Spence Perry: Algonquin Hotel has seen better days

February 22, 2012|By SPENCE PERRY

The Algonquin Hotel has occupied its narrow Manhattan lot on West 44th Street between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas for more than 100 years.

For most of the time, its dark, quiet interior has served as an urban haven for writers, composers, actors, academics and those who enjoy their company. The food is good, the drinks strong and true, and the service unobtrusive but superb.

Recently, this civilized retreat has had rude encounters with the current acrid American political and economic atmosphere. The assaults have come from the left as well as the right. While the hotel, which has always made money, will probably survive, some of its unique appeal will undoubtedly be eroded.

For at least 70 years, the hotel has had a cat. When not on patrol, it lives in repose on the registration desk, examining the new arrivals and passing as to their suitability.

The cat has been known to comfort composers in difficult struggles with a musical, playwrights with second-act problems and actors who have spent an afternoon losing lines. It has always posed graciously for the photographs of ordinary guests.

A few months ago, an anonymous complaint was made to the public health authorities in New York City that the cat was allowed in the lobby and dining room (in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, the cat was an honored guest at services of the Algonquin roundtable in the Rose Room or a daily gathering of the most witty American authors of the time).

The health authorities cited the Algonquin with harsh words about the cat, threatening fines and other, even more unpleasant, consequences were it not removed. After lengthy — and one suspects expensive — negotiations, it was agreed that an electronic enclosure would be placed under the rugs on the first floor, limiting feline access to the front desk and a couple of back hallways. The cat is reportedly trained and has apparently submitted to its new confinement.

This comes at a fortunate time for the Algonquin. The hotel closed last month for a six-month renovation. This means the cat corral can be made a permanent part of the landscape for less expense and with greater concealment.

The renovation is already proving to be a mixed blessing. The rebuilding will see the elimination of the Oak Room, just off the lobby. It is to be turned into a kind of frequent guest lounge for the hotel’s big clients.

The Oak Room is one of the two or three best cabarets in New York City. It is one of the longtime homes of the American songbook. The room ranked with the Cafe Carlyle (think Bobby Short) as a purveyor of cafe entertainment.

The Oak Room attracted Julie Wilson, Mary Cleere Haran and Sandy Stewart, an important jazz singer. Because the number of top-notch cabaret artists is limited, audiences could watch their favorites grow year after year. Cabaret, at its best, is an art form in the same sense as opera or theater. As the venues disappear, so will the art form.

As the Algonquin cat is fenced in, no more to roam, and the Oak Room goes silent and dark, we are left to reflect on the political and moral excesses of our time.

In this space on West 44th Street, we see once again the sad results of overregulation and an insensitive, somewhat humorless officialdom.

In the case of the Oak Room, we see the unfortunate results of a relentless press for profit, where no square foot of space can be allotted to amenity or cultural delight. Indeed, this relentless drive — which has a late 19th-century quality about it — is so powerful that the issue is not one of discarding an unprofitable institution but rather of placing an institution which is only moderately profitable on the ash heap of history in the name of profit maximization.

All of this exposes all of us to a poverty less calculable but very real, and opens the gates to corrals for all.

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.

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