Monday, May 2, 2011

The 1904 Hotel Woodward -- Broadway at 55th Street

The Hotel Woodward in the 1930s -- postcard from author's collection
In Nathan E. Clark’s mind in 1902 the dynamic corner of Broadway and 55th Street needed a hotel for the financially comfortable that would provide both long-term apartments and transient lodging. He contracted architect George F. Pelham to design a twelve-and-a-half-story structure in the fashionable Beaux Arts style.

Pelham, whose offices were at 503 Fifth Avenue, produced an imposing structure that took full advantage of its corner site. Three floors of rusticated limestone supported a red brick and stone mass that rose to a nearly-vertical slate mansard roof. The curved, slightly projecting corner above the third floor gave the illusion of a tower, while an ornate bracketed cornice between the 10th and 11th floors, a string of stone balconies at the 4th floor and lavish dormers created a Parisian flavor.

As the building neared completion Clark gave hotel owner Robert Graham Woodward a 21-year lease at $54,761 a year in August of 1903. The new Hotel Woodward was completed a year later at a cost of $400,000.

Within a few years, Henry Ford was taking the country by storm with the new automobile. In 1909 the Model T came in first place in a race from New York to Seattle, completing the 4100 miles over dirt roads in 22 days and 55 minutes – an average of an astonishing 7.75 miles per hour.

By the onset of World War I the Broadway area around the hotel was the center of the automobile industry – being popularly known as Automobile Row from 50th to 59th Streets. The hotel became the club quarters for the Automobile Dealers’ Association and its public rooms were hub of meetings and conventions.

In June 1916 the Ford Motor Company purchased the adjoining lot on Broadway between 54th and 55th Street for around $500,000. Later that year, after intense discussions with hotel proprietor Thomas D. Green, Ford Motor representatives announced plans for a dual-purpose, 16-story building. The anticipated $1.5 million structure would be house the headquarters of Ford in the three lower levels and basement, while the existing hotel would be enlarged by the upper 13 stories. The main entrance to the Woodward would remain on 55th Street.

The deal was completed with a handshake.

With the new building, the hotel would obtain another 300 rooms, each with its own bath, more than doubling its capacity. Green immediately set about ordering furnishings and carpets for the much-needed new space.

Unfortunately Henry Ford changed his mind.

Because increased cost of war-time building materials would inflate the original construction costs by about a third, Ford instructed his architect, Albert Kahn, to reduce the scale from a 16-stories to six. The new projected cost was now $300,000. And Thomas Green’s dreams of a bigger hotel were dashed.

In August 1917 Green filed suit against the Ford Motor Company for $1.5 million in damages. David had taken on Goliath.

Meanwhile, the well-to-do continued to reside at the imposing hotel. Here William H. Pleasants, President of the Ocean Steamship Company lived for many years as did the wealthy Mrs. Lydia C. Chamberlaine. When Mrs. Chamberlaine died here in 1920, the opinionated dowager left $500,000 to Iowa University – with the strict stipulation that the money could not be used for “law, medicine, dentistry or theological courses.”

Finally in 1921 Thomas Green had his day in court. Federal Judge Learned Hand ruled in favor of the Hotel Woodward Company in its suit against Ford Motors. At the close of on June 17 Green was handed at check for $657,229.94.

As with many hotels, the Great Depression struck a crushing financial blow. In 1939 the Bowery Savings Bank purchased the hotel at auction in a foreclosure action. By now it consisted of the original corner structure and a 7-story adjacent building. A year later $200,000 was spent in modernization and redecorating; what The Times called “one of the largest jobs in hotel modernization in recent years.”

With the automobile industry long gone and the Broadway theatre district firmly established, the Woodward was now attracting members of the entertainment industry. At the time of the renovations the operatic tenor Lionel Robsarte was living here as well as Nate Leipzig, the President of the American Society of Magicians whom The Times would call in his obituary a “master of sleight-of-hand and mystifier of kings, queens and vaudeville audiences.”

The Woodward prior to 2002 restoration -- photo by Andrew Hickes,
The Woodward was purchased in 1944 and again in 1950; however the changes in ownership did little to change the look nor the atmosphere of the familiar old hotel.

Architectural rendering of restoration provided by Andrew Hickes --
Then in the 2002 a full renovation was done by architect Alan Lanigan for Best Western Hotel. A cautious and sympathetic restoration of the exterior and a revamping of the interiors resulting in a 21st Century hotel within striking early 20th Century architecture. The Hotel Woodward is an admirable example of successfully recycling historic architecture.


  1. I have a postcard picture of this hotel from 1924 as my grandparents lived there. Very interesting article about the history thank you!

  2. I lived on the 7th floor of the Hotel Woodward from 1977-79. My room was the home of the "Cumeezi Bozo Ensemble", NYC's Resident Clown Troupe". My company members would take the elevator up to the 7th floor, enter my tiny room, and half an hour later, re-emerge as fully costumed clowns in full makeup. It was a hoot. And the desk team downstairs loved us.

    Having been an elegant Beaux Arts Hotel for decades, and later home to Art Carney, Bela Legosi, and Jayne Mansfield, by the late 70s the Woodward was a seedy residential hotel with a half way house for ex cons on the 2nd floor, but the fabulous Chin-Ya Japanese restaurant still in the lobby. Chin-Ya wood attract late night wayward and glamous patrons like Simon & Garfunkle, Mick Jagger, and many others who would come in for the delicious sushi and free-flowing sake. The ex-cons had curfew at midnight. The rest of us could stay 'til 4 am.

    Now The Woodward is the commercailized and ordinary "Dream Hotel", and the good ol days are gone forever....

    Eric Trules, Los Angeles, 2016