Saturday, April 21, 2012

The 1902 Algonquin Hotel -- No. 59 West 44th Street

Windows are boarded up in early 2012 as renovations are being completed -- photo by Alice Lum
The 44th Street block between 5th and 6th Avenues had, by the turn of the century, drastically changed.  The street that had been lined with two-story stables and carriage houses now boasted the exclusive Harvard Club and New York Yacht Club, as well as high-toned residence hotels.

Albert Foster planned another residence hotel at No. 59 West 44th Street to be called the Puritan.  He commissioned architect Goldwin Starrett to design the structure in an up-to-date design intended to attract well-heeled tenants.     Starrett embellished his basically neo-Renaissance façade with trendy Beaux Arts touches.  Above the two-story limestone base, red brick and limestone was broken by soaring, continuous cast metal bays nine-stories tall.  The bay windows not only added depth and interest to the otherwise flat façade, they increased air flow to rooms that could be stifling in hot, humid months.

As the hotel was still rising, Foster began hiring his new staff, among which was 31-year old Frank Case.   Having already worked for nearly a decade in the well-known Taylor’s Hotel in Jersey City, Case knew his way around the hotel industry.  One of his first concerns was the name of the hotel.

The clerk realized that the word “puritan” had repressive connotations that could possibly discourage potential tenants.   A particularly American word, he felt, might be more advisable.

After combing through manuscripts at the public library, he came up with the native American term "Algonquin" and convinced his boss to change the name.

The hotel opened on November 22, 1902 with already three-fourths of the apartments occupied.  The New York Tribune was highly impressed, calling it “the last step in excellence in this class of structure.”  The critic praised “The elegance of the structure, the perfection of its embodied details, combined with the letter-perfect house service of this new family hotel, bid fair to make it lead all of its class.”

The Tribune felt that the new hotel was the solution to “this vexatious servant problem.”  Even if, said the paper, “you are a householder, with ever and ever so nice a home in the exclusive upper East and West Side districts of Manhattan” you would have troubles with live-in staff.  “It is these fold who keep one’s house in a wild confusion and bring wrinkles and worries to its managers,” it said.

According to the Tribune, “This house gives you your home always heated at seasonable temperatures, always well lighted and spickly clean, and your servants, always quiet, thoroughly trained, respectful and efficient.”

Residents could either order meals served in their apartments from a “menu card” or take meals in the large restaurant on the main floor.   The board for private servants was an additional $7 a week.   Each apartment had a telephone that connected it with the hotel offices as well as the city telephone service.  Hotel staff was available to summon a carriage or order theater or train tickets.   An in-house physician, barber, hairdresser or manicurist would make calls to rooms; the house valet attended to everyone’s shoes and made sure newspapers and magazines were delivered promptly.

The apartments were outfitted with waxed, oak floors, mahogany woodwork that included mantels and built-in bookcases.  Every bedroom had its own bathroom, “a wonderfully complete affair in white enamel with all the latest kinds of plumbing and toilet appliances,” said the Tribune—a remarkable luxury of the day.  Annual rates for the apartments ranged from $420 for a one-bedroom and bath to $2,520 for a luxurious suite of three bedrooms, private dining room, parlor, library, three bathrooms and private hallway.

Although Albert Foster owned the hotel, it was Frank Case who embraced it as his own.  Although the hotel was just a block from fashionable 5th Avenue, it sat an equal distance from the Times Square theater district.  Case, who as a teenager had worked as an usher in a Buffalo vaudeville theater was intent on luring the theatrical crowd.  Actor Douglas Fairbanks became a close friend of Case and was one of the first to haunt the Algonquin, along with stage idol of the time, John Drew.

In 1904 the 6th Avenue Railroad Depot that stretched from 43rd to 44th street was demolished and in its place rose the gargantuan New York Hippodrome, a 5,600-seat theater, directly across 44th Street from the Algonquin.  Frank Case later remarked that the theater’s opening was, for the hotel, “an important event for us.”

Soon the hotel was home to theatrical legends like Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis and John and Ethel Barrymore, laying the groundwork for theatrical and literary history.

By 1908 the guests of the hotel were mainly transient.  An advertisement that year noted that “The Algonquin desires to increase its family patronage.  Less than twenty percent of the Algonquin is occupied by permanent guests.”  Case stressed the advantage of the hotel to permanent residents, “it affords better service than the regular apartment hotel, while the orderly hum of industry, the coming and going of prominent people, makes hotel life interesting and disturbs not at all the home like atmosphere of refinement.”

The atmosphere of refinement was dashed on October 13, 1912 when screams emanated from the rooms of Charlotte Walker.  The actress had awakened to find a man in her room and when Frank Case flung open the door to her room, he saw the shadowy figure on the fire escape.  Hotel staff captured the burglar and he was arrested.

He was later found to be the 37-year old Frenchman, Paul Renaud, who had appeared in the lobby earlier that day.  When he was told the rate of a room, he admitted he could not afford the price and it was assumed he left.

Magistrate McQuade, on hearing the testimony of all parties, was about to release the prisoner, saying there was no evidence that he intended burglary.  But at the last minute Case told the judge that “indecent postal cards had been found in the possession of the man.”  Sergeant McNierney of the East 52st Street Station confirmed this and the prisoner was held on $500 bail.

Having racy French postcards was, it seems, a greater offense than breaking and entering.

The continuous rows of bay windows improved ventilation and increased daylight in the rooms -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1917, years ahead of Prohibition, Case closed the hotel bar because he feared the presence of a saloon in his establishment might despoil the atmosphere of refinement he cultivated. 

Although he aggressively wooed writers and actors, Case found they were not always ideal guests.  When one playwright accumulated a hotel bill of $2,200 Case tossed him out.  In an attempt at payment the writer gave him a manuscript which turned out to be a stage play.  Case made an agreement with another playwright living in the Algonquin to edit it on a 50/50 basis.  The resulting play, Fine Feather, ran a full season on Broadway, netting Case $5,500 in royalties.

Case’s daughter, Margaret, was born in room 1206 in 1904 and as she grew, she became the darling of the famous guests.   Years later she would remember the time that John Barrymore reacted to a rumor that she had a crush on a theater cad.  The actor whisked the young girl away in a carriage and, while driving through Central Park demanded that she “dismiss the young man immediately.”

The astonished Margaret explained that she had never met the actor in question and had only seen him once on stage.  Barrymore, realizing that he had been duped by a braggart, responded, “Oh, that ham!”

In 1919 a short, chubby newspaperman with wire-rimmed glasses was given an innocuous assignment of writing a critique on the Algonquin Hotel for a Sunday edition.  It was a job that would make the Algonquin a household word across the nation.

Alexander Woollcott did not gush on about the Algonquin.  He called it “a little, unpretentious hotel, tucked away on a side street.”   While he mentioned some of the celebrities who lived here, it was the kitchen’s apple pie that caught his attention.

Lured by the siren song of the pie, he suggested to his every-Saturday-lunch partners, Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun that they meet at the hotel.  Before long the group grew to include Robert Benchley, Brock Pemberton and Harold Ross.  It was the beginning of the legendary Algonquin Round Table.

Frank Case recognized the importance of the group’s patronage and assigned it a private corner of the Oak Room.  As the group outgrew its private niche, Case moved them to a large, round table in the Rose Room.  By the 1920s The Round Table included the acerbic Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, Ruth Gordon, Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Berlin, Russel Crouse and a score of other luminaries.

The Round Table blistered with literary debates and poker games; the second most popular diversion.  Upstairs Case provided a room for poker parties that often extended from Saturday nights through Sunday afternoons.

With the onset of the Great Depression the Round Table quietly disintegrated.  Many of the writers and critics were forced to leave New York City for Los Angeles.  The personal toll of the economic situation was vividly expressed in 1929 when a dapper-dressed man ordered a meal in the dining room.  Wearing a morning coat and grey vest, with spats and a bowler hat, he ate in silence.  When he had finished his coffee and pie, he removed a small pearl-handled handgun from his pocket and put a bullet into his head.

Frank Case purchased the hotel for $717,000 in 1932, making official what everyone already knew:  he owned the Algonquin.

In 1943 the locally-famous Francois was the sommelier.  After years of serving and choosing the correct wines for discriminating patrons, his health failed and he necessarily left his position.   Waitress Elizabeth Bird wanted the job, although her only training in wines was the reading a book.

Case gave her the job, insisting that she be called “Francine.”

The concept of a woman performing the job of a sommelier was a bit shocking.  The New York Times called Francine “probably the only woman in New York with the privilege of telling fastidious men which wines to drink.”  The newspaper could not resist the opportunity to drop a sexist remark, however.  “A native New Yorker, she speaks in restrained tones and has learned the knack—the envy of many a wife—of being respectful yet not obsequious; of getting her way without offending male vanity.”

Frank Case died in 1946 at the age of 76.  In addition to an Algonquin Hotel cookbook, he had written two books, the 1938 “Tales of a Wayward Inn,” that documented anecdotes of famous and not-famous guests; and “Do Not Disturb,” written two years later as a sequel.

Ben B. and Mary Bodne purchased the hotel and would run it for years.  Sir Laurence Olivier reportedly adored Mary’s chicken soup.  The Bodnes carefully preserved the traditions of the Algonquin.  Harry Connick, Jr. made his New York debut here and, as the hotel became a bit dowdy, it retained its fabled atmosphere.
The dining room, in the 1960s, retained its turn-of-the-century atmosphere
New York Magazine, on February 7, 1977 wrote “If Mo Udall, Tom Stoppard, Kyle Rote and Ellen Burstyn are all in the same room, the room must be in New York.  If your college roommate’s first husband and the person you’re thinking might be right to back your next project and a woman you mistake for your Great-aunt Martha are also in the room, then the room is the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel.”

As the 21st century dawned, performing in the Oak Room was a great distinction for cabaret and nightclub singers.  In February of 2012 it was still one of Manhattan’s three major cabaret supper clubs.

The Algonquin Hotel is a New York City landmark.  Perhaps less so for its architecture than because of its astoundingly rich literary and theatrical history -- photo by Alice Lum
That month the Oak Room closed as part of the renovation of the entire hotel.   New Yorkers familiar with the 32-year old supper club were dismayed at the announcement that upon the hotel’s scheduled reopening in May 2012 the Oak Room would a “lounge.”  Yet, few structures in Manhattan—or perhaps the nation—have a theatrical and literary history as rich as that of the Algonquin Hotel.


  1. This sounds to be a really a great hotel to spend in the vacation, quite antique with the interiors and the design to be fascinating.