Monday, May 14, 2012

The Lost 1878 "Working Women's Hotel" -- Park Avenue at 34th Street

On July 3 1869 the Art Journal published Kellum's proposed design -- NYPL Collection
Alexander Turney Stewart arrived in New York in 1823 from Lisburn, Ireland.  He established a small dry goods store with lace and linens he brought from Ireland, purchased with inherited money.  By 1848 his emporium was the largest in the world, with branches in other countries.  At mid-century he ranked among the richest men in the United States.

Although Stewart was generous with his fortune, he preferred not to simply donate funds, but to invest money into projects that would either earn profits for the charity or show tangible results.   In the first years after the end of the Civil War he came up with an ambitious scheme. 

New York City was teeming with struggling women, many of them war widows, who were desperately trying to survive.   Finding housing that was at the same time respectable and affordable was nearly impossible on the scant wages they earned.  Stewart proposed building a magnificent hotel solely for working women.

In 1869, the same year that his magnificent white marble mansion began rising on Fifth Avenue across from to Caroline Astor’s home, Stewart commissioned architect John Kellum to design the hotel.   The choice of architect was simple:  Kellum had not only designed Stewart’s impressive store on Broadway, but he was responsible for the French Second Empire mansion as well.

Spanning the entire block from 32nd Street to 33rd Street along Fourth Avenue, the “Women’s Hotel” it was intended to house as many as 1,500 women working in “daily labor.”  Kellum turned again to the highly fashionable French Second Empire.   His drawings appeared in periodicals in 1869 that displayed a magnificent cast iron structure of arches and colunettes, an impressive two-story entrance portico that jutted out onto the Fourth Avenue sidewalk, and a mansard roof of various heights crested with lacy cast ironwork.

Despite Stewart's many charitable works, especially during the Civil War and the Irish Potato Famine, John Francis Richmond in his “New York and Its Institutions,” was a bit unkind in announcing his venture, saying Stewart “has hitherto done little toward placing his name among the benevolent of the metropolis.”   Richmond was wary that the man he considered less-than-charitable would actually come through.  “If the proprietor really deals as liberally with the inmates as some now suppose, this Institution, situated in an eligible portion of the city, will be a valuable acquisition to the toiling women of Manhattan.”

Stewart intended that his hotel be safe, morally upright, and clean.  The women should live in a comfortable and upscale environment, despite their personal conditions.   There should be a library, common areas for conversation and casual pastimes, a communal dining room and pleasant rooms.

Construction dragged on for nearly a decade, hampered in part by Stewart’s declining health and the 1873 Financial Panic.  As the hotel neared completion American Architect and Building News complained “It would require a middle-aged new Yorker to recall the date of the beginning of work on Stewart’s Working-Women’s Hotel.  Records show that it was started between ten and twenty-years ago, and has been crawling to completion ever since.”

Other than the street traffic, the sketch in Harper's Weekly on April 13, 1878 was nearly identical to the 1869 drawings -- NYPL Collection
Finally on November 12, 1877 The New York Times wrote of the impending opening.  The newspaper called it “the best constructed, the most elaborately furnished, the best appointed, and with the most perfect culinary department of any hotel in the world.  Besides all this the Women’s Hotel is by almost 200 rooms the largest in the Metropolis and it is intended to furnish women who earn their livelihood the best possible living for the least possible money.”

Unfortunately, neither Alexander T. Stewart or John Kellum survived to see the building’s completion.

Covering 16 building lots and costing upwards of $3.7 million, the hotel dazzled.   The ceilings were between 11 to over 19 feet high.  There was hot and cold running water in every room, speaking tubes to the office, “easily available” toilets and baths.   Stewart had personally selected the French plate glass for the windows, and the carpeting, fixtures and furniture were custom-made.  Over 15,000 yards of Axminster, Wilton and Brussels carpeting were used.

Acres of Brussels carpeting and custom-designed furniture filled the 40,000 square foot hotel -- Harper's Weekly 1878
Kellum designed the building as a hollow square, in the middle of which was a lush Victorian garden with a goldfish-filled fountain.  Retail stores fronted the sidewalks for additional income.  Along with the 502 sleeping rooms there was a 30-foot dining room (capable of serving 4,000 meals a day to 600 guests at a time), another room of the same size used for concerts and lectures and a library of 2,500 volumes.  For $6 a week a woman shared a room with another working girl.  For a dollar extra she could have a private room.  Breakfast cost 35 cents, lunch 25 cents and dinner 50 cents.  Any boarder could invite a lady friend to dine after procuring a ticket from the office. 

The large, airy courtyard centered around a goldfish-filled fountain -- Harper's Weekly 1878
The rules were strict, however.  No food was allowed in the rooms unless a boarder was ill, and then only with pre-approval of management.  No personal furniture—including a sewing machine—was allowed in the rooms.  The tenants could not hang their own pictures, visitors were not allowed in any section of the hotel other than the reception room.  The hotel closed at 11:30 pm and the gas in the rooms was turned off at that time.  There was an “extensive laundry” in the basement done at “moderate prices.”  However doing one’s own laundry in the room was prohibited and “washerwomen will not be allowed in the rooms.”

The private, or "small," bedroom cost $1 extra -- Harper's Weekly April 3, 1878
The list went on.  Boarders could have no “dogs, cats, birds or pet animals of any kind;” baths were conveniently located to the rooms, but tickets to take a bath cost a dime.    Applicants were required to supply written “satisfactory certificates or references as to character,” be employed and over 12 years of age.

The list of rules ended with “No restrictions are placed upon any boarder in the Women’s Hotel.”

Finally on April 2, 1878 Mrs. Stewart officially opened the Women’s Hotel with a grand reception.   She sent out 13,000 invitations, each admitting a guest.  At 8 pm there were 1,500 people crowding Fourth Avenue.  By 9:00 there were as many as 3,000 to 4,000 guests who “move steadily along from corridor to corridor up the broad stairways, and through the sumptuous apartments,” said The New York Times.  “As they passed along, and for the first time the rich appointments of the house became revealed, expressions of admiration were heard on every hand.  Every promise that had been made appeared to have been fulfilled.  Every apartment was found to be complete, comfortable, even luxurious.”
Visitors on opening night would have filed up the grand staircase - Harper's Weekly
To decorate the halls and parlors, Mrs. Stewart brought in $300,000 in sculptures and paintings from her personal collection.  Among them were Bouchard’s “The Milkmaid,” and F. S. Lachenwitz’s “Deer Pursued by Wolves.”   This would prompt American Architect to give the back-handed compliment “The bald look of the interior is relieved as far as possible by a judicious use of works of art, and the arrangements will compare more than favorably with the best hotel in the country.”

Before the night was over, The Times estimated that nearly 20,000 persons visited the hotel.  “The best people of the City were there in such numbers that is would be impossible to attempt to give a list of the prominent ones.” 

The writer for American Architect and Building News who attended the opening did not share the glowing opinion of The Times critic.  Although the magazine praised the construction and furnishing, it abhorred the architecture, numbering it among John Kellum’s “inflictions upon New York in the several Stewart piles and the County Court house [that] recall Shakespeare’s lines upon the evil which is not interred with men’s bones.”  Artistically, the article called it “a magnificent failure, a two-million-dollar example of what New York does not want if she is ever to show a decent architectural face along her principal thoroughfares.”

It did, however, give luke-warm praise to the hotel’s purpose.  “If the plan of gathering together a thousand irresponsible young women into a single home shall meet permanent success, the Stewart Home will be a blessing.”

The New York Times felt that "permanent success" was guaranteed, saying “If the opening of the hotel can be taken as an augury of the destiny of the Women’s Hotel, it has before it a brilliant and abundantly successful future.”

It would not be the case.

Fifty-four days after the brilliant opening, Mrs. Stewart declared the hotel “a complete failure.”   She pointed out that costs of labor (it cost $25 a month to feed and house the 40 waiters; the head cook earned several thousand dollars a year as did his four assistants; and the hotel was spending more than $500 a day in interest, taxes, water and gas than it was receiving in rents).

There was no end to the opinions of why the hotel fell flat on its face so quickly.  Some pointed out that the delays in opening meant that rooms were available in the Spring—but boarding houses demanded commitments from fall until summer so most “toiling women” were already obligated.   Others said the room rates were too high; some that the expensive furnishings and carpets made the common women feel shabby.  The list went on:  the rules were too strict; women could not even bring a house plant into their rooms; the beds were too small.  But Judge Hilton, who handled the failure, knew exactly what the problem was.

“It is very simple and very natural,” he explained to The New York Times.  “I believe that you cannot get women to accept any help based on the condition of separation from the other sex, you can’t run a hotel for women successfully; and keep away the men.  Women will not be kept from the other sex.  I am convinced that they cannot be tempted by any comforts and luxuries to stay or live away from the other sex.  You can run a hotel for men exclusively—but for women, you can’t.  I believe that the majority of women not over 50 years of age entertain some hopes of a union and a great many over that age do; and you cannot do anything for them if you make the condition impair their chances in the least.”

Whatever the cause, Mrs. Stewart closed the hotel to do renovations necessary to reopen as a commercial hotel.    The changes would include a smoking room, billiard room, and barber shop.  Several retail spaces along 32nd street were closed off and converted into a barroom with a 38-foot bar backed by broad mirrors.   Intended for guests only, it could had no street entrance.   The other stores along 32nd Street were transformed into a series of dining rooms connected by arches capable of seating 324 persons.

Balconies and additional stairs would give greater access to the courtyard which “will undoubtedly be the favorite lounging place of the new guests,” according to Judge Hilton.  A large iron balcony, 20 feet wide, encircled the courtyard at the second floor “for promenading and lounging.”  It was designed so that it could be protected by glass in the winter, making it useful year-round.

Neither the closing of the hotel nor Judge Hilton’s opinions were well-accepted by the women of New York.  On June 4 the Cooper Union was crowded to capacity with women demanding justice.  “Never before did the historic hall contain such a multitude,” wrote The Times.  One woman after another addressed the crowd, demeaning the judge (“Judge Hilton ought to know that he does not rule this county; that it is not a kingdom, and that if it was he would not be selected as King") and pressuring Mrs. Stewart “to see that what was intended for working women shall not be taken from them and that an equivalent charity under better advisers be provided for them as she may in her woman’s heart elect.”

It was not to be.

The alterations, costing $50,000, were completed in time for the opening on June 8 of what was now called the Park Avenue Hotel.   Guests paid $3 a night for board and lodging and the first dinner, prepared by chef Edwards Schelscher, included 98 varieties of wine.  The Times remarked on the dining room, “resplendent with unique spun and polished brass chandeliers, on a table covered with the choicest of linen, adorned with a profusion of delicate and fragrant flowers, set off with porcelain from Pilivuyt and glass-ware from Baccarat.”

When the hotel reopened as the Park Avenue Hotel, the only exterior changes were to the first floor shops -- photo Hotels of New York November 1899 (copyright expired)
The Women’s Hotel, now the Park Avenue Hotel, had always been touted as a fire-proof structure.  Its iron fa├žade and brick-and-concrete structure gave every confidence that it was impervious to flame.   On October 10, 1881 it was put to the test when a stables directly in front of the hotel caught fire.   The employees soaked the front of the building with fire hoses to prevent windows from breaking in the heat and despite this many of the French plate glass windows cracked and some of the door casings were scorched.  But the building was overall unaffected.   Hilton, no longer a sitting judge, raised his head again to tell reporters “that even had the wind been blowing toward the hotel, the building would have been in no danger, as it was absolutely fire-proof.”

Twenty years later a stray ember would prove that wrong.

In February 1902 the 71st Regiment Armory caught fire.   As the blaze intensified, witnesses later recalled that an ember or spark shot into an opening of the Park Avenue Hotel.   Before long a fire had started in the hotel as well.  Although the building had no sprinkler system as was becoming common at the turn of the century, the construction of the building and the forward thinking of Kellum in designing exit stairs should have prevented any safety concerns.   Investigators would later impress that “The staircase is of iron.  At no time during the fire…were these stairs other than a safe retreat to the street from all floors.”

The guests panicked as the hallways filled with smoke and “charged” through the hotel to the exit stairs.  They found them padlocked.    Fire investigators described the stairways as “fire-proof brick shafts” which would have provided safe egress to the guests.

Instead, twenty-one people burned to death in the corridors of the Park Avenue Hotel.

The hotel was repaired and continued as a first-class hotel as the 20th century ground on.  The beautiful court yard, as Judge Hilton predicted, was one of the main features.  In 1907 What to Eat magazine said “The most pleasant feature of the Park Avenue Hotel…is the spacious open court, with its beautiful palms and excellent music, which make it exceedingly enchanting in the summer time.”

Motorcars, a carriage and a horse-drawn omnibus wait outside the hotel in 1906 -- Library of Congress.

In 1913 as the city toughened its stand against “encroachments” upon public property, the hotel was forced to remove the impressive two-story portico.  Architects Ford, Butler & Oliver designed a marquee and balcony over the main entrance to replace it.

An art exhibition in 1906 provides a rare interior view -- Library of Congress
Six years later the employees of the hotel walked out on November 12, 1919.  There was no general strike—they simply wanted to have fun.   Notice was given to all guests that if they wanted “any ice water, newspapers, magazines, stationery, stamps, mail or anything else generally asked for the request must be got in by 7. P. M. today.”  The bellboys and doormen, waiters and other staff were throwing their own ball.

“For a long time we have watched you enjoying yourselves at banquets, dinners, balls and dances,” the notice said, “We have tried to do our part in helping you to have a good time.  Now we want to have a good time ourselves.”  Guests were invited to join the ball at the Manhattan Casino.  “Tickets of admission are 50 cents.  Please wear evening dress.”

But New Yorkers were given a hint of what was to come on November 20, 1924 when The New York Times mentioned a rumor.  “A syndicate is reported to be purchasing the property as a site for a tall commercial structure.”  The newspaper reflected, as it often did when historic buildings were threatened, “Its spacious rooms and high ceilings and its large public halls still reflect the ambition of the builder to make it an outstanding structural achievement, an ambition which was also responsible for the huge court yard with its floral and garden treatment.”

Six months later the newspaper confirmed the rumor.  At the same time that it announced that William K. Vanderbilt’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street would be razed for a 20-story business building, it told of the 35-story office building that would replace the Park Avenue Hotel.  Henry Mandel had purchased the property from the A. T. Stewart estate as part of a $10 million project.

John Kellum’s colossal cast iron pile and Alexander Stewart’s lofty dream crashed to the ground before the end of the year. 


  1. Yikes, what a beaut. And unknown to me. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the great post ..this is quite interesting article..Got to know about the women's working hotel..