Depau Row in the 1890s -- New York Historical Society The Mills House -- Avery Library
In 1896 Mills razed the houses and began construction on Mills House #1, employing architect Ernest Flagg. His choice of Flagg resulted from the architect's progressive interest in advancing sanitation and health through his designs. For improved ventilation Flagg employed two ten-story airshafts, or smoking courts, covered with huge glass skylights that could be opened or shut as the weather demanded. The walls of the 1,554 rooms did not meet the ceiling in order to enable air circulation throughout.
Each small, clean room was offered for 20 cents a night. Social reformer Jacob Riss commented that "His room is small, but the bed for which he pays twenty cents is clean and good. Indeed, it is said that the spring in it was made by the man who made the springs for the five-dollar beds in the Waldorf-Astoria..." For the cost of a room the men could also enjoy smoking and writing rooms, a library, "baths when he feels like taking one," and a laundry to wash his clothes. By offering these free distractions Mills hoped to divert the men from less appropriate pasttimes like saloons or worse.
Although he was giving the men a helping hand, Darius Mills insisted that they help themselves. "No patron," he said at the opening ceremony, "will receive more than he pays for, unless it be my hearty good-will and good wishes. It is true that I have devoted thought, labor and capital to a very earnest effort to help him, but only by enabling him to help himself." He had no intention of encouraging sloth -- every resident should be out during the day either working or seeking work. For that reason the hotel was locked from 9 am until 5 pm.
For decades Mills' pioneering concept of helping men by enabling them to help themselves rather than by giving charity flourished at Mills House #1 and the two subsequent Mills Houses.
In the 1970s the building at 160 Bleecker was converted to apartments; however the facade remains virtually untouched including the deeply overhanging copper cornice with its graceful scrolled iron supports. Inside, the roomy courtyards and great glass skylights survive -- reminders of a time a century ago when men, hard on their luck, found an affordable place to stay.