Live music may be losing a treasured venue. On Feb. 17, musicians, hotel workers and community members rallied to save the Plaza Hotel, which stands at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. The hotel was recently sold to Elad Properties, and if the new developer has its way, the Palm Court will close, along with the Grand Ballroom, the Oak Room, and other legendary Plaza spaces that have been filled with live music over the years. Instead, they’ll be turned into retail space, and the rest of the floors will become multi-million-dollar condominiums. The Plaza Hotel will cease to exist as a public treasure. A group called the Coalition to Save the Plaza has been formed to fight the developer’s plans, and 802 has signed on to the coalition.
“There’s no room like this in the world,” says harpist Sylvia Kowalczuk, who has been playing in the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court for more than a decade. “The space is so open and inviting, and the acoustics are great – I play without any amplification. All kinds of people pass by – tourists, New York City regulars, children – and they are so appreciative and interested in the music.”
Kowalczuk has traveled around the world with her harp, and has performed for the Pope and several U.S. presidents. “New York should not allow this beautiful place to close,” she says. “It’s a part of so many memories for so many people.”
Kowalczuk plays five days a week during teatime at the Plaza and especially loves playing for the children who often gather near her on the floor to watch and listen. When teatime ends and the harp has to be rolled away, she tells them the harp is going back to Eloise, the precocious six-year-old character who lived on the top floor of the hotel in the children’s books by Kay Thompson.
The New York Hotel Trades Council, which is comprised of the nine unions that represent workers in the city’s hotels, has pledged $1 million to the “Save the Plaza” campaign. The council includes Local 6 of UNITE HERE!, the union which represents workers at the Plaza.
Hundreds of Local 6 members were joined at the rally by 802 members, political and labor leaders and concerned New Yorkers. There, in chilly temperatures outside the hotel, 802 guitarist Larry Siegel and his band got the crowd moving and singing songs of protest.
“The Plaza Hotel belongs to all New Yorkers, and we will join our voices with them in calling for the preservation and continuance of this fine tradition,” announced Local 802 president David Lennon at the rally.
A HISTORY OF LIVE MUSIC
The Plaza Hotel opened its doors to the world in 1907. Hundreds, if not thousands, of 802 members have played at the Plaza over the years, in the hotel’s bars and restaurants, and for weddings and other celebrations in the Rose Room and the Grand Ballroom.
Besides these club date musicians and the musicians currently employed at the Plaza under 802’s hotel steady engagements contract, over 900 hotel workers stand to lose their jobs under the developer’s plans.
“We are fighting to save good jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits; jobs that these workers use to support their families,” says John Turchiano, spokesperson for the New York Hotel Trades Council. “This isn’t just about jobs, though: our unions are working together with the citizens of New York to save a cultural institution.”
The exterior of the hotel was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Mayor Bloomberg has come out in support of the fight to keep the Plaza a hotel, saying it’s good for tourism.
Live music in the Plaza’s Palm Court Room is just one of the traditions that tourists and New Yorkers alike have enjoyed. In times past, “palm courts” were found in all of the grandest hotels in cities across the globe. Composers created music specifically for these rooms.
“Palm court music was the epitome of high society during the Edwardian Age and early part of the 20th century,” says Clare Hoffman, who has been playing the flute in the Cantabile Trio with violinist Valerie Levy and cellist Mary Wooten for 15 years at the Plaza. “The essence of palm court music has remained true in the Plaza’s Palm Court Room. We play a mix of the traditional – waltzes by the likes of Strauss and Lehar – added to our own arrangements of everything from bossa nova to tango to contemporary songs.”
If the new owners succeed in turning the Plaza Hotel into exclusive condominiums and a department store, not even the echoes of a near-century of live music will remain.
“When you listen to live music, it is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. This song, this space, will never happen again. As musicians, we understand how important this is,” says Kowalczuk. “We have to keep this beautiful experience open to everyone.”
For more information on the campaign, call (212) 245-4802, ext. 186 or visit www.SaveThePlaza.com.