John Freeman Gill
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History With a Private Entrance

It wasn't quite King Kong making himself at home atop the Empire State Building, but the Plaza Hotel received its first condominium residents around New Year's Day, when a gargantuan, glamorous woman and her equally enormous blond daughter appeared on the building's Fifth Avenue facade, dwarfing the pedestrians below.

The two are depicted in a four-story-tall billboard that shows them relaxing in a magnificent Plaza living room adorned with a chandelier and suffused with buttery sunlight. The image conveys a lifestyle so radiant that the gilded figures of Winged Victory and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in a nearby statue now look as if they are hurrying across Grand Army Plaza to buy a condo whose golden surroundings will suit them perfectly.

In December, after 98 years in which not even goddesses or war heroes could take permanent possession of any of the hotel's rooms, the Plaza's new owners, Elad Properties, began marketing 182 luxury apartments. So began the formal transformation of the storied hotel rooms on the Central Park and Fifth Avenue sides of the building into private condos.

The Plaza, a French Renaissance-style landmark, has had personal resonance for generations of New Yorkers, and the urge to own even a scrap of the hotel is so powerful that bidding was brisk on Wednesday at a Christie's auction of Plaza bric-a-brac like martini glasses. So while some in the neighborhood feel a profound sense of loss at the selling off of the hotel's plum rooms, for buyers of the new condos, the chance to possess a grand chunk of city history can be thrilling.

"To own a piece of the Plaza, that's the main thing," said Barbara Girard, a native New Yorker who made sure she was one of the first to make the trip up the red carpet on Central Park South for a sales presentation. "How special is that?"

Ms. Girard, who was married at the hotel in the 1960's, signed a contract in January to buy a two-bedroom apartment near the top floor, which she plans to connect to a one-bedroom that her mother bought next door.

Living in a private apartment within a hotel building will be, Ms. Girard said, "like a fairy tale" because it will combine the best of two lifestyles. "We have all the hotel services we need, plus all the hotel guests coming in and out, and that is lively," she said. "And then you have your privacy in your residence as well."

With Plaza condos selling from $2.2 million to about $40 million, buyers like Ms. Girard would seem unlikely candidates to elicit grumbles of "There goes the neighborhood." But that is the sentiment among some nearby residents.

Bonnie Roche, an architect who lives four blocks south of the hotel, said that once the Plaza reopened next year, she would resent the building every time she walked past, even though its owners insist that beloved spaces like the Palm Court will remain open to the public as restaurants and shops. "You're going to know that the only rooms you could ever rent are the ones facing 58th Street, not the park, so that dream is lost," Ms. Roche said, referring to the shrinking of the hotel from 800 rooms to 282. "It's not the grand gesture of arms open. It's going to be the whole sense of tight manipulation and of commerce."

In the opinion of Ms. Girard, who as an owner will come and go freely through the private marble-and-bronze lobby on 59th Street, some neighborhood griping is inevitable. "There's going to be a lot of envy from the other buildings around there," she said.

But some in the immediate vicinity of the Plaza are, in fact, eagerly awaiting the $350 million polishing of the area's crown jewel, which had deteriorated. "You know we'll have nice neighbors because the price of the apartments is supposed to be quite high," said Boris Lipovsky, a retired doctor who lives nearby on Central Park South.

Other neighbors predict that the influx of wealthy residents will improve their daily lives by attracting specialty food stores to the building's new retail space. "I just pray every night for Balducci's," said Lynda Wiggins, a real estate broker who rents an apartment on West 58th Street.

But one businessman wondered if the new multimillion-dollar condos might spell trouble. "You might get people in there who might not want carriages around," said Tom Kelly, a top-hatted carriage driver standing with his horse near the statue of General Sherman. "And there's a slight odor problem here."

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