Ritz checks out Hotel: N.Y. landmark goes nameless in dispute over service standards.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Ronnie Lott, TV broadcaster and former Hall of Fame defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, takes the elevator down from Room 1806 and walks out onto Central Park South. He wears a black beret and a dazed look. Good evening, Mr. Lott: Tired from the flight? Blinded by the bright lights of nearby Broadway? Or is that a permanent look, from too many Sundays spent smashing helmets with Dallas Cowboys?

"Something's weird with the hotel," he says, shaking his head.

Weird, indeed. The hotel he's staying in is suddenly not the Ritz-Carlton New York, not the hotel where he made his reservation, not the hotel where rich and powerful visitors to the city have bedded since 1982. In fact, it's not the Ritz-Carlton at all anymore. The name has been dropped, abruptly and forcibly, like a wide receiver trying to run past Lott in his heyday.

"I don't want to say much else; I'll take the fifth," he says. "I went to SC [the University of Southern California]. We were the Trojans. And if you know history, you know that Trojans should be careful about getting involved in wars."

It may not be Troy vs. Greece, but there is a war on all right. And Manhattan's Ritz-Carlton -- all of New York, really -- is a casualty.

"It hurts New York, no question about it," says Larry Mugal, a 38-year-old cabbie hanging out by the hotel waiting for a fare. In these glorious days when half the city's hacks are regulars on the Letterman show, taxi drivers double as flacks for the city.

"You see, you can't have Manhattan without the Ritz," says Mugal. "I would never correct a customer, but it won't be the same the next time I pick up someone at La Guardia and they say, 'Take me to the Ritz.' "

The end of the Ritz as we know it came at 12: 01 a.m. Saturday in New York, where Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. of Atlanta was managing a facility owned by Al Anwa, the Los Angeles real estate arm of Saudi Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim. Like the Catholic Church, the Ritz does not sell franchises: the only way to get the Ritz name on your luxury dormitory is to hire its high priests -- honest-to-God Ritz managers -- to run your place.

Over the past two years, the Ritz and the sheik have filled more courtrooms than presidential suites. The Ritz claims the sheik is more than $4 million behind in payments on management fees and is allowing the four hotels he owns -- in Washington, Houston, Aspen and New York -- to fall into un-Ritz-like disrepair. The sheik, in turn, alleges Ritz-Carlton mismanaged the four hotels and allowed its employees to abuse their expense accounts.

After negotiations broke down last month, Ritz, which manages 30 hotels worldwide, made a decision unprecedented in its history: to lower the Ritz-Carlton flags, remove its managers from the sheik's hotels, and take the brand name with them.

So, as of Saturday, New York, which has already lost the lead in the American League East, lost the Ritz too.

Irreconcilable differences

"We did not do this lightly and without a lot of consideration; this is taking us out of America's biggest city," says Judy Rowcliffe, a Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman. "We've had more than 500 calls to a special 800 number over the weekend, and we know people are confused."

But in New York, Rowcliffe and two workers said, the hotel's owner refused to pay to correct basic maintenance problems, like a leaky kitchen roof that drenched a chef. "He suffered interminable water torture," she said. "We have to be allowed and permitted to manage the hotel to our standards, and that wasn't happening."

Al Anwa, of course, disagrees. Regardless, Ritz-Carlton took action, moving so fast in New York that it left identifying marks behind. The marble sidewalk at the hotel's front entrance -- with a black and white representation of the Ritz's "lion and crown" emblem -- remains cemented in place. The Ritz-Carlton bronze plate is still welded to the limestone front. A white and blue "Ritz-Carlton" banner hangs below the marquee, and bellhops' uniforms still bear the Ritz's name.

The hotel's interior, which underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation in 1993, remains as plush as ever. And the loss of its glamorous name hasn't stopped the hotel from charging $300 a night for its worst rooms, or $115 for the caviar service for two.

The fate of hotel employees so far is not certain, and those who were threatened with dismissal by a manager who followed a Sun reporter around the hotel were understandably skittish about talking. But Robyn, who works at the front desk, says she's been disoriented by the loss of name. "I don't know what's going to happen, I don't understand who's in charge, and I don't know what I'm doing," she said.

"I've worked here 15 years, and they don't tell me anything," says Norman, the hotel bartender, who talks as much with his hands as his mouth. "This is a great job, and I'd hate to lose it. I'm just a guy from Brooklyn, and famous people come here and talk to me like I'm somebody. You can't beat that."

Dealing with change

Even for those employees who felt secure in their jobs, working at a place without a name requires adjustments.

Phone operators sound like posturing rock stars: "Thank you for calling the Hotel formerly known as the Ritz," one said earlier this week, since shortened to "Thank you for calling The Hotel." Allen, the evening doorman, forgot himself Monday night. "Welcome to the Ritz," he said. By the next arrival, he'd corrected himself. "Welcome. Just welcome."

The hotel's guests learned of the name change over the weekend, when Ritz-Carlton's departing managers slipped a letter under their doors. John Eckenrode, who was visiting New York from Ruxton, was taking his with him as a keepsake.

Some hotel guests said they thought the service and upkeep had clearly slipped. Sally Montgomery, a writer from the New York suburbs, said the food, in particular, wasn't up to standard. Jeff Crane, an investment company vice president from Fresno, Calif., said the New York hotel paled in comparison to the Ritz in San Francisco.

But, like many guests, Eckenrode, the Ruxton man who owns an insurance company in downtown Baltimore, says he still enjoyed his stay in a $400 room on the 23rd floor -- even though the Ritz he checked into last Friday was the hotel without a name by the time he checked out Saturday.

"The service was impeccable," he says. "We had a great time. It was cozy ... it felt like the Ritz."

Pub Date: 8/07/97

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