Most historical edifices live out their days preserved in amber, frozen in time by curated exhibitions that transport guests back to a different era. But what happens when a historic building is also a living, breathing business that caters to hundreds of people every day? That was the situation faced by New York’s Palace Hotel, a landmark building in Manhattan that, in addition to being important to New York’s architectural history, has played host to famous guests throughout the 20th century and had its distinctive exterior prominently featured in film and television. One of only two hotels in New York that is also designated a historic landmark, the Palace Hotel has a fine line to walk between preserving its historic significance, and offering all the modern amenities that contemporary travelers expect.
Originally built in 1884 as a set of luxury mansions called the Villard Houses, the Palace Hotel is justly regarded as one of New York’s most significant architectural landmarks. The mansions, originally owned by railway baron Henry Villard, were designated historical landmarks in 1968, and a 55-story tower was built behind them in order to convert them into a luxury hotel. The tower, designed by Stanford White, was designed to blend seamlessly with the Villard Houses’ iconic Romanesque architecture, and the Palace Hotel, as it came to be called, began its business as a paragon of New York hospitality and luxury travel.
Despite its reputation for world-class service and luxe accommodations, by 2012 the Palace Hotel was starting to become a hotel out of time, whose antique structure walled guests off from facets of modern life, most notably, cellphone signal. For tourists experiencing the historic luxury of the Palace for the first time, a cellphone-free stay was part of the charm, but for the businesspeople who regularly stayed at the Palace or relied upon its rooms for conferences, events and meetings, being cut off from wireless communication was rapidly turning the Palace from a place of business to a museum piece.
To stop itself from being left behind, the Palace had to bring the modern world in without damaging the historic structure or decor, or losing the opulent atmosphere that had come to define it. To do so, it turned to Verizon Wireless and Telecom Infrastructure Corp for a solution that would not only bring the Palace Hotel into the 21st century, but one that would be scalable and future-proof so that the hotel could continue to keep up with the times without disruptive rewiring and upgrades.
For a building as old and as large as the Palace, this meant more than just installing a couple of new routers and few antennas. Every floor needed to be core drilled to accommodate the riser cabling for the Distributed Antenna System – a vast network of small antennae that would provide the whole building with the wireless coverage it needed by serving as repeaters for the isolated spots in the hotel with poor signal. To drill safely, each of the hotel’s 55 floors had to be X-ray scanned to make sure the drilling would not compromise the integrity and safety of the floor.
Twenty remote units and 152 antennae were daisy-chained from a TE FlexWave Spectrum distributed antenna system, designed to handle the wireless needs of large buildings and campuses by being powerful and stackable for extended reach. Single carrier for now, the antenna system handles signal for Verizon Wireless, with AT&T in negotiations to join as a second carrier. The 20 remote locations allow a wide spread of signal throughout the hotel, but the design of the hotel interior meant that each remote unit location had to be individually designed to be accessible but also protected, without intruding on the hotel’s interior decor.
Such a massive undertaking had its roadblocks, mostly due to the age of the hotel. Like many older hotels, the Palace was built without a 13th floor, a quirk in the numbering designed to ward off bad luck but that had to be taken into account in planning. More seriously, on one of the upper floors a fire alarm cable had been wrapped around the locking mechanism of one of the ceiling hatches, as well as a nearby sprinkler head, so when a Telecom technician tried to open the hatch, an entangled sprinkler pipe began to link. The fire alarm’s computer monitoring system picked up on the leak and nearby technicians were available to fix it almost immediately. The incident, which was deemed not to be Telecom’s fault, was a mercifully small sample of the kind of hazard that can go unremarked-upon for decades in a large and old enough building. The Plaza’s fame as a landmark hotel and its constant rotation of guests keeps the hotel constantly maintained and in excellent repair, but it took a huge infrastructure project like this cellular upgrade to unearth some of the hotel’s more peculiar maintenance quirks and hidden corners.
After the wiring was completed and the DAS installed, the Head End room – the master processing location for the hotel’s cellular communications systems – had to be retrofitted to accommodate the climate-controlled environment that was needed for the new DAS equipment. Like the remote units, the DAS equipment needed to be both protected and accessible, housed so as to need minimal maintenance but so that technicians can easily access it for repairs and upgrades with minimal disruption. All the retrofits needed to take into account the distinctive and historic architecture and decor of the Palace Hotel, incorporating the new technology without damaging anything historically significant.
A historic hotel like the Palace will always be something of a museum as well as a hotel because so much of the building, the decor and the furnishings are worth preserving, in addition to it being flush with life as guests and residents stay, experience, and even live in the hotel. Upgrade projects like Telecom’s wireless upgrade help preserve that link between past and present by making sure that, while experiencing the monument hotel’s past, guests and residents of the hotel can stay connected to the present.