Photo NYPL Collection
Once Charles Frohman built the Empire Theatre at Broadway and 41st Street in 1893 the development of the entertainment district in Times Square was on.
As the theatres cropped up, developers William Rankin and Alexander Moore seized the newly-created opportunity. That same year they commissioned little-known architect George Keister to design a smart, residential hotel that could conveniently house well-to-do tourists and long-term occupants involved in the theatre.
In 1894 Keister’s hotel was completed. The tallest building in the area, it was meant to impress. A sophisticated blend of styles – Renaissance, Gothic and Romanesque – it rose 13 stories with bay windows, arches and balconies. Prominent, steep gables, reminiscent of Hardenbergh’s Dakota Apartments of a decade earlier, flanked central, exuberantly-decorated dormers.
The 362-room Hotel Gerard attracted the well-heeled, as intended. In January 1898 Colonel and Mrs. Richard Henry Savage celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in the banquet hall. High-ranking military officials attended, as well as dignitaries from Russia, Siam, Austro-Hungary and Germany. The room was the site of similar impressive gatherings for years – such as the Baltimore & Ohio’s grand dinner for 250 in 1914.
Fortune, however, would not smile on the Hotel Gerard for long.
In 1916 a fire in the kitchen ousted 350 guests in their Edwardian night clothes into the street and caused $10,000 in damages. Some trapped guests clambered over the roof of the adjoining theatre and down through the skylight. The New York Times reported that “For half an hour after the fire the orchestra looked like a refugee camp.” The women, the paper said “were almost helpless through fear.”
Although the hotel remained a favorite among the theatre set – actors Albert Phillips, Arthur Burckly, character actress Josephine Williams (who lived here 25 years) and playwright Augustin Machugh all long-time residents – the hotel was attracting a seedier clientele.
In 1921 Harriet Pendleton Hunt, “of a well-known Cincinnati family,” was arrested in her room for passing a worthless $10,000 check. On October 29, 1923 a shoot-out among convicted bank robbers took place in the ninth-floor corridors. One escaped convict, 23-year old Thomas J. Gillen, was shot three times in the stomach while six others escaped.
More trouble came for the hotel, now called the Hotel Langwell, in 1928 when Metropolitan Opera diva Mme. Marie Rappold was drugged by a thief using a passkey to her room. She reported $75,000 worth of jewelry stolen. And in 1932 resident John Evans, whom The New York Times deemed “a thug,” was arrested for pistol possession and assault.
The hotel became the site of repeated suicides. Here William James Henderson, one of America’s most influential music critics shot himself; as did Washington Seligman, the brother of Mrs. Benjamin Guggenheim. Several female guests, by the 1940s, threw themselves from their hotel windows.
During the Depression, the Langwell was lost to foreclosure and sold by the Harlem Institution at auction in 1934 for $585,000. Twelve years later when it was sold again the building was cited for numerous fire hazards as the property continued to decline. Once again, in 1950, it was taken by foreclosure and sold for $700,000.
As the Times Square area eroded, the once-proud hotel fell into decrepitude. Apartments which at one time boasted libraries and sitting rooms were now broken up to tiny single-room occupancy warrens. On January 25, 1969 a raid on the Langwell seized over $1 million in pornographic tapes.
By the time Seymour B. Durst owned it in the 1970s, it was a squalid, welfare hotel called the 123 Hotel. The New York Times complained in June of 1973 that “the city's Human Resources Administration, through its welfare arm, is placing hundreds of drug addicts, mental cases and other unstable people into some 20 seedy hotels in the Times Square area, creating sanctuaries for thieves, pimps, prostitutes and muggers who, the police say, prey on pedestrians in the Times Square district.”
With the renaissance of Times Square in the 1990s came a reprieve. In 2007 the building was renovated and restored by Korman Communities as AKA Times Square – a post residential hotel of 105 suites, including duplex penthouses with terraces.
When the building was landmarked in 1982, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that “As in 1893, the Gerard dominates West 44th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The handsome facade with carefully executed brickwork and curving bays and the striking gables and dormers make the Gerard among the most prominent buildings of the theater district.”