Monday, May 21, 2012

The Lost 1836 Astor House Hotel -- Broadway at Vesey Street

photo Library of Congress
Through his fur trade the original John Jacob Astor had amassed a fortune of nearly a quarter of a million dollars by 1800.  But his genius in real estate would make him the first multi-millionaire in the country.

During the Revolutionary War the Bull's Head Tavern sat on Broadway, on the block just north of St. Paul’s Chapel.   The area was open and mostly undeveloped and the grounds around Adam Vanderburgh’s tavern were shaded by spreading trees.

As the city inched northward the tavern disappeared, replaced by fine brick homes of New York’s wealthy.   Astor owned one of these, at the corner of Broadway and Vesey, which he advertised for rent in The New York Gazette in 1813.  The ad doubtlessly infuriated his elite neighbors.

To let, for one or more years, a pleasant situation and an excellent stand for a drygoods store, the corner house of Vesey Street and Broadway.  Inquire of John Jacob Astor, corner of Pearl and Pine Streets.

As the years passed Astor envisioned a grand hotel on this most fashionable of blocks.  In 1830 he began purchasing his neighbors’ mansions—John Rutherford’s home; the house that had belonged to British officer Colonel Axtell then home to Lewis Scott; and Senator Rufus King’s mansion.   Finally he had them all except John G. Coster’s house.

Coster was not only quite wealthy, he was quite attached to his corner home and had no intentions of selling it.    Finally, out of frustration, Astor approached Coster with an offer he could not refuse.  If Coster would produce two friends, Astor would choose one of them to put a value on the Coster property.  Whatever that amount was Astor would add $20 thousand to it and write a check on the spot.

John Coster agreed and Astor was forced to pay $60,000 for the house—about $1.5 million today.

Astor’s friends cautioned him about building a hotel on the site.  According to The New York Times years later he was admonished “It can never be a success.  It is altogether too far uptown.”

But Astor was unmoved.   On April 4, 1834 Philip Hone wrote in his diary of “the pulling down of the block of houses next to that on which I live—the whole front from Barclay Street to Vesey on Broadway—where he is going to erect a New York ‘palais royal,’ which will cost him five or six hundred thousand dollars.”

The cornerstone was laid on the Fourth of July that year.  It was a momentous event with the mayor, Cornelius W. Lawrence, presiding and the militia parading up Broadway to the site.  A silver tablet bore the names of John Jacob Astor and the architect, Isaiah Rogers.  Inside was a picture of Lafayette, a picture of New York and copies of the newspapers of that day.

Construction of the mammoth hotel would take four years and cost around $400,000.   On June 1, 1836 the doors opened to the public and the lavish hotel made news as far away as England.  A London newspaper called it “A model of architectural beauty and of massive grandeur, luxurious and elegant in its appointments.”

In 1850 the Broadway neighborhood around the Astor House was still quiet -- Library of Congress
The Astor House was a near copy on a grander scale of the earlier, fashionable Trement House, also designed by Rogers.  Railroad and Steamboat Companion remarked that it was built “in a remarkably massive style, simple and chaste.”  Five stories tall, it was built of Quincy granite—a bluish stone that was also used in a nearby prison—with a Greek Revival entry.  The choice of material would be questioned by many; Putnam’s Magazine complaining that it “looks more like a penitentiary than a hotel.”

The opening was attended by press from Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities.  The New Yorker said the interior was of a “style of unostentatious richness and severe simplicity.”  Custom-made black walnut furniture sat among marble columns on blue-and-white marble mosaic floors.  A New York reporter remarked that New Yorkers must now know how Romans felt when they first saw the completed Coliseum.

The hotel introduced travelers to the most modern innovations.    At a time when most houses still relied on candles, it had its own gas manufacturing plant that supplied gas lighting throughout.   The New York Constellation reported that “The house was lighted by this gas everybody is discussing.”   The unfamiliar technology proved a bit dangerous to some guests.   Rather than turn off the gas jet, these visitors would blow out the flame, as they would a candle, with the result that several guests were asphyxiated in their sleep.

A steam engine in the basement ran a pump that provided water to all floors and powered machinery in the kitchen and laundry.   Reservoirs in the attic provided running water to 17 bathing rooms and two showers.  Each floor had hot and cold running water as well as water closets.  The indoor plumbing alone was considered miraculous.

In the basement was a printing press for the printing of daily menus.  There was an innovative system of bells and individualized door locks.  For gentlemen guests there was a grand dining room 108 feet long and smaller elegant dining rooms for women and their male escorts.  The hotel offered a reading room, a bar room, an oyster cellar, smoking rooms, barbers, hairdressers, a drugstore, tailors and boot makers.

There were around 360 rooms in the hotel which prompted The New Yorker to ponder on November 25, 1837 “On Wednesday night 647 persons slept in Astor House, and bye the bye, were not crowded.  How many villages are there in this country that make considerable show that do not contain this number?”

A decade after opening, Astor made a change in the hotel that would have long-lasting effects.  The central courtyard with its fountains and trees was enclosed under a great rotunda.   Here a richly carved bar was installed and the Astor House’s “free lunch” was served to generations of working New Yorkers.

In 1899 the rotunda was still the preferred luncheon spot for businessmen -- NYPL Collection
In 1848 rooms at the Astor House cost $2 per day.  It was around this time that Englishman William Chambers stayed here.  Dazzled, he wrote “An American hotel is not a house:  it is a town.”

The Astor House was the preferred hotel for celebrities, politicians and writers as well as the well-heeled traveler.  On February 16, 1853 President-Elect Franklin Pierce arrived at the Astor House.  He had notified the manager, Charles Stetson, that he wanted no excitement, reception or crowds.  The New York Times noted “He expressed himself in plain terms on this subject, and said if his desire was not complied with, he should take the first train South, en route to Washington.”

Pierce’s name would be added to the list of White House residents to stay at the Astor House:  Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, James Polk, Martin Van Buren among them.  The Prince of Wales, the Grand Duke Alexis, the Prince de Joinville, Louis Kossuth, Horace Greeley and Admiral Farragut were guests.  Sam Houston, Jefferson David, Henry Clay and Charles Dickens slept here.

When Jenny Lind stayed here, adoring crowds unleashed the horses from her carriage and pulled it from Castle Garden to the hotel by hand.

But Daniel Webster was perhaps the name most closely associated with the hotel.   Webster would stay at no other hotel and Stetson always vacated the finest suite in the house upon hearing of his arrival.   Webster wrote to a friend in 1849 "If I were shut out of the Astor House I would never again to go New York.”  Throughout the years Webster never paid for his rooms—a parlor, dining room and bedroom--despite his repeated attempts.

It was here in 1852 that Webster received the news that he had been defeated for the Whig candidacy by Millard Filmore.  Still wearing his dressing gown and slippers, he told the delegates John C. Calhoun and Silas Wright, “Gentlemen, my public life is ended…When perilous times come to you as come they will you will mourn in bitterness of spirit your craven conduct and your base ingratitude.  Gentlemen, I bid you a good-night.”

The following day Webster said good-bye to Charles Stetson.  According to The New York Times he said “Farewell, old friend.  We have known and loved each other for more than thirty years.  You will find a little present from me in the office.”  Two weeks later Daniel Webster was dead.

Charles Stetson would have no one else sleep in the suite of rooms used by Webster.  He turned two of the rooms into a ladies’ dining room and took the bedroom for himself.

Harper's Weekly published a drawing of Lincoln addressing the crowds in 1861 from the entrance pediment.
By the time of the Civil War, Broadway had become a bustling commercial area; but the Astor House remained.  In 1866 “Miller’s New York As It Is” remarked that “although so many others have arisen since, this well-appointed and extensive establishment still retains its high position.”

The hotel had been updated in 1862, including an elevator.   The Times reassured readers that “Otis’ improvements render this mode of traversing the lofty stories of the Astor House as safe as it is agreeable cutting off every conceivable chance of harm from the breaking of any part, by means of self-acting stops and the safety drum at the top.”

Large windows were cut in the fa├žade at the top floor and the furnishings and decorations updated.   The Times raved on about the improvements.  “But gorgeous as are the frescoes and gilding, to our mind no art can rival the rich effects and infinite variety of Nature, displayed in the grain of choice woods on the walls of the principal drawing rooms.”  Writing of the “six or eight rich woods” the reporter praised “the grains of which are utterly inimitable by art, and until this very season had been of too extravagant cost for practical use.”

In 1906 a “ghost dance” was held in the ballroom.  The ball celebrated the early days of the hotel and only those families who were around in the 1830s were included.  “Its invitation list is to include the old-line aristocracy of New York, and its tone is to be exclusive,” said The Times.  The guests, including Roosevelts, Hamiltons, Fishes, Clinton, de Peysters, Schuylers and Schermerhorns, were instructed to wear only costumes from 1836.

The grand entertainments and the luncheons under the rotunda would not last much longer.  On May 3, 1913 signs were posted in the corridors announcing that the hotel would close on Thursday, May 29.   The hotel was owned by feuding cousins William Waldorf Aster and Vincent Astor—Vincent owning the southern half and William the northern.  Vincent Astor had sold his share of the property when impending subway excavations threatened its stability.  Obviously, the other half would have to go as well.

Albert C. Kaufmann had been head waiter of the hotel for nearly 45 years when the notice was made.  He reminisced to a Times writer about the notable men he had served.  General Grant had a favorite table overlooking St. Paul’s and had a “weakness for roast beef.”  Chester A. Arthur preferred lamb chops and Grover Cleveland’s favorite was mutton chops.  Like Grant, Garfield always ordered roast beef.

The auction of the hotel's contents was advertised across the facade in 1913 -- photo Library of Congress
On May 29 Vincent Astor received a petition with over 5,000 signatures; a desperate plea from New Yorkers to save the venerable hotel.  Astor was unmoved.

“Despite the petition, however,” said The New York Times, “the old hostelry, bar and restaurant were closed at midnight last night and it was said that it was for the last time.  Every patron was turned out.”

On June 10 the auction of the furnishings began.  Along with the items was the 108-year old Chinese bridal bed, a famous fixture of the house.  Carved of ivory with inlaid wood, it was said to have originally cost $2,500.

Crowds rush by in December 1913 as a piece of American history is destroyed -- photo Library of Congress
By the end of the year the monumental granite walls of the old Astor House were demolished.    New Outlook regretted the loss saying, “Thus the old Astor House, always a hotel famed for good cooking and cheer, has been something more than a mere hotel.  It has become a historic part of the metropolis; it has also become embodied in the Nation’s history.  Its passing will be regarded with real regret.”

4 comments:

  1. seems like preservaton of venerable historic places in this country has always been on the back burner

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  2. Thanks for this lucid and thorough account of a demolished New York City landmark.

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  3. Really a great informative post..Very glad to know about these old New York hotels..

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  4. I had always read that subway construction (for the BMT Broadway line) doomed the building. Was it possible to save the building during subway construction?

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