An Autumn Weekend in New York
New York City is eternally in the throes of reinventing itself. While some things remain steadfast, the city thrives on surprising longtime residents and visitors alike with unexpected discoveries.
The Warwick Hotel in midtown Manhattan is one such unexpected pleasure. The property on the corner of West 54th Street and 6th Avenue in midtown dates back to the 1920s when it was commissioned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst as the New York home for his mistress, Marion Davies, and their Hollywood friends.
Hearst, like his friends and neighbors the Rockefellers who commissioned buildings to suit their fancies, had previously invested in the Ziegfeld Theater across the street. When he and his smart set arrived in town, they’d attend productions at the theatre, often decked out in lavish costumes, and they’d hold gala parties, before retiring to their ornate suites.
The theater, despite public protests, was razed in 1966. But the hotel, with its burnt sienna brick façade and lofty arches that grace the upper floor that resembled the building used in the "Ghostbusters" movies, is in the midst of a revival, of sorts.
"I used to park my car on Sixth Avenue and walk past the Warwick on my way to other properties I was developing in Manhattan, and I never noticed the Warwick," Andrew L. Schlesinger, the Warwick’s new general manager, told me recently. "It’s one of these properties that blend into the neighborhood that surrounds it, and it isn’t garish about announcing its presence."
In the many years I’ve been visiting New York, strolling Sixth Avenue on my way to Central Park or nearby Columbus Circle, I’ve never noticed the hotel, which has a marquee that is so understated that it is easily lost in the hyperactivity that is New York.
"Since arriving here as manager a couple months ago," Schlesinger continued, "I’ve found that this place is much beloved. Some people have been staying here for the last thirty years or so, and they keep returning as their home away from home."
"We have employees who have worked here as long. I’ve been signing anniversary cards congratulating these employees. Last week I signed a card for someone who’s been working here for 35 years."
Entering into the hotel from Sixth Avenue, you pass Randolph’s, named after Hearst, a cozy bar that in Europe would be called a brown bar for its plethora of dark mahogany and dim lighting. It’s a perfect place for a beverage while watching the goings on outside on Sixth Avenue.
As you make your way into the hotel itself, you arrive at a small but cozy lobby, and to the right is the W. 54th street entrance. If you exit or enter from this door, you are almost immediately within view of the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art and its sculpture garden now open during these warm fall days for an al fresco coffee or a glass of wine by the gurgling fountains. If MOMA were any closer, it would have to be annexed to the Warwick Hotel.
Schlesinger and I chatted in Murals on 54, the Warwick’s restaurant that features the original murals painted by Dean Cornwell in 1937. The murals, set back from the tables, resemble the work of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth - who illustrated popular books during the same period - and are notable for their bold use of color and whimsy.
Exploring Columbus Circle
"We’ve refurbished 70 rooms," Schlesinger told me, "and we’ve got a few more floors to go before we change over the older, more classic rooms into modern hotel comfort."
The room I stayed in was quite large by New York standards, with windows looking out onto 6th Avenue. The rooms facing West 54th street have a view of MOMA and the sculpture garden, as well as the neighboring streets that lead downtown to the theater district.
On a warm night, you can smell the horses - even before you see them -- tethered to the hansom cabs that line Central Park South, just a short walk from the Warwick Hotel. These horse-drawn carriages are a throwback to New York’s earliest roots before the broad avenues were modernized and gave way to taxi cabs, cars, buses and urban congestion.
A few blocks further is Columbus Circle, the home to Lincoln Center, where a jazz club, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola has nightly concerts featuring the best and brightest stars in jazz and pop.
I had wanted to hear Myron Walden, a rising jazz virtuoso when he played at Dizzy’s, but got to the city after his gig had ended, so I checked him out at a club further uptown, Smoke, where he held forth with his band Myron Walden Momentum. Myron, who is embarking on a European tour, captures all the melodies of great saxophonists who once played in New York - Coltrane and Zoot Sims come to mind - and takes his music to new and scintillating levels.
Lincoln Center is bursting with music, dance, and theatre, but a person must eat, too. A highly recommended place for dinner is Rosa Mexicano at Lincoln Center. The restaurant faces Lincoln Center and Fordham University at Columbus Circle.
Inside, the dining rooms are large, noisy and cheerful. When it was completed some years ago, the architects, the Rockwell Group, designed an iridescent blue glass mosaic tile water wall with two hundred cliff diver sculptures that give the sensation of being underwater.
No matter where you are seated in the restaurant, you cannot take your eyes off this cacophonous sculpture, which is bold and subtle, all at once. The food, however, will succeed in distracting you. A member of the wait staff approaches your table and prepares freshly made guacamole, using a mortar and pestle, which is served with warm flour tortillas and chips.
Another waiter brings you a margarita so pungent at first it is startling, but then, upon subsequent sips, succeeds at taming even the wildest beast within. The evening’s service was slow, unhurried. There were tasty appetizers, a generous selection of surf and turf, and after dinner, homemade doughnuts with dipping sauces that satisfied the sweet tooth.
Every now and again I gazed at the water wall with the lavender tiles and airborne figurines, or looked out onto the street below where theatergoers were exiting the evening’s performances. The overall feeling is of being connected to the hubbub of the city while being treated with Old World graciousness.
Every now and again word of a makeover in New York reaches me, wherein I hear about a property or restaurant that has undergone a renewal. Humphrey at the Eventi Hotel is one such place. News of the makeover came to me back in the spring when I was invited to attend a wedding reception there. Scott Everhart and his partner Jason Welker, two self-proclaimed "comic geeks" who met online and had one of their first dates at the Free Comic Book Day in New York back in 2011, invited writers and filmmakers to attend their reception at the Eventi, but I was couldn’t make it. It was then that I heard that the former Bar Basque, a wonderful restaurant at the Eventi Hotel where I had dined last year, had been renamed Humphrey, so I planned a visit.
The Humphrey dining room, upstairs from the Eventi’s lobby, faces a reclaimed park that was once a dingy alley way. In the summer months, it is a beer garden and is notable for its gigantic JumboTron digital television screen where one can watch broadcasts or films. It sits on 839 Sixth Avenue in Chelsea. It has the opposite feeling of Rosa Mexicano: it is quiet, subdued, and with dim lighting that allows for a view of the hectic uptown brightness just beyond its windows.
Again, the feeling that here prevails is unhurried, almost languid, as the wait staff busily prepares your food in the open kitchen just beyond the glass doors. Diners tend to eat late in Manhattan, but the noise level is never obtrusive. The appetizers were prepared with abundance and were fresh and tasty, with the overall feature of being imaginatively presented. It is a place for a more quiet evening in a room noted for its high glass atrium ceilings and fascinating labyrinthine corridors with recessed lighting that lead to the washrooms.
Ever the frugal traveler, I traveled to New York via Megabus, which boasts a new location at West 31st Street between 11th and 12th Avenues. Previously located a few blocks away, it lacked organization and signage, and, despite the affordable prices for its efficient services, there seemed no rhyme or reason to the mayhem that ensued as travelers searched frantically for their connections.
That’s all gone now. Blue and yellow signs herald the destinations, and friendly Megabus staffers direct you to the correct line to stand in. If they invest in some bullhorns, they’ll have it down, and perhaps that’s next. But it is an efficient and inexpensive way to travel to the heart of the city, and it allows you to spend more of your funds in midtown and Chelsea, two areas I return to for their continued urban surprises.