The Plaza Hotel Goes Into Hiding for a Face-Lift
Angeline Blom biked to the southern half of Grand Army Plaza, between West 58th Street and Central Park South in Manhattan, and pulled out her camera. She snapped the Apple store across Fifth Avenue but not the Plaza Hotel, even though it was right in front of her.
“It’s not so pretty right now,” said Ms. Blom, 21, who is from the Netherlands and has lived in New York for seven months.
The Plaza does not look like itself. It looks too white, and the whole building is shrouded in construction mesh. But the Fifth Avenue side is a full-size, architecturally correct rendering of the Plaza’s famous face, windows and all.
The rendering, really a mural in mesh, covers 62,000 square feet, more than the area of a football field. It is made of 18 panels, each attached to the scaffolding it hides. The scaffolding went up because the Plaza’s glazed white clay bricks are being cleaned and repointed, a job expected to be finished at the end of the year. Paul Britten, who designed the banner, said the colors of the mural were chosen to match what the Plaza would look like after the face-lift.
Covering the Plaza like this brings to mind some of the larger-than-life projects executed by the artist Christo, who decorated Central Park with 7,500 orange gates in 2005. Christo has also wrapped an art museum in Switzerland, a medieval tower in Italy and the Reichstag in Berlin. Mr. Britten has never done anything like that. His company in Michigan is known for printing advertising banners for such decidedly American structures as parking garages, sports stadiums and shopping malls.
He said trompe l’oeil murals were seen far more often in Europe than in the United States. And, considering that he has been making promotional banners since he was in college, the Plaza mural was a first, at least for him: it contained no advertising.
Mr. Britten said he paid his way through the University of Detroit’s architecture school by hand-painting fraternity and sorority banners. In 1984, when the Detroit Tigers faced the San Diego Padres in the World Series, he made a 40-foot-long banner and entered a Detroit radio station’s banner contest. He placed first, winning $500 and box seats to the World Series.
Soon a friend suggested a banner for General Motors. Mr. Britten sketched the General Motors building in Detroit covered by a huge banner. He said he talked his way in to see a G. M. advertising executive who liked the idea so much that he took Mr. Britten to see the chairman of G. M. at the time, Roger B. Smith.
“I put my drawing on his desk, a banner that covered 10 stories of his building,” Mr. Britten said. Mr. Smith gave the go-ahead.
“For me, it was life-changing,” he recalled.
By the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, he had arranged to put a banner on an office building in Lower Manhattan with a tagline that was a play on E. F. Hutton’s advertising slogan. “When Liberty speaks,” the banner said, “the world listens.” But he said the deal with Hutton, a venerable investment bank, fell through, and the banner ended up on a bank in Washington.
Since then, his company has made banners for auto races in Cleveland and Detroit, for the 92nd Street Y in New York and for the London Olympics, among others.
Mr. Britten said that designing the banner took longer than printing it. “I did the drawing old-school,” he said. “I took a photograph, and I counted the bricks, every single brick from floor to floor, window sill to window sill.” A spokeswoman for the Plaza would not discuss the cost of the restoration or the mural.
Mr. Britten visited New York four times to check the measurements, but no, he did not check in. “I can’t afford to stay at the Plaza,” he said. “I have a son who lives on East 86th Street, and I stayed on an inflatable bed in his apartment.”
He watched the installation last month. “Every time they unrolled a panel, there was definitely a heart stop,” Mr. Britten said. “I was concerned: are the windows going to align left and right and are the architectural cornices going to match? I think we hit it pretty closely.”
And Ms. Blom, who said the Plaza was not pretty in Mr. Britten’s skin?
“She had to like it better than the scaffolding,” Mr. Britten said.