Historical Big Band Site Falls To Wrecking Ball

New York City has lost yet another landmark, and fans of big band music have lost a venue that was pivotal in the careers of some of the greatest names of the Big Band Era.

The historic Hotel Pennsylvania, home to the Café Rouge and The Manhattan Room, has fallen to the wrecker’s ball to make way for a 1200 foot nondescript skyscraper. The hotel first welcomed guests in 1919, and for nearly a decade was the largest hotel in the world, boasting 2,200 rooms and en suite bathrooms on 22 floors. Towering over midtown Manhattan during the hotel’s heyday, it was designed by the same architects that built Penn Station, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. The hotel stood across the street from Pennsylvania Station and Madison Square Garden.

While Hotel Pennsylvania was architecturally recognized for its stunning Renaissance Revival style and its historic ties to the railroad industry, the hotel is perhaps best known for the role it played in hosting some of the Big Band Era’s foremost musicians and entertainers. During the period of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the main restaurant, the Café Rouge, was home to some of the biggest names in music. Live network radio (NBC Blue) broadcasts from the Café Rouge included such iconic bands as Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington, while Gene Krupa, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman performed in the Manhattan Room.

The Café Rouge was originally opened in 1919 as the hotel’s main restaurant, and then became a nightclub in the 1930’s. The café was designed with a distinct Italian character. The wall base and door trim were made of terracotta, the walls were artificial limestone and the ceiling treated to give the effect of old wooden beams. It was the only space in the hotel that escaped significant alterations during the building’s history. The smaller Manhattan Room was opened in 1933, decorated with cartoons depicting life in New York City.

One evening in 1939, while in the midst of a successful long-term engagement at the Café Rouge, bandleader Artie Shaw walked off the bandstand between sets essentially quitting his own band on the spot. Shaw had emotionally succumbed to the pressures of his own musical success and the demands of being head of the most popular big band in the country at the time. Shaw’s act of musical defiance left the band without a leader, and his musicians without jobs. Many of the musicians soon found other work, and Shaw band arranger Jerry Grey landed on his feet with a new gig- arranging for the upstart Glenn Miller organization.

From 1940 to 1942, the Café Rouge played host to the aforementioned Glenn Miller Orchestra, who by that time had risen to national fame following successful engagements at Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. During the band’s run at the Hotel Pennsylvania, it played to sold-out crowds each night. During 1942, a Sunday afternoon performance was added until Miller left to join the US Army in September of that year.

Hotel Pennsylvania held the longest-running ‘vanity’ phone number in New York Telephone Exchange history.  ‘Pennsylvania 6-500’ was the hotel’s main switchboard number, memorialized by the Miller band in Jerry Grey’s composition ‘Pennsylvania 6-500’. In 1940, the song was on Billboard Magazine’s “Top 5” songs for twelve continuous weeks. Up until spring 2022, you could still call the hotel’s main switchboard (212) PE6-5000 and hear the refrain of the song play before you were connected with a receptionist.

Les Brown’s band, with vocalist Doris Day, introduced the hit song “Sentimental Journey” at the café in November of 1944.

In the Hotel Pennsylvania’s later years, the Café Rouge no longer operated as a part of the Hotel Pennsylvania, but was converted into a multi-purpose space for private events and had a separate entrance from the main hotel entrance on West 32nd Street.

Sadly, by the early 21st century, the hotel began to fall into disrepair. The hotel was first closed during the start of the pandemic. The investment group that purchased the hotel, contrary to the wishes of big band fans and conservationists, announced plans to raise the hotel as part of  Governor Cuomo’s- and now Governor Hochul’s- massive Penn Station revitalization project.

“We used to have the greatest train station in the world… literally right across the street, and sadly for me I was too young – when I got to New York it was already gone. The language that was used to destroy that station is the exact same language (used) today to argue to destroy this; it’s tired, it’s old… can’t be reused. We need something new. Everybody admits that what happened across the street (at Penn Station) was one of the worst crimes in terms of architectural legacy that ever happened in this country. We’re about to commit the exact same crime right here with the Hotel Pennsylvania.”  Architect Richard Cameron, as reported by AMNY.com

The music of many of the artists that performed at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City can be heard regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Artie Shaw’s hostler.


Photo credit: Antigng, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons