Saturday, February 25, 2012

The 1927 Barbizon Hotel for Women -- 140 East 63rd Street

The Barbizon Hotel for Women in 1927 -- photo Library of Congress
By the time the 1920s roared into Manhattan, women had gained a great deal of independence.  Female workers were no longer solely nurses, cooks or household help.  There were jobs to be found in the offices of soaring skyscrapers.  It was an exciting time for the modern woman.

But there were dangers in the big city as well--dangers called “wolves;” the smooth-talking decadent men who searched out naïve young girls. 

Girls needed protection and they found it at the Barbizon Hotel for Women.   It was a sanctuary where stringent codes of conduct and dress were enforced.   Girls applying for residence were required to submit three letters of reference.  There were no men allowed above the lobby level and chaperones were available at parents’ requests.
Multicolored, intricate brickwork patterned the ground floor -- photo by Alice Lum
Designed by Palmer H. Ogden, the hulking hotel replaced rows of brownstone residences at the corner of East 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue.   Ogden dipped into his historical grab bag to meld Italian Renaissance, Islamic and Gothic styles into a harmonious whole.   Numerous set-backs, required by the 1916 building law, created a 23-story ziggurat with arcades, balconies and colorful brickwork; all rising to a monumental central tower with three-story Gothic windows.

In 1926, as the hotel rose, The Chicago Tribune said “The building is especially designed for business and professional women with such unique features as gymnasium, swimming pool, studios and other conveniences usually found only in men’s clubs.”  Indeed, the owners, United Club Residences Corp. under the presidency of William H. Silk, referred to it as a “club residence for professional women.”
The lobby as shown in an early brochure -- http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.com/2011_01_01_archive.html
The New York Times, on October 9th of the following year, admired Ogden’s design.  “The new women’s hotel at Sixty-third Street and Lexington Avenue, called the Barbizon, may also be counted a conspicuous example of color in architecture, though in this case the color is chiefly in the brick itself, varied from rose to a greenish shade, with bits of almost black, and trimmed with a stone distinctly yellow.”

photo by Alice Lum
The “club” atmosphere of the hotel, formerly relegated to men’s hotels, was innovative.  Two years after the building’s completion, The Times commented on February 24, 1929, “The Barbizon…is equipped for lovers of athletics.  Its basement is devoted entirely to sport.  At all hours of the day the laughter of girls can be heard intermingling with the rhythmic thud of the balls in the squash courts and the splashing of water in the pool.  Modern amazons in the making are learning to fence; swimmers of the future are being taught the crawl in the nether regions of the Barbizon.  The young woman of today is as devoted to exercise as any young man!”

“It has been said that in their clubs women have more liberty than men,” said article.  “They really do, in this respect at least—that they are permitted to invite members of the opposite sex to many of their social affairs and to pay calls in the public rooms set aside for the purpose.  For a woman’s club is here home, while a man’s club is more or less his refuge.”
The New York skyline from the Barbizon in 1932 -- photo Library of Congress
The newspaper commented with a hint of humor on the restrictions on the girls.  “it is not an uncommon sight to see a mother with her young daughter barely out of her teens at the desk asking for accommodations.  ‘She is going to be here for the Winter,’ says the parent, making more of an effort at boldness than her child. ‘Yes, she is taking her first job.  Will she be well chaperoned?’  While it is asked a bit anxiously, the youngster looks bored and silently expresses an aversion to the idea that she needs chaperonage.”
photo by Alice Lum
It was, according to Time magazine, “one of the few places in Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson where a girl could take her virtue to bed and rest assured it would still be there next morning.”

The Barbizon became the most exclusive and glamorous address in New York for young women.  Most of the 700 rooms were dorm-sized quarters intended for girls on a budget.   But the tenant list would include an array of soon-to-become-famous names; among them budding actresses Cloris Leachman, Joan Crawford, Candice Bergan, Ali McGraw, and Grace Kelly.

Writer Sylvia Plath lived here, later setting part of The Bell Jar at a residence hotel based on the Barbizon.   Liza Minelli, Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen, Dorothy McGuire, Peggy Cass and Barbara Bel Geddes called the Barbizon home, along with a seemingly endless list of others.
Sylvia Plath's room above, like the others, was small but tastefully decorated and furnished -- http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.com/2011_01_01_archive.html
In 1931, amid the throngs of beautiful starlets, college girls and young professional women, an aging and lonely Margaret Brown—better known as Molly to posterity--appeared.  The self-reliant Titanic survivor was working as an actress and had lost most of her fortune to her children in an ugly court battle over J. J. Brown’s estate.

On October 26, 1932 the 65-year old Molly Brown died in her room at the Barbizon of a brain tumor.
Brick tracery, romantic arcades, balconies and soaring Gothic windows create a fantastic melding of styles -- photo by Alice Lum
The hotel’s reputation of harboring the city’s most beautiful women was enhanced in the 1940s.  Eileen and Jerry Ford launched the famous Eileen Ford Modeling Agency and, in an effort to keep their corral of cover girls free from scandal and out of the newspapers, they rented rooms for their charges here.    Decades later Eileen Ford would explain, “It was safe, it was a good location, and they couldn’t get out.”

Among the glamorous models who “couldn’t get out” were Delores Hawkins, Gloria Barnes and Jean Patchett.

Following suit, the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School used the Barbizon for the safe-keeping of its Gal Fridays-to-be. 

The Barbizon Hotel for Women was not all about young actresses who became movie stars and professional girls who met and married millionaires.  There was tragedy at the Barbizon for those girls who did not quite succeed.

Judith Ann Palmer was brought to the hotel by her wealthy mother, Mrs. Philip O. Palmer of Chicago on January 22, 1939.   On July 8 the 22-year old placed $30 in a dresser drawer and wrote a note saying the money should cover her funeral expenses.  She then wrote and note to her mother; then, dressed in her negligee, she shot a bullet into her right temple.

In 1957 Gael Greene, writer for the New York Post, wrote a series of articles exposing the heart-breaking existence of the girls whose lives fell short of glamor and instead were filled with loneliness and fear.

By the 1960s the reason for the existence of the Barbizon Hotel for Women was essentially gone.   After several owners, it became the Melrose Hotel in 2002 following a $40 million renovation.  The 700 small rooms were no more, now about half that many.
photo by Alice Lum
Then only three years later developers purchased the Melrose, converting it into luxury condominiums and switching the name back to The Baribizon.  The enormous hotel, where Betsey Johnson and Gene Tierney once slept in tiny rooms, now boasts just 66 sprawling apartments that the likes of Ricky Gervais call home.

While little of the original interiors are left, the exterior of the Barbizon is essentially intact--a wonderful example of 1920s eclectic architecture and a most interesting page of women’s social history.

12 comments:

  1. Great read! I don't recall ever hearing the Molly Brown connection. Before the the Barbizon was built the corner was the home of Architect A. Stewart Walker of Walker & Gillette - http://halfpuddinghalfsauce.blogspot.com/2012/01/residence-of-alexander-stewart-walker.html

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  2. What a lovely building. It's too bad NYC or other metropolitan cities don't have places like this anymore. Fascinating read! I wonder if anyone has written a book on the history of the Barbizon...off to google!

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  3. I had the pleasure of living there 1949 -1950 while in graduate school at NYU. A wonderful experience! Encountered childhood friends who were living there at the same time as I. The staff was terrific. Grace Kelly was living there at the same time. I left to get married.
    Wonderful memories!

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    1. How lucky you are to have experienced that great hotel during a great period of its history. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  4. Actress Agnes Moorehead was a resident of the Barbizon Hotel in 1928 while attending the American academy of Dramatic Arts.

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  5. The only way my dad would let me move to NYC in the mid-60's to pursue my dreams of being a department store buyer (which I finally realized in the 80's) was to live at "The Barbizon Hotel for Women." The picture of the room that is here looked just like my room. A college friend from Centenary College for Women had the room next to me and we shared a bath. So, I worked at B.Altman and Company and lived at The Barbizon. A dream come true. Came back to the Philadelphia suburbs and became a buyer for a billion dollar corporation after raising a family. It's not been a life lots of challenges but NYC and the Barbizon was a really good part of it.

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  6. I grew up down the block. I remember going to the Barbizon Coffee Shop, with its booths and its amazing (to my childish eyes) pop art posters on the walls. This would have been in the early 70s -- anyone else remember the place?

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  7. Very intersting article. I believe that the Barbizon was also the women's hotel that was spoofed in the 1968 comedy film "Thoroughly Modern Millie" starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing. The hotel in the film is called The Priscilla and seems to look very similar to the Barbizon. Inbeknownst to anyone, Mrs. Meers the house mother was also involved in human trafficking aka white slavery and whenever an orphan would seek to reside at the Priscilla, she would always say "SAD to be all alone in the world!" and then of course the orphan almost always disappeared after a few short weeks until the main characters figured out something was wrong and they cracked the case sending Mrs Meers and her henchmen to prison lol.

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    1. I never made that connection before! thanks!

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  8. Thanks for the great post. I lived there in 1968 hoping to find a job at the Met Museum with my BA in art but wound up as a "sales girl" at Lord & Taylor before moving on to other things. I'm originally from the Midwest and living at the Barbizon was a kick---and very cheap. I especially remember sitting at the counter at the café/diner downstairs and ordering its terrific rice pudding every single day.

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  9. My father worked at the Barbizon for forty years. I worked for Dave the dry cleaner in my youth. Many great stories.

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  10. Enjoyed living at the Barbizon while attending modeling school at John Robert Powers

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