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Pennsylvania Six Five Oh Oh OH!
July 28, 2014 7:16 AM   Subscribe

The oldest still-working telephone number in New York City is at least 80 years old. And you've probably heard of it: Pennsylvania 6-5000. It's the number of the Pennsylvania Hotel. Built in 1919 as a grand luxury destination, it has inspired a movie and a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Dada artwork, and of course became immortalized in song.

With music written by Jerry Gray and lyrics by Carl Sigman, here's Glenn Miller's famous rendition. Here's The Andrews Sisters. Judy Garland and Martha Raye. Brian Setzer. And because no Metafilter post is complete without Muppets, here's Bobby Benson's Baby Band. Erasure tipped their hat to it, too.

Developers bought the historic hotel, planning to tear it down and build 15 Penn Plaza, a skyscraper just 34 feet shorter than the Empire State Building - and to reopen the subway transfer tunnel connecting Penn Station and Herald Square. Preservationists rallied at the last moment, but no one seemed to care and they failed to achieve Landmark Protection status. But the economy soured and the plan fell apart, and now the developer says they plan to refurbish the hotel after all.

Is this good news or bad? On the one hand, the Hotel Pennsylvania has long been the official hotel of the Westminster Dog Show across the street at Madison Square Garden, hosting between 600-800 dogs over Westminster weekend. On the other hand, it's pretty generally accepted to be a dump. As Dave Barry described it, "the walls, ceiling and floor appeared to be made of compressed grime." And okay, it's on the bedbug registry - twice. But it sure was nice in its heyday.

(Previously on AskMetafilter: Is this really the worst hotel in NYC or is this all just hyperbole?)
posted by Mchelly (40 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also the site of the bi-annual (every two years) Hackers On Planet Earth conference, organized by the publisher of 2600 magazine. Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden were the keynote speakers this year - conference was just a week ago. Also the site of a mefi meetup in 2008.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:22 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


Cool!

In this context is Pennsylvania PE or PA?
posted by dirtdirt at 7:25 AM on July 28


Oh, from the article (and common sense, I suppose) - it's PE.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:26 AM on July 28


PE. (I left that link out, but I probably should have included it).
posted by Mchelly at 7:27 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


When we moved my mom to a memory-care facility last month, we ended-up selling-off her property, which included cancelling her landline. That phone number had been with us since 1960 or so. It began as a party line! It was, in a very real sense, a part of the family identity. I was unexpectedly sentimental about killing the number. It was like putting-down the old family dog.
FLeetwood, in case you're wondering
posted by Thorzdad at 7:29 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


HOPE is always a good time. In the ballrooms on the top floor, there is a frames record & sheet music for the Glen Miller song.
posted by dr_dank at 7:29 AM on July 28


Our landline is mostly a conduit of telemarketers and wayward bill collectors, but I like that its 547 prefix derives from the old LIncoln exchange name, with our neighborhood around Lincoln Park in DC.
posted by exogenous at 7:36 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I've stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania (late 1990s). With every step I took into the building, the promise of the facade faded and the dinginess grew. It looked a little shabby at the check-in desk, but once you were in the halls out of sight, wallpaper slumped and dripped. Carpets shredded and bumped. The key to the room needed to be wiggled. Sludge came out of the faucet. There was an unpleasing brown tone to the tub. The window was grey with ... something. When I put my suitcase on the desk-like-thing, it shuddered. I barely slept ... on top of my coat (thank goodness it was the winter!) on a bedspread that was cleaner than the sheets. I checked out at 4 am and went to the office, so I could sleep more comfortably at my desk. The clerk was not surprised I was cutting my stay short.
posted by julen at 7:43 AM on July 28


Oh, from the article (and common sense, I suppose) - it's PE.

Yes, the text that went with exchanges was the first two letters of the word or phrase -- the one that many people still remember for NY was MUrray Hill, or 68X. (This was the exchange for Ricky and Lucy's phone number on I Love Lucy.) So the mnemonic PEnnsylvania would have been PE, for the numbers starting with 73X.

I still sometimes think of my parents' telephone number (in NY state's Hudson Valley) as JOseph 2-xxxx (for 562-xxxx), which is how I learned it as a child in the 60s. Though because of suburban sprawl they have a different area code than they did when I was growing up, which makes my inner child cranky.
posted by aught at 7:51 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I stayed there in the summer of 1973, when it was the Statler Hilton. I was in working across the street at #2 Penn Plaza, sharing a room with a classmate for $50 a week. Not a bad place then, and we must have stayed in 20 rooms. (By mid-week, we could often trade up to a corner room in the upper half)
This allowed me to understand one thing about the Watergate scandal- John Dean got cross-examined about his meeting with Herb Kalmbach when he said it was in the coffee shop at the Mayflower Hotel (in DC) and they jumped all over him with proof that he had been in NYC at the time, staying at the Statler Hilton, threatening to discredit his whole testimony.
But I knew the source of the confusion- the coffee shop at the S-H was called The Mayflower.
posted by MtDewd at 8:10 AM on July 28


On the other hand, it's pretty generally accepted to be a dump.

If the structure is solid -- and in these old buildings, they tended to be very overbuilt -- then all the dumpiness can be dealt with by gutting the interiors of the rooms and rebuilding. There are other issues though. The rooms are probably smaller than modern hotel rooms.* You can deal with this, by knocking out walls, but that cuts the number of rooms and often leaves interesting things like pillars in the middle of the room. Modern hotels are expected to have internet, but in these old palaces, you're doubly damned -- there's not much in the way of wiring chases to get cable through, and they tend to have large amounts of steel that makes wireless hard.

Elevators may be another issue as well -- if the current elevator shafts are big enough, then it is easy to build new ones, but if they're tiny, then you have a major problem. Usually, though, in these old hotels there are actually more than enough stairwells, and if you have a couple of big ones, you can build elevator shafts in those.

The biggest problem, often, is getting these things up to code in power and fire protection. Many cities will grandfather old buildings to an extent, but when you do a rehab, you're required to bring the building up to code. That alone has condemned more than one building, esp. if that old building doesn't have much in the way of fire risers and sprinkler systems, which means you literally gut it to frame-and-floor to install those first.

Clearly, a well run hotel in Manhattan should be able to make money.

I'm always glad when we can save these grand old buildings -- so much went into building them, and we have enough glass covered square towers in the world. But it is a very much no a trivial effort to turn a building built in 1919 into a hotel that meets modern standards of comfort and safety.

This is a large building too -- 1700 rooms.

As to the song. I knew one group that in the verses would sing "Seven Three Six Five Thousand" instead off "Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand." This, of course, is the correct number, minus area code, because there's no way to wedge a "two one three" into that without wrecking it.

That's why the number I will always remember from my childhood does not have "1-800" in it.**


* Though it appears these rooms have already been made larger than originally built, cutting 500 rooms out of the original 2200.

** Back during this hotel's glory days, it probably would have been Juniper 3-2300, but I knew it, of course, as 588-2300. This either means something to you, or it doesn't, and it really depends on how old you are and where you were growing up.

Also, in these early days, Chicago had a couple of unusual exchanges -- 975, 977 and 971. (There might be more.) 55x, 57x, 77x, 95x, and 97x were rarely assigned because those keys don't have vowels, thus making exchange names harder. However, 97X was used in Chicago as WRigley-X. San Francisco's famous KLondike X-XXXX is another example (55x-xxxx) though they lost that later when KLondike because the official "Not actually a valid number" exchange, a policy we see today in films and TV shows with 555-XXXX numbers.

I miss the old exchange names. I think they made numbers easier to remember and have a certain style that our modern string-of-ten-digits doesn't.
posted by eriko at 8:25 AM on July 28 [9 favorites]


Stayed there on my first ever visit to the USA, about a month after the fateful events of September 2001.

Of course there was some trepidation involved, despite being European and thus somewhat used to random things getting blown up by terrorists (albeit on a much smaller scale).

This trepidation soon disappeared, however, when I discovered that there were two conferences going on in the hotel while I was there. The first was some sort of state police get-together, the second was a national Muslim council whose name I forget. So with the place full of both cops and Muslims I decided that it was pretty safe from Muslim extremists.

Anyway, great hotel in a great location, although some toe-rag that worked there did use our credit card number to buy some stuff after we left.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:29 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


It may be somewhat of a dump, but it is extremely important as it seems to be the only venue practical to host events like HOPE. When it looked like the building was threatened, people on the 2600 mailing lists tried to find another place that could combine affordable rooms and meeting rooms for 1,000+ people. Nowhere in NYC seemed feasible.
posted by Sophont at 8:34 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Back during this hotel's glory days, it probably would have been Juniper 3-2300, but I knew it, of course, as 588-2300. This either means something to you, or it doesn't, and it really depends on how old you are and where you were growing up.

I knew it only with the 800 in front, but there's a reel of older commercials here.


I miss the old exchange names. I think they made numbers easier to remember and have a certain style that our modern string-of-ten-digits doesn't.

Allan Sherman had a protest song about the change.
posted by Shmuel510 at 8:44 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


it has inspired a movie and a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Dada artwork, and of course became immortalized in song.

Oh, and one more item for your cultural roundup: riffing off the Bugs Bunny "Transylvania 6-5000", the Carol Burnett show did a production number of that parody title, complete with a full chorus of dancers in Dracula costumes. (Sorry, I can't find it online, and yes, I'm slightly embarrassed that I remember this. It was an early of example of "Once seen, can never be unseen.")
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:46 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


San Francisco's famous KLondike X-XXXX is another example (55x-xxxx) though they lost that later when KLondike because the official "Not actually a valid number" exchange, a policy we see today in films and TV shows with 555-XXXX numbers.

If I recall correctly, Homer Simpson's snow-plow service used KLondike 5 as an exchange prefix.
posted by aught at 8:50 AM on July 28


I'm still haunted, probably 25 years since I last watched WUAB Channel 43, by the jingle for a Cleveland siding company: Garfield 1 23-23
posted by Flashman at 8:54 AM on July 28


One of the organizers of HOPE X said from the podium that Hackers on Planet Earth were partially responsible for saving the hotel. At the time, I couldn't help but wonder why anyone would be so attached to such a place.
posted by brina at 8:57 AM on July 28


I'm surprised some folks haven't gone retro and started listing their numbers as TEmpleton 5-1234. ...because it's a lot cooler sounding.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:11 AM on July 28


Riffing off the Bugs Bunny "Transylvania 6-5000", the Carol Burnett show did a production number of that parody title, complete with a full chorus of dancers in Dracula costumes.

Of which, also, the Jeff Goldblum/Geena Davis flick which is sort of a mess of a goofball comedy but also pretty charming and which has some great physical comedy from Michael Richards and is just completely made for me by this one little throwaway deadpan ringing phone joke.
posted by cortex at 9:27 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I'm old enough to remember looking for my aunt's phone number in my mom's address book, and seeing it written out starting with HI-6 ('HIckory 6', according to my mom). Also old enough to remember when 212 was the only area code for all of NYC.
posted by bashos_frog at 9:37 AM on July 28


Thorzdad: "When we moved my mom to a memory-care facility last month, we ended-up selling-off her property, which included cancelling her landline. That phone number had been with us since 1960 or so. It began as a party line! It was, in a very real sense, a part of the family identity. I was unexpectedly sentimental about killing the number. It was like putting-down the old family dog.
FLeetwood, in case you're wondering
"

I ported an old long time family number to a cell phone where it sits essentially parked for some reason yet to be determined. I do sometimes get the drunk call from an old friend wanting to see if the number still works.
posted by 724A at 9:37 AM on July 28


"Transylvania 6-5000"

Also the Bugs Bunny cartoon continues the riff on Perth Amboy, NJ - which was where my grandmother grew up and lives and always werided me out to hear a random small NJ town I visited a lot mentioned in an old cartoon.
posted by The Whelk at 9:44 AM on July 28


I stayed at Hotel Penn a few years back over New Years - Phish was playing at MSG, literally right across the street from the hotel. The room was cheap, and we got what we paid for.

In one of the reviews I found online before our stay, I found instructions for accessing the roof- go to such and such a floor, look for this unmarked door, etc. Seeing a great concert that night and drinking beers into the wee hours with a perfect view of the Empire State Building on that rooftop is one of the highlights of all NYC experiences I've had. If you find yourself staying at the Penn, definitely check it out.
posted by stinkfoot at 9:46 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


The chain-link fence outside of my house still has the placard with the name and (6-digit) phone number of the contractor that installed it ("Long's Fence," who are still in business, albeit with a slightly shorter name).
posted by schmod at 9:54 AM on July 28


Written on the wall in the back of my shop where the shop phone must have been back in the day, is a whole slew of these numbers for long gone local businesses.
posted by boilermonster at 10:25 AM on July 28


> I'm surprised some folks haven't gone retro and started listing their numbers as TEmpleton 5-1234. ...because it's a lot cooler sounding.

The increasingly common nine digit number format makes it unwieldy. 1-919-RAleigh-5-0000 doesn't roll off the tongue. And it would conflict with the popular commercial strategy of using spellable phone numbers like 1-919-LOL-BUTS
posted by ardgedee at 10:33 AM on July 28


I just realized my childhood landline's exchange name started with FU. Oh the missed opportunities.
posted by whuppy at 10:34 AM on July 28


schmod: "The chain-link fence outside of my house still has the placard with the name and (6-digit) phone number of the contractor that installed it ("Long's Fence," who are still in business, albeit with a slightly shorter name)."

A shorter name than Long's Fence? Short's Fence?
posted by 724A at 10:35 AM on July 28


Awww that's my Ask referenced in the post up there!

I did not ultimately stay there.
posted by thereemix at 10:40 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I think they're hanging on to that claim of being the oldest phone number in New York City just because nobody is challenging them on it. But certainly, many other businesses that have been around for over 80 years are likely to have kept their numbers during all that time. For example, the Plaza hotel's number is 759-3000, where the 75 stood for PLaza, the exchange being named for the Grand Army Plaza that's next to the hotel. I bet they've had the same number since the 1930s as well. Here's a guess from the New York Times that the oldest Manhattan number might be one in the format 777-0xxx or 777-00xx.
posted by beagle at 10:58 AM on July 28


Tangentially related: Telephone EXchange Name Project
posted by superna at 11:16 AM on July 28


When we moved my mom to a memory-care facility last month, we ended-up selling-off her property, which included cancelling her landline. That phone number had been with us since 1960 or so. It began as a party line! It was, in a very real sense, a part of the family identity. I was unexpectedly sentimental about killing the number. It was like putting-down the old family dog.

posted by Thorzdad at 10:29 AM on July 28


Thorzdad, I had the exact same reaction when I had to cancel my dad's landline. My mother (who died a couple of years before Daddy went into a nursing home) had that phone number from before she and my father got married, so it was something like fifty-odd years old.

Mom got the phone # when she and her older sister were roommates after her older sister divorced. When I finally had to cancel it, my cousins were all "Noooooo that was our first phone number!"

I'm sure it's been reassigned by now, but sometimes I toy with asking my cell carrier if I could get it back.
posted by magstheaxe at 11:18 AM on July 28


I grew up in a little town, and growing up, folks regularly said their number was (and dialed it as) 3-1234 instead of the modernized all-digit 823-1234 or whatever the word 82 mapped to .
posted by julen at 12:23 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


I was born in a small town of under 1,000. Our phone numbers made use of the local shortcut, too. We didn't have to dial any of the exchange, just the last four digits. My first phone number was 4050. When Dad moved to a slightly larger rural town with similar exchange shortcuts, our phone number was 7-5733.

On the other side of the state, Boston for many years had a carpet cleaning company which made use of its phone number in its jingle:

How many cookies did Andrew eat? Andrew ate eight thousand
How do you keep your carpets neat? Call ANdrew 8-8000


If you ask locals of a certain age how many cookies Andrew ate, their faces will light up and they will sing the song for you. Other locals will ignore you, but that's Boston.
posted by Spatch at 1:50 PM on July 28


Eriko, I think Empire Carpet was more of whether you had cable growing up, more than where you grew up. I also know the non 1-800 version, but that's just because of WGN.
posted by hwyengr at 2:18 PM on July 28


The increasingly common nine digit number format makes it unwieldy.

Ten.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:21 PM on July 28


I'm 31 so I only know about these exchanges because of 1) that song, 2) The Simpsons, which used 'KL5-' for in-show ads in the earlier years, and 3) a local Kansas City commercial that was commissioned in the 1950s and ran with only minor editing via a cheap chiron effect through the mid-1990s

I'd be all zany and use a fake exchange name for my current phone number but, alas, it starts with '90'
posted by maus at 4:08 PM on July 28


When I was a kid, our exchange was FAirfax. The number was FA4-5403. The number was changed during some telecom upgrade, and eventually even the area code changed. I think I'll give it a tray, anyway.

Also, would you children please stay off the lawn?

Geezering is fun.
posted by theora55 at 5:08 PM on July 28


> Ten.

This really happened: I'd originally written the example number as 1-919-RAleigh-0000, counted the digits and wrote down "nine", and posted. Looked at the number again thinking, "that doesn't seem right," realized I'd missed the third digit of the exchange. Edited the comment to add that but forgot about the miscount.

tl;dr: derp.
posted by ardgedee at 3:02 AM on July 29


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