Two vintage New York hotels regain past splendor

Two architectural ''wedding cakes'' here have just had birthday parties.

The 75-year-old Plaza Hotel, the 55-year-old the Hotel Inter-Continental New York (formerly the Barclay), and New Yorkers have much to celebrate. And so do the hotels' guests, who come from everywhere - Seattle to Singapore.

Several years ago the 900-room Plaza, on Central Park, and the 800-room Inter-Continental New York, just off Park Avenue at 48th Street, had fallen on undistinguished times. Years of neglect, both structurally and service-wise, had placed both properties on the bottom of the list of praise bestowed on the Big Apple's poshest and most polished hotels.

Now, in the wake of a $35 million renovation program at the Plaza and an only slightly less costly one at the Inter-Continental New York, vive la difference, say guests and hotel critics alike.

But the supreme test of quality may come this spring when Egon Ronay, who is called one of the world's most astute -- and feared -- hotel critics by those in the business, comes here from London. In the summer of 1978 when he last rated the hotels, the Plaza's renovation program had barely begun and the Inter-Continental New York's hadn't started. And both hotels, despite their unusual architectural features and upper-crust reputations, were found somewhat deficient under Mr. Ronay's microscope.

In the Egon Ronay rating system, 100 points is ''perfection'' in accomodations and service. No hotel in the world has ever received a perfect score. In the last rating, the Plaza was awarded 81 points and the Inter-Continental New York 77. Ronay's highest rating ever went to the Ritz Hotel in London, which got 94. He rated the Pierre Hotel tops in New York with 93 on his last visit.

By contrast, the more famous Mobil Travel Guide uses a system of ''stars'' to rate hotels, and in 1981 the Plaza received four stars and the Inter-Continental New York three out of a possible five. Four means ''outstanding -- worth a special trip,'' while three signifies ''excellent.'' Five stars is for ''one of the best in the country.''

How does a hotel qualify for a five star rating?

''It's not just the size of the rooms, or the grandiosness, '' says Guide director Arnold Fury. ''It's real quality; quality of funishings. It's the maintanince level - things that are kept immaculate.'' He also stresses consistent, excellent service. In short, he added, ''Superb everything.''

And ''superb everything'' is exactly what the Intercontinental Hotels Corporation and Westin Hotels, which owns the Plaza, plan for their respective hotel landmarks here. After all, the Inter-Continental New York is now the ''flagship'' of the hotel group, and so, at least unofficially, is the Plaza for the Westin group.

''The Plaza is the leading revenue and profit producer for the company,'' says J. Philip Hughes, the hotel's managing director. Last year, the Plaza's revenues were a record $67 million, up substantially from the previous years.

The profit picture of the Inter-Continental New York was by no means as great at the Plaza's last year. For one thing, ''at any moment in time (in 1981) we had about 35 percent of our rooms out of commission,'' notes Paul Sheeline, Intercontinental's board chairman.

As Westin is already doing with great success, Intercontinental hopes to draw many foreign businessmen and women from its vast international reservation system. And if Fred G. Peelen, general manager of the Inter-Continental New York , is right, much of this business will be ''new business (for New York hotels) rather than taking it from our competitors.''

That may be difficult, since competition among New York City hotels is stiffer than ever in the wake of the increasing strength of the US dollar, cutting foreign travel to New York. And there has been an addition of some 6,000 new deluxe hotel rooms in New York during the past year alone. But statistics show that the hotels that are hurting for business most are the newer, medium-priced hostelries, not the grande - and more expensive -- dames like the Plaza and Inter-Continental New York.

At the Plaza one can can linger over lunch in the magnificent high-ceiling Palm Court restaurant. Inter-Continental New York guests can walk under the restored Federal-style Tiffany lobby skylight. It's easy to feel a twinge of yearning for more of this kind of vanishing charm in an increasingly glass and steel New York.

Over many years, both hotels have been the stomping grounds to similar types of clientele - primarily, the wealthy and the very wealthy. In fact, a top-hatted Alfred G. Vanderbilt was the first guest registered at the Plaza and the Vanderbilts, who built the Barclay in 1926, maintained a permanent suite at the then Barclay for many years.

Similarly, famous writers and actors joined the very rich on the guest ledgers of both hotels. Ernest Hemingway called the Barclay home when he was revising one of his novels; F. Scott Fitzgerald set one scene of his ''The Great Gatsby'' in the Plaza.

In a humorous vein, this reporter's father, Ward Morehouse, the late Broadway drama critic and columnist, lived at the Plaza for quite a few years and kept a bear cub there until it innocently nipped at one employee's feet and had to be sent to a farm.

During the 1950s, the Plaza and the former Barclay had become largely ''residential'' hotels, and many rooms and suites were rented by the month and year to individuals as well as corporations. Not anymore. Both hotels cater almost exclusively to a transient clientele - in their gracious, spacious guest rooms, impressive function rooms, and lobbies festooned with flowers. Although the Plaza is the larger hotel, both have 100 suites.

On the service front, the renovation of both hotels has been geared especially to more personalized service. The Plaza has installed ''satellite kitchens'' near all its restaurants to make sure the food is hot and the service fast. The Inter-Continental New York, like the Plaza, designed its three new kitchens with the latest ''state of the art'' equipment. A great deal of the old mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems in both hotels has been either replaced or rehabilitated. Both staffs take continual ''refresher courses'' to ensure uniformly attentive waiters, bellhops, doormen, housekeepers, and cashiers.

Despite all the money that has been spent on rehabilitation, it will take a great deal more to keep these hotels alive and well for further anniversaries.

''The Plaza will last as long as we keep putting more back into it,'' explains Mr. Hughes. ''And by putting money into it the way we are, we're going to be here for the 'long run.' It's structurally sound for another 75 years.''

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