What began as a trickle has become routine for Joseph Kinney, the chief building engineer and unofficial historian for the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel, whom we profiled in November 2014. Several times a week, Kinney escorts visitors from around the world on a tour of the two hotel rooms and art deco surroundings where the father of alternating current power, Nikola Tesla, lived for the last 10 years of his life.
But Kinney’s tour will soon include a few new stops. Construction is almost complete on a history exhibit in the hotel’s lower lobby. This will celebrate the New Yorker’s connection to Tesla, as well as its former role as the world’s most technically advanced building when it opened on 2 January 1930. (The other new stop will be a peek inside an underground bar that will incorporate an old bank vault—the vault was used as a location for such films as Denzel Washington’s Inside Man and Will Smith’s I Am Legend.)
In 2008, IEEE recognized the hotel’s technological past by declaring it a Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing for the 1929 installation of what was then the largest private power plant in the United States. Steam-driven, the plant was capable of supplying electric power for 35,000 people, with excess steam used for heating. Somewhat ironically, given Telsa’s contributions to AC, the plant produced direct current. After the inventor took up residence at the New Yorker in 1933, “one can only imagine Tesla down in the boiler room asking to see it and giving advice on ways to improve the systems,” says Kinney, a 63-year-old bespectacled man with a professorial air.
Kinney believes that the history exhibit will reflect the hotel and New York City’s past, both in good times and bad. “Tesla is the best-known historical connection, but the building hosted concerts by all the great big bands, was a last unforgettable experience for many GIs who were heading to Europe to fight in World War II, and is where notable happenings occurred,” he says. (Among the photos are those of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King sitting side by side at a luncheon for the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1956 and Muhammad Ali recovering in suite 2549 after his defeat by Joe Frazier at nearby Madison Square Garden in 1971.)
For Tesla aficionados, the exhibit will include Serbian sculptor Bojan Mikulic’s recently commissioned bronze bust of the inventor. It will also have several rarely seen photos of Tesla at the hotel and images of personal items such as hats, pens, and cigars left in the inventor’s rooms following his death. The miniature museum will also reflect some of the other once-cutting-edge technologies used in the New Yorker’s early years, which should make it something of a dieselpunk mecca: The artifacts on display will speak to a telephone system that once required 95 operators, elevator cars that rose at almost 245 meters per minute, a 42-chair barbershop, and the world’s largest electric laundry and dishwashing systems. Interactive kiosks are planned that will allow visitors to listen to big band music and other historical broadcasts made from the hotel.
This article originally appeared in print as “High Tech Deco.”