Monday, January 16, 2012

The Lost 1826 5th Ward Museum Hotel -- Franklin Street and West Broadway

print from D. T. Valentine's Manual, 1864 -- NYPL Collection

In 1826 the St. John’s Park area was among the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in Manhattan.  The park, anchored by the exquisite 1807 Georgian-style St. John’s Chapel, was ringed with fine brick Federal homes.
Irish-born Tom Riley realized the potential for a high-class hotel in the neighborhood.  Purchasing the property at the corner of West Broadway and Franklin Street nearby, he opened the 5th Ward Hotel in 1826.   Outside a 174-foot flagpole, visible for blocks, became an instant landmark.

Riley sought to attract an exclusive clientele for his new hotel “surrounded by residences of men of noted financial, commercial and moral standing.”  A consummate marketer, the hotelier displayed curiosities and historical artifacts in the public room.  Before long, the establishment was known as Riley’s Fifth Ward Museum Hotel.    

In the glass cases and hanging along the walls were Tecumseh’s rifle, a pipe owned by General Andrew Jackson and, according to The New York Times, “a stuffed pig that had butted a man off the Canal Street bridge, besides clubs from the South Sea Islands used by the natives in fatally attacking Capt. John Cook.”
There was a two-headed calf “eloquently stuffed,” portraits of prominent contemporary statesmen and soldiers, a silver “Indian medal” issued during the presidency of James Madison, and relics of the Revolutionary War.  Nothing was included in the collection that would offend the sensitivities of the high-class customers. 
“There was nothing there that a prim young girl might not see,’ noted The Times.
Reminiscing in 1893 in his “A Tour Around New York,” John Flavel Mines wrote “Its interior was the prototype of the modern bric-a-brac ‘saloon,’ with its paintings from the Paris Salon, except that there was nothing on the walls or in the glass cases which stood on all sides of the main room, which was reached by an ample flight of stairs and were always open to inspection, that a child might not look at and inquire about.  That was a wonderful room, indeed.”
Curiosities lined the Public Room.  Note the carefully-spaced spittoons.  -- D. T. Valentine's Manual 1864; NYPL Collection
“Riley was a connoisseur in relics,” said Mines, “and had good reason to congratulation himself on his collection.  He liked to have appreciative visitors, and his hotel was a model of respectability.”
The museum room was a favorite of school boys who would beg Riley to be allowed to roam on their way home from school.  The good-hearted Riley demanded proof that they had been good students and, if the proof was forthcoming, he let the boys in.
Riley’s greatest attraction was a broken statue of the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt.   In 1766 the city had commissioned London sculptor Joseph Wilton to execute two statues – one of Pitt and the other of King George.  The statue of the king was cast in gilded lead and weighed 4,000 pounds; the other was marble.
On the night of July 9, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was received and read in New York, citizens threw ropes around the statue of King George and pulled it down.  It was subsequently melted into bullets.
In revenge, the British soldiers smashed off the head and one arm of the Pitt statue and carted what remained to the “corporation yard,” where it was forgotten among the rubbish.

Tom Riley found and retrieved the disfigured statue in 1847.  He placed it on the Franklin Street side of the hotel with a decorative iron fence surrounding it.   Dwight’s American Magazine noted the addition of the statue to Riley’s collection that year, saying “It is even now an object of great curiosity.”
Years later, in 1898, “Leslie’s History of the Greater New York,” recounted “But on Franklin Street, just outside the basement door, stood the most interesting, if not the most slightly, relic of all.  It was the statue of Pitt, or what was left of it after the British soldiers had vented their spite on it, as representing too staunch a friend of the colonies…There it stood at least seventy years after the day of its abuse, to remind children of both smaller and larger growth of the things that happened in New York in the olden times, too apt to be forgotten amid the novel modern conditions that were just starting upon their career.”
Tom Riley retired in 1851, leasing the business which continued as a high class, museum-hotel.
Throughout its history, the public rooms of the Fifth Ward Museum Hotel were popular with political and other groups.  In March 1852 the Phoenix Building Association publicized an upcoming meeting here for citizens “desiring a Homestead.”   Sounding as though it were written a century and a half later, the advertisement in the New York Tribune said “’There is no place like home,’ is an old adage, but a true one; the force of which was never more fully felt than at the present day, when rents are so enormously high that it is almost impossible for a mechanic to pay them; besides they grow higher from year to year.”
On August 24, 1853 Engine Company No. 12 from Brooklyn brought its new engine to Manhattan to show off the pumper’s power.  The New York Times reported “They made the trial at the liberty-pole opposite Riley’s Hotel, in West Broadway, and threw a fine stream to the top of the pole.”
That same year a longshoreman named John Daly was unloading a brig at the foot of Rector Street when he was shocked to come across a huge snake in the hold.  “Yes, sir, I saw, with my own eyes, a snake, an’ no tame one, nuther, that was killed right here in the streets of New York, an’ measured twenty-two feet, fair measure,” he told Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine. 
“Someone got it and carried it to Riley’s Fifth Ward Hotel,” he said, “on the corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway…Riley got the snake stuffed and there it staid…with the other curiosities.”
Thomas Riley died in January 1859 “possessed of considerable personal estate,” as recorded by the Superior Court.  The operation of the hotel passed to M. M. Laird who continued its tradition of a high-class establishment.
The fire engine test was repeated by Engine Company No. 30 on the day before Thanksgiving in 1863.  Sixty-five firefighters marched “to the famous trial place and there tested the engine’s capacity,” according to fire department historian J. Frank Kernan in his “Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies” in 1885.  “The result was not only satisfactory but surprising, the engine throwing a solid stream twenty-five feet over the top of the pole, which was one hundred and ninety feet high.”
The following Sunday, Laird presented the company with an enormous broom, inscribed “Presented by M. M. Laird, of the Fifth Ward Museum Hotel, New York, for the tallest playing ever done at the First Ward Pole.”
A tangled lawsuit concerning the ownership of the curiosities ended with the collection being auctioned off on February 12, 1864.  The items carefully assembled by Tom Riley were sold off and the wonderful, quaint museum room was no more.  The disfigured statue of Pitt was purchased by Samuel F. Mackie and presented to the New York Historical Society.
Before long the fashionable St. John’s Park neighborhood would fill with rail yards and warehouses.  By 1889 the 5th Ward Hotel was gone, replaced by a wholesale grocer.
The restaurants and bars of today that line their walls with tins signs and interesting items owe their décor to Tom Riley.   As early as 1897 The New York Times recognized the surviving tradition of the 5th Ward Museum Hotel.   “The man-about-town of to-day sits and sips his cocktail in the up-to-date café surrounded on all sides with valuable canvases, relics, etchings, sculpture, and curios,” the writer said.  “The pioneer in having collections grouped about his place to interest his guests was probably the proprietor and founder of Reilly’s [sic] Fifth Ward Museum Hotel, which a generation ago stood at the northeast corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway.”

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