated at the sale. Speaking in Southern and Midwestern accents, they had the air of being accustomed, by profession, to the swift and unceremonious disposal of the contents of deconsecrated hotels. It turned out that, having arrived a little past five in the afternoon, I had come less than an hour before the doors of the hotel were set to close for good.
In his great poem "Dauer im Wechsel," Goethe writes, "What now occupies the place that bears your name came hither like a wave and hastens to resolve itself once more into its elements." All things, of course, will pass, but nowhere in the world are the relentless fluctuations of change more poignantly evident than in New York. Surely there are old cities in the world — Paris, London, Vienna — that change, but they do so with a decorous deliberation that preserves far more than it destroys. And then there are new cities, like Sydney, San Paolo, and Los Angeles, that do not so much destroy as expand. But New York, poised between these two urban models and driven by a never-ceasing dynamo, is so relentless in its mutations that, if you are equipped with any force of imagination, you can almost see Goethe's wave sweeping down the interminable avenues, spilling laterally into the side streets, and leaving not a stone upon a stone.
New Yorkers need to be reminded that this is not the way of most cities. Though a city like Buenos Aires, to choose but one example, is quite changeful in its way, you still have every right to expect, over the years, a general continuity in the building stock as well as in the shops and restaurants at street level. By the thousands, these enterprises have occupied the same spot for decades on end, and more often than not they preserve unchanged the décor of their original design. Places that would be landmarked in New York, that would make it into all the guidebooks and onto the local news, are so pervasive the moment you step outside the city as to be scarcely worthy of comment.
By contrast, everything in New York is slated for demolition, but with an indeterminate reprieve. And yet, no feature of the landscape is more endangered, more under the gun, than our grand hotels. In the two most desirable areas of the city, the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan, there are almost no hotels left, and those that remain are paltry by comparison with what has vanished. In the past decade, the Stanhope, the Mayfair, the Plaza, and now the Mark, have largely evaporated as hotels and been reinvented as condominium apartments.
It was their very virtues that sealed their doom: The elegance of their pre-war architecture and their incomparable locations near central park made them too tempting for the voracious market to ignore. And so it requires no prescience whatsoever to foresee that, within this decade, the Pierre and the Sherry Netherland, the Saint-Regis and the Carlyle, with their incomparable heights, will be converted, like the rest, entirely into residences. All of these hotels came into being at a time when it was more profitable to rent by the day or the week than by the month. In most places in the world that is still the case. But in New York, with its incandescent market in commercial real estate, that has been reversed and everything yields before the condominium.
In a matter of years, visitors to New York will be compelled by necessity to dwell in Midtown. Quite simply, there will be few if any hotels left elsewhere in the city. And such as do arise, even the best of them, like Philippe Starck's ultramodern Hudson Hotel at Ninth Avenue and 58th Street, can never match the majestic splendor of what will soon be lost.