Perspective: Up in the Old Hotel

Trying to convey the tradition of The Pierre hotel in New York in a print ad

In 1930, when the French-born Charles Pierre Casalasco finished building the Hotel Pierre—a Georgian-style chateau with a copper-clad mansard stretching its neck 500 feet above Central Park—he specified that the last rivet be made of gold. As things would turn out, that ostentatious touch was only the beginning for the Fifth Avenue hotel, which has hosted the likes of Vanderbilts and Astors, and even boasted August Escoffier himself in the kitchen. Casalasco’s intent was “to create the atmosphere of a private club instead of the average hotel atmosphere,” and for the last 82 years, the Pierre has delivered. White-gloved attendants still operate the elevators, and there’s more marble in there than in the quarries of Carrara. “The Pierre is unique in America,” observed international hotel consultant Daniel Edward Craig. “It’s one of the last bastions of tradition.”

And, as the ads on these pages show, that seems to be the selling point too. Be it 1967 or just a few weeks ago, the Pierre seems bent on assuring you that tradition is alive and well in its gilded lobby. And it’s chosen one of the most durable motifs to get that message across: the worldly gentleman squiring his lovely wife (well, presumably) around New York. “The parallels are very interesting,” Craig said. But they may also be the problem. While stressing old-money customs might have worked 45 years ago, it’s an uncomfortable fit for today, when even the wealthiest people think little of wearing jeans and flip-flops.

When the 1967 ad at right appeared, oil tycoon J. Paul Getty had sold the historic hotel to private investors incorporated as The Pierre Service Corporation. While the owners quietly sunk millions into refurbishing the hotel’s interior, its marketers decided to wander outside—and capitalize on the hotel’s ineffable features: its location on Fifth and 61st and its highly recognizable tower, which presides like a dignified butler over the elegant couple taking a carriage ride in Central Park. “The ad is about location location location,” Craig said. It’s also about tradition: It touts the nearness of the opera and the philharmonic. The gent is in his tux; his lady friend wears a gown and a fur stole. They might as well be thumbing through the Social Register.

The Pierre changed hands a couple more times until, in 2005, the Indian company Taj Hotels entered the picture. Taj dates back to 1903 with the opening of the Taj Mahal Palace in Bombay. But in recent years, the hotelier’s been playing an ambitious game of Monopoly, buying up hotels all over the world, including Boston’s famed Ritz Carlton, for which it plunked down a cool $122 million. While it’s natural that Taj would want to maintain the customary trappings of a hotel like the Pierre, the fact that it’s a foreign company with limited experience in the U.S. might explain the rather clichéd portrayal of the affluent couple in the ad opposite: arriving in a 1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, clad in designer threads and dripping with jewels. “It’s a modern fairy tale,” Craig observed. “I’m not sure what segment of the American population will identify with this. It’s old money, and it seems a bit out of touch. You could get away with this in the 1960s, but the woman looks like Grace Kelly.”

Oh, well. At least she won’t be shocked by the hotel’s $740 nightly room rate.

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