|photo by priorguest.com|
The group commissioned Hiss & Weekes to design the structure which would abut McKim, Mead & White’s Italian Renaissance University Club to the south, completed a few years earlier. As is the case now, architects of the time tended to treat each commission as a stand-alone project; ignoring the possibility of sympathetic treatment of surrounding structures. Hiss & Weekes felt otherwise.
They chose a consistent Italian Renaissance design and lined up stone courses and cornices, even mirroring the five arched windows on the Fifth Avenue side. The Architectural Record of 1902 was appropriately impressed. “We all know how woefully individualistic our builders have been,” it said, “resulting in a mass of fragmentary, inharmonious, clashing architecture, no attempt being made to work in common for the sake of beauty and uniformity. This great projected hotel of eighteen stories is designed to harmonize with the adjacent University Club, which is a fine piece of architecture.”
The rising limestone hotel would be more restrained than its extravagant Beaux-Arts neighbor across the avenue; however for the entranceway the architects pulled out all the stops. The doorway gushes with elaborate sculptural ornamentation. It is capped by a broken pediment surmounted by the reclining figures of Ceres and Diana on either side of a bull’s-eye window. On either side are two double-story banded Doric pillars.
|The elaborate 55th Street entranceway -- photo best-world-hotel.blogspot.com|
There were 400 sleeping rooms, both single and en suite, and by opening day all the rooms with a Fifth Avenue frontage were taken. A banquet hall and ballroom were on the second floor, while the third floor was dedicated to private dining rooms.
The New York Times was impressed with the appointments. “The furnishings of the Gotham, while extremely rich, are far from garish. There is not the slightest striving after gaudy effects, the whole atmosphere being one of good taste.”
The wealthy and well-known began moving in immediately. Mrs. M. A. Hanna, widow of Senator Hanna, was the first resident, following closely by Senator T. C. Platt’s family.
There was, however, a problem. The Gotham sat directly across 55th Street from the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church, well within the limits that prohibited the sale of liquor in the hotel. After continued legal battles ending in failure, the hotel shrugged off the snag.
“We are in the hotel business and if our guests ask us for anything we don’t happen to have, there is nothing to prevent us from sending out and getting it,” explained manager Frank V. Bennett. “Suppose a man likes wine with his dinner, or a cocktail before it. Is there any law to stop us from getting it for him? Well, I rather think not.”
And, in fact, the hotel hired young boys fitted out with wicker baskets or milliners’ boxes, whose duties were to rush to a supply base a block from the hotel and fill guests’ orders for wine or liquor. Since the guests’ money was turned over to the off-site vendor and not the hotel, the liquor law was circumvented (although the hotel protested that “There is no attempt to evade the law.”).
Despite the clever ploy, the hurdles to getting a drink at the Gotham contributed to its foreclosure within three years of opening. In October 1908 it was put on auction, the mortgage under foreclosure being $500,000 with prior liens amounting to $2 million. The hotel, which cost about $2 million to build and between $1 and $2 million more to furnish sold for $2.45 million to Benjamin P. Cheney, President of the Hotel Holding Company.
Cheney immediately made changes. While the long-term residents stayed on, he focused more on traveling guests. And despite the troubles in its short past, the hotel still lured New York’s elite.
In the grand Louis XV ballroom on December 22, 1909 Mrs. Richard Stevens hosted her Christmas dinner for 60 guests, after which more arrived for dancing and a midnight buffet supper. Among Mrs. Stevens’ guests were Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goelet, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson, The Marquis de Beauvoir, Prince Troubetskol and Mrs. And Mrs. Clarence Mackay.
Cheney’s new management resolved the financial problems and in 1914 he sold the profitable hotel to Franklin Pettit for $3.5 million. Pettit intimated that “it probably would be resold in a short time to some wealthy investor.”
Mr. and Mrs. George Bird, who had lived in the Gotham for 12 years, were shocked when they returned to their suite of rooms on January 17, 1918 to find that $25,000 worth of jewelry had been stolen in their maid’s absence. It was a rare tarnish on the Gotham’s sterling reputation.
In 1920 the newly refurbished and redecorated hotel was sold once again, this time to Julius and William Manges for $4 million. The Manges Brothers were on a buying frenzy of Manhattan hotels – having just purchased the Hotel Cumberland, and already owning the Netherland, the Endicott, the Martha Washington, the Great Northern and the Grand.
The Great Depression delivered a crushing blow to the owners and in 1932 the hotel was once again in receivership in a $2 million foreclosure action by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Within a few years apartments were being offered, each with “serving pantry and electric refrigeration.” By 1938 the street-side restaurant was closed and five stores were opened up on the ground floor facing 5th Avenue.
|In an attempt to keep with the times, modern touches like the 1937 Alpine Room were added -- postcard from author's collection|
The Peninsula essentially gutted the building, keeping only the best of the interior details. Carol Franklin Associates was brought in to design the spaces, the hotel’s instructions being to give it “Parisian ambience.”
|The Peninsula's grand staircase after renovation -- photo Carol Franklin Associates|
The grand Gotham Hotel stands proudly once again after a century of sometimes tumultuous times.