It was July 1, 1982. Approximately 4,000 followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon were entering and exiting the second-floor Grand Ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue. There they entered into marriage contracts with strangers whom the reverend, the Korean-born founder and head of the Unification Church, had picked for them. Then, the same day, they walked barely a block and entered Madison Square Garden—most in formal wear—where they were declared husband and wife en masse by Reverend Moon.
Photos of the Moonie marriage ceremony were distributed worldwide. It would be hard to forget—though the New Yorker Hotel would prefer that you did.
The venerable old hotel, once the largest inn on earth, with 2,500 rooms and 1 million square feet over 43 floors and the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Benny Goodman swinging by, has tried mightily to shake off the Moonies’ shadow ever since the church, which reveres the reverend as the Messiah and the Second Coming of Christ, bought it in the bad, old Beame days of 1976, and started using it exclusively for church housing (the Moonies still own it, through their Holy Spirit Association).
The latest gambit: marketing the largest contiguous block of Class B space in New York City, 287,000 square feet over five floors now occupied by egg-salad tenants like insurance firms and the Barbizon Modeling School.
When it opened in January 1930, the New Yorker had that essential element for prime real estate: a fabulous location. Before the era of cheap plane tickets, the regal old Penn Station just down the avenue deposited steady streams of guests, who came as much for the Art Deco elegance as for the rubber-necking. Actors, celebrities, athletes, politicians, mobsters, the shady and the luminous—the entire Brooklyn Dodgers roster during the glory seasons—would stalk the bars and ballrooms, or romp upstairs.
The New Yorker couldn’t help being a hub, right into the Me Decade: In March 1971, Muhammed Ali, after getting pounded by Smokin’ Joe Frazier in front of a Garden crowd that included Woody Allen, Frank Sinatra and Norman Mailer, recovered at the New Yorker. “Cassius/Ali belted incredibly off his pedestal by a human hamburger, a man on the verge of death,” Hunter S. Thompson would write that same year in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Joe Frazier, like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand—at least not out loud.”
An era was passing, the New Yorker with it. Hounded by financial difficulties, ownership changes (including, briefly, to Conrad Hilton) and a decaying city, the hotel closed in 1972. The French Polytechnic Institute bought it and tried to turn it into a hospital; then sold it, empty, to the Moonies in 1976 for $5 million, or about $19 million in today’s money.
The church used it as housing and for administration—it was renamed the World Mission Center—including the matchmaking by Reverend Moon and his third wife, Hak Ja Han, and his crusade to save New York from itself. “The world has lost faith in America, and New York has become a jungle of immorality and depravity,” he said to a half-full Yankee Stadium in June 1976 during his Bicentennial God Bless America Rally. (Mr. Moon would later do time for tax fraud.) “God has sent me to America in the role of a doctor,” he continued, “in the role of a fire fighter…”
Throughout the rally, “youths hurled programs and decorations, let loose balloons from an upper tier and ran through the corridors shouting and laughing.” An apparent smoke bomb “added to the confusion.”
As did the several hundred picketers—including parents of Moonies—who started their demonstration outside the New Yorker and another 43rd Street property that now serves as Moonie headquarters before moving to the stadium. Congresswoman Bella Abzug, the liberal firecracker, took Reverend Moon’s rally as an opportunity to publicly denounce the use of non-union workers for a planned renovation of the New Yorker. And all this reported in the next morning’s Times.
Reverend Moon, of course, had no remedy for New York City. It got worse before it got better, and around the time it got better—the early 1990s—the Moonies moved out of the New Yorker. But the church still controls it, through a lease to the New Yorker Hotel Management Company.
It reopened as a lodge on June 1, 1994, with 178 rooms and no sign of the Moonies. Membership losses amid bad press and 11 months in the slammer for its aging Messiah had eliminated the need for thousands of convenient crash pads. (Calls to the church’s headquarters were not returned. No one from the New Yorker or Cassidy Turley, the brokerage firm it hired to market the office space, would comment for this story.)
The slow slog toward respectability, which could very well climax in leasing that big block of office space before the end of 2011, included extensive changes. In 1997, the New Yorker quit Con Ed steam and switched to boilers; in 2000, Ramada began handling reservations; in 2008, the New Yorker scrapped 2,000 window AC units; the number of hotel rooms grew to 912 on the top 21 floors; the first 18 were turned into offices and dorms.
Then the bed bugs bit. “I had a rash all over my body,” a Fordham senior told reporters in September 2007, after she sued the Moonies and Ramada over alleged bed bugs in her dorm room. “I can’t sleep anymore. I haven’t slept in, like, forever.”
These allegations not only lighted the blue touch paper for the city’s ongoing buggy freak-out, they also reinforced the perception of the New Yorker as a forever faded belle, a part of a New York City that in most cases had literally died out or, at the very least, like the old Penn Station, been destroyed and resurrected as coldly functional.
When The Observer pushed through the revolving doors on Eighth one morning, we found the typical bustle of a midrange hotel near check-out time and nothing of the Unification Church. Middle-age men in business suits barked into cell phones; tourists pored over city maps; staff stood frowningly by; the 24-hour Tick Tock Diner, to the side through a door, did brisk trade. There was nothing bespeaking the New Yorker’s pre-Moonie swagger, save for maybe the piano against the wall, behind a superfluous red cordon.
The Observer was able to get upstairs for a look at the offices—low ceilings, warrens of hallways, happenstance views, nothing too extraordinary, as to be expected. A few days earlier, after coffee and an English muffin at the Tick Tock, we found our way into a wedge of a room on the 39th floor. It had been used as a wake-up café for guests, and the detritus of another morning was being cleaned up as we approached a wide, south-facing window.
One World Trade Center, more than halfway to its 104 stories, reigned clearly visible amid other ground zero construction that will bring more than 10 million square feet within the next 10 years. To the upper left of that, we could see the run of a rejuvenated (rebooted?) Silicon Alley; there somewhere, too, were the footprints for NYU’s 6 million-square-foot Village expansion; we could even make out Brooklyn’s sapling commercial skyline, including the Nets arena under construction; and then, to the right, ever so slightly, we saw the Hudson, near which the old rail yards along 10th Avenue are slated by Stephen Ross’ Related to be turned into an office and apartment spread to rival London’s Canary Wharf in size and ambition.
The Observer descended in the elevator thinking the New Yorker’s office space might be better off as more hotel rooms or more dorms (the bed-bug allegations have not seemed to hurt business in that regard, and booking rates for the hotel are at or above the Manhattan average of about $210 a night).
In the lobby, a “1929” was molded into the floor in bronze twists—the Jazz Age year the hotel was built, before everything went to shit with the Depression and the war. Outside, across Eighth, we saw an elderly storefront that read “S & Gross Co. Inc. Est. 1901 Loans.” The lettering had faded.