The Plaza Hotel on Central Park has been a distinctive part of New York City’s architecture for a century. It is styled as a French Renaissance structure of early 20th century wealth. For decades, the Plaza has been a gathering place for the wealthy and influential, from Alfred Vanderbilt to Alfred Hitchcock. Since then, the hotel has maintained its status as a stomping ground for the well-to-do. It has been the setting for many movies and home to the fictional character Eloise.

The Plaza’s lavish public rooms recall Edwardian architecture, and in the Oak Room, the hotel’s oldest intact interior, little has changed since its opening day in 1907. However, for the 805 rooms, 500 bathrooms and 10 elevators, the splendor was beginning to fade. Over the past decades, the building has been on the decline, in need of major renovation that was deemed too costly by a series of owners. Revenue had been dropping off.

The hotel closed its doors April 30, 2005, to make way for a $400 million construction renovation that will bring the building into its second century in New York. Only about 130 of the Plaza’s rooms will remain as a hotel. The upper floors will be condominiums. Restaurants and retail space will fill the rest of the building.

When the Plaza’s multimillion-dollar renovation is complete, the hotel will include a spruced-up Palm Court and Oak Room plus 160,000 square feet of retail space. There will be 181 condos, 130 traditional hotel rooms renting for up to $1,275 a night, and 152 condo-hotel units whose owners will live in them for up to 120 days a year.

The Plaza’s former registration area and lobby, on the Central Park South side of the first floor, will serve as the entrance to the condos. The new hotel will be reached from the Rose Room, a high-ceilinged space that once housed a nightclub off the hotel’s Fifth Avenue lobby.

Who’s who?

Owner Elad Properties hired Gal Nauer Architects and Costas Kondylis & Partners, both architecure firms of New York City, to convert the building into something that reflects the 21st century and updating much of its offerings, all the while protecting and preserving the hotel’s grandeur.

Three electrical contractors are on the job: Five Star Electric Corp. of Ozone Park, N.Y.; Northgate Electric Corp., New York; and Forest Electric Corp., New York.

In 2005, Five Star Electric, one of the largest electrical contractors in New York City, joined with Tishman Construction Corp., the project’s construction manager. Five Star inspected the existing utilities, main distribution boards and feeders. The goal was to see whether the company could salvage much of the existing infrastructure, while complying with the local codes and maintaining design intent, according to Natan Cohen, project executive, Five Star Electric.

Five Star Electric’s $30 million work includes providing the electrical upgrades and restoration and renovation for the condos, retail space, landmark areas and luxury hotel rooms. This included the light, power, fire alarm, security, telecommunication and fiber optic systems.

Five Star Electric installed the hotel’s audiovisual systems and new security system, which included door contacts, card readers and more than 100 cameras. Electricians also installed the fire alarm system running throughout the hotel and retail portion.

Gary Segal, Five Star Electric president, said electricians on the project peaked at about 100 men, and they installed more than 1 million feet of cable and more than 5,000 lighting fixtures.

According to Cohen, everything was ripped out of the retail section and condo units, and Five Star Electric’s workers then ran new wire throughout the section that accounted for about two-thirds of the building. They also ran all new wire through the hotel section of the building.

“In the Palm Court, we are providing new feeders, panels and branch work,” Cohen said. “We are installing some new light fixtures as well as the existing chandeliers that were refurbished specifically for the job. At the Oak Room, we surveyed existing conditions and will be directed to replace all ‘old, inadequate wiring.’”

Forest Electric, another large New York City electrical contracting firm, took on the electric infrastructure for the hotel. Forest Electric has a $10 million contract with Tishman Construction. The company came on the site in February 2006 and expects to be finished after January 2008. Forest Electric had 35 men on the site at peak.

Forest Electric’s task included installing the residential electrical infrastructure with two new 4,000A bus ducts to serve the residential units throughout the building. Workers installed five new service switchboards and refurbished two existing 350-kW generators and provided new parallel switchgear back to house lighting, power and a new fire alarm system. Altogether, Forest Electric ran thousands of feet of large (No. 600 – No. 1/0) feeder cable.

Forest Electric added something else to the project: a value-engineering scope change order, said Michael D’Amico, Forest Electric’s vice president.

“Our engineering department redesigned the electrical distribution system, stepping it up to 277/480 volt,” he said, adding that this saved the owner about $700,000.

As the third contractor on the job, Northgate Electric already is accustomed to high-end design, said Northgate owner Marty Bass. In the case of the Plaza, he said, “This is truly high end.”

Northgate Electric provided all electrical services for the two-story Grand Ballroom, meeting rooms, bridal suite and kitchen for ballroom general contractor Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston.

The ballroom and the meeting rooms seat 300 to 400 people each. Northgate Electric, with project manager George Ingson and foreman Mike Brown, ran power from the basement conduit installed by Five Star Electric. Northgate Electric also refurbished ballroom chandeliers and other fixtures. Any damage would not be tolerated because of the building’s landmark status. For that reason, Bass said, his electricians—about a dozen at peak—needed surgical precision to work on the intricate chandeliers.

Northgate Electric also installed new dimming boards for the ballrooms and fire alarms to replace the existing system.

Checking in

The challenges for the electrical crew included working on a New York City landmark building with a very high-profile status. Because the building has been designated a landmark structure, the New York City Landmark Preservation Committee oversees the work and ensures historical integrity remains. The mixed usage of hotel, residential and retail added another layer of complexity, but the contractors were up for the challenges.

“Everyone has acted professionally, they have been very cooperative,” D’Amico said of the rest of the construction team. Coordination of the work and timing of installations made that good teamwork a must.

“Areas of the building have undergone major demolition,” he said, and some residents even began returning to the building, which made coordination of the work that much more difficult.

The nature of the work and the tight schedule made this project interesting, said Five Star superintendent Richard Squillari.

“Every day is an adventure. Between the owner, construction manager, and architect and engineers, we had to work very well together,” he said. “The owners and the designers decide that they want to upgrade an area, a ceiling, etc., and they want it done immediately so as not to hold up the forward progress of the job. They direct us. We do it on the fly and then have the paperwork follow. So far, it has worked out well for all of us involved.”

In October 2007, with the Plaza’s 100th birthday looming, the hotel accelerated the already aggressive building schedule. For the birthday party, Five Star Electric brought historical rooms back to their original appearance. On the exterior, Five Star Electric provided a low-voltage computerized lighting system with colored LEDs to create different effects on the facade.

The celebration included fireworks, a display of the exterior colored lighting, and entertainers such as Paul Anka and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. All of this gave the city a glimpse at some of the changes taking place at the Plaza.

Five Star Electric’s Segal, who attended the event, said, “It was an amazing tribute to an amazing landmark.”

At press time, tenants were moving into the building, and more than 90 percent of the Plaza’s condos had been sold. The project was expected to be completed by February 2008.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.