Back when girls wore sweater sets and pearls and their crew-cut dates sported white bucks and grey flannel bags, and people turned out in camel hair polo coats for the Harvard-Yale game, New York’s Biltmore Hotel was as much a part of upper-class ritual as a debutante cotillion. On the red leather banquettes in the lobby over arched by the hotel’s famous clock, nervous females smoothed their pageboys and fiddled with circle pins and scarab bracelets as they waited for their young gentlemen to rush over from the Yale Club across the street or hop off a train at nearby Grand Central station.
“Meet me under the clock” was an Ivy League rallying cry for more than 50 years. F. Scott Fitzgerald, with his
unerring eye for the foibles of the rich, described “a Biltmore alive with ... the stellar debutantes of many cities.” Even that literary immortal of questionable social grace, J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, was drawn to the Biltmore, musing in Catcher in the Rye: “I was way early when I got there, so I just sat down on one of those leather couches
right near the clock in the lobby and watched the girls.”
Last week, however, most of the excitement was not taking place in the Biltmore’s lobby but in a Manhattan courtroom where architectural preservationists and nostalgia buffs tried to save the old hotel from the wrecker’s ball. With Manhattan office space at a
premium and new hotels outshining the 68-year-old Biltmore, the owners recently announced they would strip it to its steel skeleton and reconstruct it as the eastern headquarters of the giant Bank of America. While Biltmore lovers were still absorbing that, the hotel’s owners sent eviction notices to the remaining guests and began demolition. Thus, even if the preservationists should further their legal claims, theirs will be a truly hollow victory. The clock has already been removed and the adjoining Palm Court cocktail lounge turned to rubble. “How can they do something like that?” lamented Manhattanite Denny Pierce-Grove, now in her mid-30s and the mother of two young daughters who will never know the joys of the Biltmore. “They’ve just destroyed a part of my childhood.”
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