New York’s Four Seasons Hotel has remained conspicuously closed since the start of the pandemic — and insiders say it risks staying shuttered for years because of an increasingly bizarre dispute with the billionaire founder of the Beanie Babies toy empire.
The luxury icon designed by architect I.M. Pei at 57 East 57th St. — whose lavish Ty Warner penthouse suite was charging $50,000 a night before the hotel was shuttered in March 2020 –has come to resemble an abandoned building.
The 54-story tower’s grand, Art Nouveau-inspired entryways are blocked off by metal pedestrian barricades. The flags on the French limestone facade are taken down and the front windows are covered with brown paper and ad posters.
That’s despite the fact that all of the Four Seasons’ luxury rivals — The Ritz-Carlton, The Palace, the St. Regis, The Carlyle and the Mandarin Oriental among them — reopened more than a year ago, and are reportedly doing solid if not spectacular business as demand for luxury travel returns.
Neighbors are skeptical of a claim on the Four Seasons website that the Midtown Manhattan landmark is “temporarily closed as it is undergoing substantial infrastructure and maintenance work that is expected to last well into 2022” — language that has been in place since last fall, even as the hotel told union reps it was targeting a spring 2022 reopening.
“I have never seen trucks parked outside the building hauling things out of it,” said August Ceradini, who operates Eight and a Half, the swanky restaurant in the lobby of 9 East 57th St., the posh office tower across the street. “There is not the type of activity that suggests they are reconstructing something inside.”
In fact, sources told The Post that the hotel has been held hostage by an epic contract dispute between the Four Seasons management company and Ty Warner, the reclusive toy tycoon who owns the posh high-rise. At issue is the fact that the hotel has been losing money for years — even before the pandemic struck, according to property records.
Warner — a former door-to-door encyclopedia salesman who made a fortune estimated at $3.8 billion by Forbes masterminding the Beanie Babies plush-toy craze of the 1990s — has balked at the stiff upkeep fees demanded by the Four Seasons, the sources said. In response, the hotel chain has rebuffed his request that it adjust its fees to be commensurate with the hotel’s profitability or lack thereof, according to the sources.
“It’s clear that Four Seasons and Ty Warner don’t see eye-to-eye on very much, which makes it difficult to reach an agreement and move forward,” said a source with knowledge of the situation.
Warner and the Four Seasons — which doesn’t own any of the more than 100 hotels worldwide under its banner, instead operating them for different owners — have been in talks for the past 18 months or so per a clause in their contract covering dispute resolutions, keeping the secretive negotiations out of the public eye. It’s not unusual for such cases to take years to resolve, industry experts tell The Post.
“It’s in limbo…he’s not selling the building,” another hotel insider said of Warner, estimating it would be three to four years before the hotel opens. “He’s not a distressed owner and Four Seasons has a management agreement and they are at war.”
As travel returns to the Big Apple, industry insiders wonder whether the city’s priciest hotel will ever regain its stature. As The Post previously reported, the prolonged closure is fueling speculation that 78-year-old Warner has been trying to wriggle out of his long-term contract with Four Seasons. Industry insiders say that would likely be an uphill climb.
“The owner is encumbered with an agreement — he can’t throw them out and pick Rosewood or Dorchester,” one hotel insider told The Post, referring to the owners of The Carlyle and the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, respectively.
“To me what’s more interesting is how can people have such an incredible asset and have it just sitting there,” the source added.
A representative for Ty Warner did not return calls and emails for comment. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts also did not respond to queries for comment.
Warner bought the property in 1999 for $275 million — just seven years after the hotel opened at a reported $475 million cost to its developers. At the time, the hotel was reportedly generating $30 million a year in operating income. But business has had a bumpy road since, several industry insiders tell The Post.
“Ty didn’t like the way Four Seasons was operating the hotel, because he wasn’t making any money and that was the genesis of the whole argument between them,” said Ceradini, a veteran hospitality executive and former manager of the St. Regis hotel. “From what I understand about Ty Warner’s personality, he won’t stop until he gets what he wants.”
According to city records, the Four Seasons lost money in 2018 and 2019. Many Big Apple luxury hotels saw hits to their profits during the years before the pandemic amid rising wages and increased competition from new hotels, according to Sean Hennessey, a professor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality.
“There are few things that make an owner more upset than when the property is not earning any profits yet the manager is being paid handsomely,” Hennessy said.
Another problem, according to an industry source: “The Four Seasons has a lot of rooms. They are big, and that’s challenging.”
Hotel employees have meanwhile sued Warner and Four Seasons, claiming they are “purposefully stalling the reopening” to avoid paying millions of dollars in unpaid wages and severance, according to the proposed class-action suit filed in federal court in lower Manhattan in August.
A similar lawsuit was filed in February in Santa Barbara, Calif. by employees of Warner’s still-shuttered Biltmore hotel — also a Four Seasons property — leading some to speculate that Warner is waging “guerilla warfare” against Four Seasons, according to a report by the Santa Barbara Independent. The 450 Biltmore employees say they are owed up to $8 million in severance.
The hotel is shuttered “for reasons other than what they are presenting to the plaintiffs,” the New York complaint alleges, noting that the hotel has undergone multiple renovations over the years “and has never shut down to guests.”