The 6th Avenue Elevated Train runs by the newly-completed McAlpin Hotel -- photo NYPL Collection
On Saturday July 1, 1911 the American Telephone Journal, Telephony, reported a most startling event. Frank M. Andrews, president of the McAlpin Hotel which was rising at Broadway and 34th Street, had just signed the largest telephone contract ever written. At a time when in-room telephones were essentially unheard of, the McAlpin would have 1800 phones.
“The McAlpin Hotel will be the best telephoned building in the world,” said the article, “having more telephones than many of the towns surrounding New York.”
In addition to the 1800 guest phones, there would by 17 pay phone booths, three switchboards. “As will be observed,” said Telephony, “the McAlpin is to be modern in every way.”
And modern it would be.
The hotel was the brainchild of Frank Mills Andrews who envisioned not merely the largest hotel in the world, but the most innovative. Mills not only pulled together the investors, he founded and was president of the Greeley Square Hotel Company to operate the hotel. And he designed it.
Among Andrews’ innovations was a fully-equipped miniature hospital “where cases, no matter how serious can be treated with exactly the same care as in the best up-to-date private sanatorium,” according to the Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association in January 1911. Situated on the 23rd floor so that the patients could enjoy quiet, it was outfitted with “every modern appliance known to surgery.” The surgeons and doctors who would staff the hospital were interviewed personally by Andrews.
Years later, in 1920, a Norwegian guest wrote to nurse Elizabeth P. Harmey saying “The most enjoyable part of my visit to America was the time I was sick in your care at the McAlpin.”
A Turkish bath and swimming “plunge” were planned for the 24th floor – unusual in that most such baths were located in basements with no circulation of fresh air. One floor was reserved for single women traveling alone. To prevent their being harassed, there was a separate check in desk on that floor, staffed by women, so the delicate traveler could circumvent the main lobby. All employees working on that floor were female.
And, to be fair, the 22nd Floor was designated for male guests only. Included on that floor was a clubroom with card tables and a bar.
The New York Times reported that “Perhaps the last word in specialization is the sixteenth floor, known already as the ‘Sleepy Sixteenth.’” Reserved for guests who had night jobs or for some other reason slept during the day, “the silence of night will be preserved…It is far above the noise and swirl of one of the busiest crossways in the world.”
Andrews promised that his hotel would “be a monument which will surpass in beauty any other hotel in the world; combined with this there are to be comforts of the most practical and necessary character for both the traveler and the resident.”
He continued to think outside of the box by designing retail spaces opening on to the sidewalk – a startling and financially-advantageous novel idea.
|A drugstore and candy shop were incorporated into the street level -- photo NYPL Collection|
Andrews created an imposing 25-story structure that dominated the neighborhood at the time. Sitting on a four-story base of “Bedford stone,” it rose as three side-by-side wings of buff-colored brick. The top-most floors were embellished with colorful, eye-catching terra cotta.
Costing $13.5 million – or approximately $308 million today – it was reportedly the largest hotel in the world. With a staff of 1,500 it could accommodate 2,500 guests. The hotel was completed just prior to New Year’s Eve, opening on December 30, 1912. Intending to provide “first-class accommodations at moderate prices,” according to Good Lighting and the Illuminating Engineer magazine, the room rates ranged from $1.50 to $5.00 per night.
Inside, the architect did not disappoint.
The Italian Renaissance-style lobby, the largest in the city, rose three stories and was executed in marble and Caen stone. Arched openings were supported by Breche violet marble columns and the spaces between the arches were decorated with mural paintings by T. Gilbert White who had decorated the New Haven courthouse and the Kentucky Statehouse.. The paintings represented jewels, depicted as female figures, each dressed in the color of the gem she portrayed.
Also on the first floor were the ladies’ reception room and the men’s bar and café (designed in 15th Century Italian Gothic with walnut paneling and a vaulted ceiling).
Looking down onto the main lobby was the second floor Tapestry Gallery. Here 26 tapestries from the Herter Looms were hung, depicting the military history of New York. Art critic Helen Henderson called them “important as examples of American tapestry.” Before being hung at the McAlpin, they were exhibited throughout the United States.
The second floor contained more public rooms: the men’s writing and lounging room, a café, the main dining room with its crystal chandeliers, and the banquet room with its vaulted and groined ceiling. On the 25th Floor were the ballroom and roof gardens.
Hidden away was the charming Chinese tearoom. The Steward magazine noted “the McAlpin Hotel teashop is serving a special Chinese luncheon and supper…and is proving very successful.”
That success, the magazine said, was due to the hotel’s hiring of “a number of dainty little American-born Chinese girls to serve as waitresses” as well as Chinese cooks. Until now, Chinese restaurants were considered decidedly middle-class; hotel restaurants traditionally served French cuisine. The little Chinese café was yet one more example of the hotel’s bold initiatives.
More impressive than the opulent Louis XVI-style dining room was the unusual Rathskeller located below ground in the first of three basements. Good Lighting and the Illuminating Engineer wrote “The rathskeller will be of exceptional interest to the public because of its color scheme and design. In floor area, it is said to be approximately double the size of any similar room in New York City and is designed with a series of columns supporting low-groined vaulting, the whole being constructed of polychrome terra cotta decorated in the feeling of the Spanish Renaissance.”
|The ornate terra cotta clad "Rathskeller" had become "The Grill Room" by the time this postcard was produced. The tile murals can be seen in the background. -- author's collection|
Terra cotta murals by artist Frederick Dana Marsh decorated the walls, depicting the maritime history of the city – responsible for the room’s renaming as The Maritime Grill. The space was sumptuous in color and design and created an other-worldly, fantasy setting.
Two years after opening, the hotel owners enlarged. The two 25-foot wide lots at 46 and 48 West 34th Street were purchased and a seamless addition was constructed adding 200 more rooms and another ballroom.
In 1922 the McAlpin became one of the first hotels to connect ship-to-shore radios into their telephone system so guests could speak directly to voyaging friends or relatives. Three years later a circular, glass-enclosed radio studio was installed and station WMCA was born from which, among other programs, the McAlpin Orchestra performed. “Only professional entertainers will broadcast, as it has been decided not to extend the use of the microphone to amateurs,” vowed the management.
The hotel earned unwanted publicity when, on December 23, 1933, Cuban Congressman Armando Infante was beaten by two assailants in his room.
Jamlee Hotels purchased the building in 1938 for $5.4 million, spending another $1.75 million in renovations. In 1952 Jamlee president Joseph Levy met the Tisch Brothers, Larry and Bob, at a cocktail party, according to the 2001 “Wall Street People,” and convinced them to lease the McAlpin.
The Tiches spent $1 million to modernize and rehabilitate the hotel, resulting in a 20% increase in the occupancy rate and increased room rates. Within two years Levy sold the money-making hotel to the Sheraton chain for $9 million which renamed it the Sheraton-McAlpin and then the Sheraton-Atlantic.
In the meantime, the unique Marine Grill had been closed for several years and sat vacant and dusty until 1960 when it re-opened as an unexceptional restaurant. The astounding terra cotta décor remained intact, largely unnoticed, until the mid-1970s when a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission stumbled upon it.
Before long word-of-mouth drew architectural historians to the Grill to ogle the irreplaceable interior. Unfortunately, no one bothered to nominate the one-of-a-kind space for landmark status.
|The upper floors are ornamented in exuberant polychrome terra cotta.|
|One of the rescued terra cotta murals -- photo nycsubway.org|
The building was renovated again in 2001 to condominiums, called the Herald Towers.
From the street, Frank Mills Andrews’ terra cotta encrusted Hotel McAlpin looks much as it did on opening day 1912, a dignified and handsome structure.
non-credited photographs taken by the author