|print from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Monthly|
Until now the Astor House, built by John Jacob Astor, was the premier hotel in the city. That all changed on January 6, 1853 when the new St. Nicholas Hotel opened its doors. It was like nothing the city—or perhaps the world—had seen before.
The St. Nicholas set a new standard for luxury, expense and lavish appointments. It was the first New York City building to cost $1 million in construction—approximately $29 million by today’s standards. The New York Times reported on the “pure white marble” structure, “in the Italian style of architecture." The newspaper said “This magnificent establishment, which in extent of accommodation, completeness of arrangement, costliness and chaste elegance of decoration, and combination of all modern improvements, takes place as the Hotel par excellence of our day.”
On opening day it stretched 100 feet up Broadway from Broome Street. An extension, already in work, would extend the gleaming white marble hotel the full length of the block within the year. It rose six stories and was entered between four fluted white marble columns.
Inside, above a marble lobby floor was a frescoed ceiling supported by pilasters with gilded capitals. “To the left of the hall,” said The Times, “is the gentlemen’s drawing-room, also paved with marble, and decorated in the most elegant style. Here and in the reading room, connected with it by folding-doors, are two costly bronze chandeliers.”
The reading room was illuminated by an ornate, gilded and domed skylight , as was the lavish barber shop which catered to as many as a dozen guests at a time.
|The barber shop with its ornate domed skylight, was run by Edward Phelon and was considered one of the hotel's great features -- print from Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, 1853|
On the first landing of the grand white oak staircase was a painting of St. Nicholas “depositing in the expectant stocking gifts from the ample stock he carries.” Hanging overhead was a $1,100 chandelier; one of the many expensive and impressive lighting fixtures throughout the hotel.
The main dining room was on the second floor, capable of accommodating 400 guests. Each chandelier that hung from the painted ceiling here contained twenty gas lights. Adjoining the dining room was the tea-room which The Times reported was “furnished in the most costly and elegant manner.”
|A stereoscope view of the dining room -- NYPL Collection|
Throughout the rooms owner D. M. Haight, with the input and supervision of his partner and veteran hotelier Mr. Treadwell, spared no expense. The custom carpeting throughout was woven in a single piece, the furniture was of carved rosewood with satin damask upholstery that corresponded to the carpet colors. The furniture alone cost the hoteliers $125,000.
One of the main attractions of the second floor was the exquisite rosewood Aeolion piano made by T. Gilbert & Co. of Boston. The case was deeply carved with wreaths of flowers and the keys were of pearl rather than ivory.
The third and fourth floors contained suites of rooms for families; some with a parlor and a single bedroom, others with a parlor and two bedrooms. The servants’ dining room was on the third floor, directly above the main dining room (to make efficient use of the dumb waiter to the kitchens).
The entire fifth floor housed rooms for the guests' servants.
|An early view before the extension was added to the right -- from Miller's New York As It Is|
Although there were marble mantles and fireplaces in the principal rooms, the hotel had central heating. In the basement three 19-foot iron boilers provided steam throughout the building. The steam plant also powered a six-horse power washing and drying machine, “an ingenious piece of mechanism.” The washer-drier was capable of rinsing, washing and drying 5,000 pieces of laundry per day with only one operator – this at a time when most women were still using a scrub board at home.
In the attic, an immense reservoir of several thousand gallons of water was poised for the threat of fire. The management boasted that the building could be completely deluged by this means within five minutes.
The modern kitchen housed ranges, ovens and roasting furnaces “on the most approved and compact principle." A steam table heated the dinnerware, ensuring that meals arrived hot from the dumb waiter.
|The break between the original hotel and the 1854 addition (foreground) is evident in this later stereoscope view -- NYPL Collection|
In addition, the St. Nicholas had its own gas works, located to the rear of the hotel on Mercer Street. Inside the hotel were approximately 3,000 gas burners in constant use every evening. The apparatus converted petroleum tar into combustible gas, making the hotel independent of outside gas suppliers. The gas works would prove to be as dangerous as it was economical; over the years no fewer than three small fires or explosions would start here.
Another innovation was the “bridal chamber,” located next to the state suite. The St. Nicholas was the first hotel to lure newlyweds as a honeymoon destination. From the center of an elaborate gilded plasterwork ceiling, a white satin canopy draped down over the bridal bed, spilling onto the floor at the corners in heavy folds. “Four chandeliers, sparkling with crystals, shed light through this fairy-like apartment,” said The Times. The bed, upholstered in white satin, was surrounded by a continuous satin ottoman. Even the walls were covered in white satin—the fabric for the walls costing $500. The bride would feel especially pampered on a canary-colored satin bedspread covered in lace.
The hotel employed 130 waiters, chambermaids and other servants at the time of the opening. There were 350 rooms, 200 of which were bedrooms. The glittering silverware and Sheffield plate cost around $27,000, “the cheapest dish being $32.50.” By next year the completed extension would more than double the number of rooms, now capable of accommodating 1,000 guests.
The New-York Daily Tribune announced on September 26, 1854, “It is said to be the largest and most elegant hotel in the world…with the handsomest marble front in New-York. There are somewhere near nine hundred rooms, all telegraphing to one center.”
The newspaper praised the hotel, but offered a caveat: “You need not be at all afraid to go there; the charges are moderate, and most of the guests plain, honest country folk. The whole house is elegant and has but one fault—one common to nearly all the best hotels in the world—it has a bar-room.”
Haight’s and Treadwell’s venture showed quick returns. The first year of operation yielded over $50,000 in profits. Twice a week during winter months balls were held and the public rooms were the premier spot to be seen in the city.
Although the St. Nicholas enjoyed world-wide acclaim, there were expected detractors. In April 1855 The New-York Quarterly questioned what it considered an over-elaborate façade. “We desire not to scrape off the carvings of the St. Nicholas to reduce it to the simplicity of the Astor, but we wish to weed it from a little, so as to give some plain space of wall on which the eye can repose, introduce a few string courses to preserve that horizontality so necessary to the unity of a large structure, and make either massive piers or rusticated quoins at its extremities to strengthen and consolidated the whole.” The magazine was kinder to the interior appointments. “The decorator, the painter, the upholsterer have done more…than the architect.”
High class patrons of the bar room were indignant when Captain J. J. Wright and his partner in the steamship, the Jewess, R. S. Dean engaged in a noisy argument in September 1855. Suddenly Captain Wright pulled a cowhide strap from his pocket and struck his partner across the face.
Apparently the pair were accustomed to carrying weapons, for The New York Daily Tribune reported that “Instantly the latter drew from a sheath which he carried under his vest a large bowie knife, the blade of which he plunged almost to the hilt in the side of his antagonist.”
As Wright attempted to get away, Dean attacked again, mortally wounding him in the abdomen. Newspapers followed the story for days, bringing unwanted publicity to the St. Nicholas.
More welcomed coverage occurred in 1861 when a grand ball was given by the hotel to celebrate Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans. The ballroom, which was festooned with American flags, was filled with the most prestigious names of the military and New York society: Major-General Sanford, Colonels Bostick, Pickney and Butterfield, Commodore Garrison, along with August Belmont and Augustus Schell.
Unfortunately, in preparation for the brilliant event, the ballroom floor was waxed and “had an adhesiveness which interfered somewhat with many soles,” grieved The Times. “It was the only drawback of the evening’s festivities, and was a very slight one.” Dodworth’s Band played and “The ladies, who, at 10 o’clock, when they began to thread the mazes, were not unduly numerous, an hour later with difficulty navigated--there were so many of them,” said the paper.
The St. Nicholas played home to the celebrities of the day, including Lavinia Warren the year before she married General Tom Thumb in Grace Church. The New York Tribune noted that “She is receiving in her private parlor, visits from some of the most prominent families in this city.”
The hotel played an involuntary part in one of the most terrifying schemes of the Civil War in 1864. A group of Confederate conspirators devised the plan to burn New York City. Members took rooms in hotels across the city, including the St. Nicholas, and committed synchronized arson.
At 8:43 on the evening of November 25, fire was discovered in the St. James Hotel. Within minutes Barnum’s Museum was in flames. Quickly, fire alarms were sounded from the St. Nicholas Hotel, the Lafarge House, the United States Hotel, the Metropolitan, Lovejoy’s and the New England Hotels.
The plotters assumed that the many large fires would be too much for the fire fighters to handle. Before morning more hotels – the Belmont, Fifth Avenue, Hanford, Astor House and Howard—were blazing, and Tammany Hall and lumber yards were torched.
Hotel staff and patrons all fought furiously through the night to control the spread of the flames. Amazingly, all the fires were extinguished before the planned devastation was realized. In the St. Nicholas, as with the other hotels, bags of black canvas were discovered. Each held paper, about a pound of flammable resin, a bottle of turpentine and bottles of phosphorus in water. The fires were started by piling bedding in the middle of the room, saturating it with turpentine, igniting it and locking the door.
The years following the Civil War were profitable for the St. Nicholas, which still held its reputation and prestige. In 1878 it was updated under the new manager, Uriah Welch, who proudly advertised that “The improvements and repairs of this popular and well-known hotel are now completed. Having more conveniences than ever for the comfort of its patrons, it offers superior advantages for transient and permanent guests.”
The New York Express agreed. “In healthfulness and convenience of location, spacious and elegantly-furnished apartments, broad and cheerful corridors, and its incomparable system of ventilation, drainage, security and precaution against fire, this celebrated hotel is not surpassed by any house on the ‘American plan’ in New-York or elsewhere, and its table and attendance throughout are acknowledged as the very best.”
“The new café dining-room,” said the Express, “recently fitted up, is a model of elegance and good taste. Here meals are served a la carte in the best style at very moderate prices, and from 5 to 7 P.M. a capital dinner, table d’hote, with wine, can be obtained for $1, a convenience which seem to be fully appreciated by the business men of that part of the City.”
The St. Nicholas, however, was fighting a battle that could not be won. While it remained popular with groups like the New York Press Club which held its annual banquet here in 1881; most tourists desired to be near the entertainment district which was gradually moving northward.
On March 4, 1884, The New York Times noted that “Of late years, however, the city has grown away from it, and it has been much less profitable.” Because of that, the newspaper said, “The last day of April will probably end the existence of the St. Nicholas Hotel, and one of the oldest hostelries in New-York will pass into history.”
The writer for The Times bemoaned the hotel’s fate. “The St. Nicholas started on a scale of magnificence never before approached in hotel-keeping in New-York and perhaps not in the world. Its rooms were luxuriously furnished, its table a revelation to travelers, and its appointments such as to induce many wealthy people to give up for the first time their homes and avail themselves of the comforts and conveniences of hotel life.”
On March 31 the grand hotel suffered its last indignation when the furnishings were auctioned off. “The articles went at a remarkably low figure, and many people were able to congratulate themselves on having made bargains,” reported The Times.
The six gilt framed mirrors from the dining room – each 9 feet tall—brought $39 each; the three huge 300-pound brass chandeliers sold for $40 each. Uriah Welch complained “If they had been cut up and sold for old brass they would have fetched more.” One hundred and fifty upholstered plush chairs, which The Times noted “have been used by Jenny Lind, President Buchanan, President Johnson, President Fillmore, General Grant, and General Scott,” were sold for $1.50 apiece.
The sale took two weeks to complete.
By May 1 the demolition of the white marble St. Nicholas Hotel had started. Before long, what had once been one of the most celebrated hotels in the world was gone.
|Two slivers of the St. Nicholas somehow survive today; now separate buildings.|
|Hideous fire escapes zig-zag down the once-proud facade of No. 521; the marble that once gleamed white is now painted a pink-brown. But the original carved window detailing still remains.|