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Wall Street hotel adapts to help rescuers

NEW YORK (CNN) -- During the past two months, former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton dined in the ballroom of The Regent Hotel on Wall Street.

They wouldn't have recognized the place last week.

Six blocks from the World Trade Centers, the managers of the two-year-old hotel in a 160-year-old building were preparing for a busy week.

Though most of their guests had left for the day, the 144-room hotel was expecting a good number of guests when the disaster struck, said communications director Kurt Genden.

Within minutes of the collapse, people poured in the doors, seeking shelter from dust that became so deep that hotel workers used snow shovels to remove it from the front steps.

Though the hotel had no power Tuesday, guests filled it anyway. Once they checked out Wednesday, the hotel management set about trying to see where it could help, Genden said.

By Wednesday night, the location manager for a television series had found two tractor trailer-sized generators and had them delivered to the building. Management quickly converted the ballroom -- the ceiling of which is covered with the largest Wedgwood panels in the world -- into an around-the-clock relief center.

Powered with 70 percent of its normal needs for energy, the hotel became the only place within blocks able to serve hot food.

A dozen cots and two dozen beds were set up and bathrooms were opened.

Word quickly spread: "That this was the place to come for a hot meal and to catch a quick nap," Genden said.

By Thursday, the ballroom was serving 3,000 meals per day to police and rescue workers. More were delivered from the hotel to the rubble pile where they were working.

Once the hotel used up all its food, local restaurateurs donated foodstuffs, as did City Harvest, a not-for-profit charity.

Hotel workers pitched in, Genden said, many staying at the hotel until Sunday so they could be there to help. Chef John Halligan, a James Beard Award winner, set about cooking 600 pounds of chicken at a time, serving them cafeteria-style.

"It was amazing, it was absolutely amazing," Genden said. "People would literally sneak through the barricades to get down to the Regent to help."

Rescuers would often arrive to eat and, exhausted, lay their heads on the table to sleep, he said. When they awoke they'd use the bathroom to wash their faces and go back out.

"I watched people cry because it was the first rest they had gotten in days," Genden said.

The meals and naps went on until Tuesday night, when power was restored to other buildings in the area. The hotel began preparing to reopen for paying clientele.

That required extensive cleaning, since ash had blanketed the hotel and nearly everything inside it. Air conditioning ducts have been cleaned, as has bedding and curtains. Furniture has been steam cleaned.

The Regent is slated to reopen Friday, Genden said.

The hotel is an historic landmark: the ballroom is the former floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and the building used to house the Custom House and the Merchant Exchange.

This is not the first time the Wall Street location has been at the center of history. Before the building went up, the home of Alexander Hamilton, who fought for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and played a key role in defining the role of government in the national economy, stood on the site.

When it served as the Customs House, the author Herman Melville worked there.

And, though the hotel was once a bank, and contains a vault so big that it's now used as a meeting room, the building retains reminders of a meaner existence: the cells used by the Customs House for prisoners are still in the basement.

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