Monday, October 15, 2012

The Lost 1884 Murray Hill Hotel -- Park Avenue and 40th St.



Horses are almost gone from Park Avenue in this picture.  A pedestrian bridge spans the submerged train tracks in the middle of the avenue and the new Public Library on Fifth Avenue can be seen in the distance.  -- photo Library of Congress

In October 1871 the massive Grand Central Depot was opened, conveniently consolidating into one station the lines of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and New Haven Railroad, and the New York and Harlem Railroad.    Coaches and carriages now lined 42nd Street waiting to convey hundreds of businessmen and other travelers to the Broadway hotels.

Recognizing the need for a more convenient hotel, Hugh Smith began plans for the Murray Hill Hotel.  Smith was a part owner of the city stage coaches and a son of real estate developer Peter Smith.  He acquired the entire block front on Park Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets where an old car barn stood, just a block south of Grand Central.    “New York’s Great Industries” in 1884 praised choice of location saying “The site has been wisely chosen upon the brow of ‘Murray Hill,’ directly central to all the fashionable residential sections of the city, and what is of as great advantage, within a few steps only of New York’s Railroad Depot, the sole point of arrival and departure in the city proper for trains to all points on the continent.”

Smith commissioned architect Stephen Decatur Hatch to design his hotel.   Among other New York structures, he had designed the impressive French Second Empire-style Gilsey House Hotel on Broadway a decade earlier.   For the Murray Hill Hotel he would turn to the latest Eastlake and Queen Anne styles.    His resulting combination of brownstone, granite, cast iron and red brick was a reflection of late Victorian taste.

A side view from 40th Street looks north towards Grand Central Depot.  Little other development has yet occurred in the neighborhood.  -- postcard NYPL Collection
The symmetry of the eight-floor hotel was offset by corner towers of different heights capped with tiled pyramidal roofs.  A wide portico with Corinthian columns on Park Avenue served as the main entrance within the brownstone base.  A Ladies’ Entrance on 40th Street provided a less public entry for unescorted females.

Wealthy stockbroker Nathan S. Hunting partnered with the manager of the Hotel Bristol, David I. Hammond, to lease the Murray Hill Hotel from Hugh Smith as its proprietors.   The 600-room hotel opened on October 19, 1884 and drew immediate praise.  The New York Times called it “the very beau ideal of what an American hotel should be” and “New York’s Great Industries” said it “is the leading type of perfection in its field of enterprise.”   Hunting and Hammond had the furniture and carpeting custom made.   Ceilings of the public rooms were frescoed and the floors were inlaid in various colors of marble.  The Times quickly clarified that the floors were “not the hideous black and white inset diagonal.  The ‘sienna’ is set against the slate in a perfect carpet pattern, and the effect is most pleasing to the eye.”

The New York Times deemed the pattern of the marble floor "not hideous."  The ornate brass chandelier was electrically lit.  -- photo Library of Congress
A massive stairway of gray-mottled marble rose from the entrance hall which was illuminated by “splendid electric chandeliers,” as described in The Times.  “The chandeliers themselves are of polished brass, and are studded with crystals, which flash and glitter like real gems.”  Here an enormous stone fireplace warmed guests finding refuge from a snowy Park Avenue in winter months.

Two large dining rooms were on the main floor.   The Murray Hill was the only first-class hotel in the city that offered guests a choice of American or European service.  “Both a table d’hote and a restaurant a la carte have been provided,” said “New York’s Great Industries, “so that the wealthy residents of Murray Hill can forego all the inconvenience and care of keeping up an elaborate kitchen service, and dine regularly in comfort almost at their own doors.”

Ornately-stenciled ceilings and Winton carpeting adorned one of the two main dining rooms -- photo Library of Congress
The New York Times reported on the décor of the dining rooms.  “They are most elegantly furnished with carved oak chairs, upholstered in stamped leather, with Wilton carpets, silk velvet hangings in old gold on the walls, and the most exquisite frescoings.”

There were eight public parlors on the second floor, “charmingly furnished,” for either ladies or gentlemen.    The private rooms were designed so they could be opened into large suites with private halls and baths.  “Most of them are furnished with open grate fireplaces, marble mantels, wardrobes, and other conveniences,” said The Times.

These three connected rooms--a writing room, reading room and library--were for ladies only -- photograph Library of Congress
“New York’s Great Industries” reported that “Comfort as well as luxury have been secured in all cases, and the most refined and wealthy families of New York and the other great centres are agreeably surprised to enter upon the possession of such luxurious apartments, fitting up as they are with the latest triumphs of art and science.”

One of the elegant private suites.  Through the doorway hung with portieres are several more rooms. -- photo Library of Congress
The “latest triumphs of art and science” included an ice making machine in the cellar capable of producing 10 tons of ice every 24 hours.  The same machine refrigerated five large meat rooms, fish, milk, wine, and poultry, and froze 2,000 carafes of water daily.

Although the proprietors intended to make the Murray Hill a fashionable hotel, they enticed patrons with reasonable room rates.  “The lessees intend to make the Murray Hill Hotel one of the finest in the world and at the same time not to beggar their guests by exorbitant rates.  A man can live at this house for $4 per day,” reported The Times (about $85.00 today).

Beautiful and ingenious cast iron fire escapes encircle the 40th Street circular bay in 1935 -- photo by Berenice Abbott, NYPL Collection
The hotel would not go long before tragedy struck.  Around 4:00 on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day in 1886 two of the workers in the butcher shop, 25-year old George Stratford and Andrew J. Donnelly, got playful.   In the midst of what The New York Times called their “skylarking,” Stratford was stabbed.  A physician was immediately called, but the butcher died at 9:30 and Donnelly was arrested.

In November 1887 P. T. Barnum was staying at the Murray Hill Hotel when he got word that his Bridgeport, Connecticut museum burned to the ground.   Not only was his large collection of curiosities destroyed, but so too was his zoo.   The showman sent a telegram on November 21 from the hotel to Tom Bradford, his “favorite boy hunter,” who was in India at the time.

“Every single animal, except 21 elephants, a rhinoceros, and a few other animals, destroyed by fire last night in Bridgeport.  Employ a full band of experienced hunters, and ship the rarest and wildest beats to be found in India as soon as captured.”

Potted palms, leaded glass fixtures and a grand stone fireplace grace the foyer lounge -- photo Library of Congress
Barnum was just one of the well-known guests to patronize the Murray Hill Hotel.  Decades later the Works Progress Administration’s “New York City Guide” would recall “This hostelry was patronized by such diverse celebrities as Mark Twain, Senator George Hearst, Jay Gould, ‘Diamond Jim’ Brady, and Presidents Cleveland and McKinley.”

The well-heeled guests were shaken on January 27, 1902.  That day, just before noon, workers constructing the subway tunnel under Park Avenue set a small fire in the dynamite shed directly in front of the hotel to thaw out the explosives then walked away.  A few minutes later master mechanic William Tubbs noticed that the fire had spread and rushed with a hose.    It was too late.

An enormous explosion followed.  “Tubbs’s head was blown off and he died instantly,” reported The Evening World.   There were 250 guests inside the hotel at the time.  Every window on the Park Avenue and 40th Street sides was blown out and a 30-foot pit, 10 feet deep, opened up on the street in front of the building.  Timbers were sent into the air higher than the top of the hotel, smashing to the pavement two of three blocks away.  Pandemonium reigned in the streets.

Damage to the hotel was significant, accompanied by loss of lives.  “Ceilings had fallen in in many rooms,” said The New York Tribune.  “A piece of timber, hurled as if it were a javelin, went partly through the cornice at the eighth story, and remained sticking fast there.”

One guest from British Columbia, J. Roderick Robertson, was asleep in his room.  The ceiling crashed down, crushing his skull and killing him.   The old man who ran the cigar store in the basement, Cyrus Adams, was crushed to death by a piece of timber that crashed through a window.  One of the waiters, James Carr, died on the way to the hospital.   


Rubble fills Park Avenue in front of the Murray Hill Hotel following the explosion -- (top photo The Evening World, January 27, 1902; bottom The New York Tribune January 28, 1902, copyrights expired)
“Terror and excitement reigned supreme in the hotel for a time,” said The Tribune.  “Many women, some of them bleeding from cuts, ran from their rooms, calling for aid in getting out of the building.  Many men in the hotel seemed to lose their heads in the panic.”   

Most of the injuries in the hotel were caused by flying glass and other debris.   Edward C. Fiedler was at the hotel recuperating from a long illness in his suite on the third floor.  The 56-year old died a week later from what Dr. E. P. Fowler called “shock.”

The day following the explosion, the hotel’s treasurer W. L. Jaques described the damage.  “The walls and ceiling of the main hallway have been cut up to a considerable extent; the front doors were blown open.  The kitchen, billiard room, café, and front rooms of the basement and first floor have been wrecked.  Practically every window in the building is broken.  We are lucky to get off with so few of our guests killed and wounded.”

Jaques estimated the extent of damage at between $100,000 and $200,000.  It would be the beginning of years of law suits between the Murray Hill Hotel and the IRT Subway. The hotel was quickly restored.  But it would not remain that way for long.

Jaques’ son, Leclair Jaques,  lived in the hotel, in an apartment on the 6th floor with his wife and their 4-year old son, Channing.   A well-known golfer, he was away from the hotel two years later when fire started in the apartment on New Year’s Day 1904.  Thick black smoke filled the baby’s room and when Mrs. Jacques tried to rescue him, she was overcome by smoke.  The grandmother,  Mrs. W. L. Jaques, rushed into the apartment with blankets and saved them.

In the meantime, the dense smoke continued to spread through the “fireproof” structure.  Two sevants, Kate Carney and Mary O’Brien panicked when their rooms filled with smoke and rushed out onto the roof.   Although a crowd that had gathered on the street below shouted for them to stay where they were, they dropped from the roof to a sixth floor balcony—about 12 feet.  From here they were dragged to safety through an open window by police.

The fire grew to three alarms and firemen chopped away flooring to get at the flames.   Long lengths of fire house were dragged up the circular fire escape to the 6th floor.    Some guests panicked.  The Times reported that some “became panicstricken and began to rush about in all directions, carrying with them bundles and valuables.”  Others were not so concerned.

“While these scenes were enacted in some parts of the hotel many guests remained calmly either in the café or in their apartments coolly watching the firemen at work,” the article said.

Four hours later, at around 7:00 p.m., the fire was finally extinguished.  In light of the still-recent explosion, Jaques attempted to downplay the incident, saying that “the damage done by the fire was trifling.”  Firemen, however, estimated the damage at $15,000 and The Times noted that “The amount of water necessary to extinguish the blaze drenched every apartment situated directly underneath the burning space on the sixth floor, and even trickled in great streams through the ceiling of the magnificent north dining room on the ground floor.”  Firemen reported that between 16 and 20 apartments were wrecked by fire or water.


At the turn of the century, horse-drawn vehicles still traveled Park Avenue (right) and brownstone mansions replaced empty lots.  The circular cast iron fire escape has not yet been installed.  -- photo Library of Congress
In December 1905 delegates from 58 colleges and universities gathered at the Murray Hill to reform college football.    The new organization, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States would later be renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  It set out to revamp the rules of the game.  Captain Palmer E. Pierce, the West Point delegate called the old rules committee “a self-constituted, self perpetuating and irresponsible body, which, in order to make the rules more favorable to the playing talent available at particular institution, had degraded a once noble sport to the plan of a brutal gladiatorial contest.”

The series of meetings of the IAAUS would change the game of college football forever.  The minutes noted that “The game of football as practiced under existing rules…has developed undesirable features” and the group sought “to remove these objectionable phrases of the sport.”  Along with rewriting the rules, the conference recommended that the authorities of the colleges and universities “hold themselves as ultimately responsible for the conduct of athletics within their respective institutions.”

Throughout the hotel’s existence its builder’s sister, Catherine T. Smith, lived here.  The last survivor of the Smith family, she died in the hotel on April 11, 1906.   A devout Catholic, she left the majority of her sizable estate to the Church.     As part of the settlement of the Smith Estate, it was announced on October 5, 1909 that the hotel would be later sold at auction.  On the day of the sale, May 1, 1910, The New York Times reminisced about the old hotel, saying it “may in some respects be referred to as historical.”   The article said that since its opening in 1884 “until now has always been a quiet, refined, homelike house with an all-year-around clientele.”

Benjamin L. M. Bates purchased the hotel that day for $1,796,500.  He was a familiar face to hotel residents.  Bates had started out in the Murray Hill Hotel as assistant night clerk.  He was promoted to manager and then leased the hotel as its proprietor.

Amazingly, the Victorian furniture and decor survived through the Great Depression -- photo Library of Congress
On Christmas Eve 1920 retired coal dealer Robert L. Ireland and his wife were living here.   Despite the hotel’s high-end guests, security was less than might have been desired.  Three months earlier a burglar had entered the Ireland’s suite and since that time Mary Esther Wood Ireland stored her jewelry in the hotel vault.  One thief, however, did not know this.

Around 5:45 in the morning on December 24 Mrs. Ireland heard a noise in the drawing room and wakened her husband.   He listened carefully.   Later he told investigators “I looked at the clock and sitting on the edge of the bed for a few seconds I decided Mrs. Ireland must have been aroused by mice.”

The noise was not mice.

When Ireland then heard footsteps, he pulled a pistol from the dresser and tip-toed barefoot to doorway and saw that someone had brazenly turned on the electric light.

“That convinced me a burglar was in the suite.   I decided to shoot him on sight,” he told detectives.  “When I peered into the drawing room my eyes fairly bulged.  A boyish-looking fellow was sitting in the centre of the floor, his back turned on me.  He was busily trying to pry open Mrs. Ireland’s jewel case with a screwdriver.”

Ireland could not bring himself to shoot a boy and, brandishing his pistol, ordered the would-be thief to put his hands in the air.   As Ireland told his wife to call the police, the teen picked up a small chair and hurled it at the man.   In an instant the two were fighting and Mrs. Ireland was landing blow after blow on the boy from behind.

At one point Mary Ireland pinned the boy down, but he broke her hold by stabbing her arm with the screwdriver.  Ireland responded by knocking the thief across the room with a fist to the face.   As he repeatedly hit the boy over the head with a broken chair leg, to no avail, Mrs. Ireland tackled him.

For 15 minutes the trio struggled, knocking furniture over and tumbling in a snarled ball.   Mary Ireland repeated screamed for help.  No one came.  Finally the intruder broke free and ran down the hallway.  Just before he got free, Ireland gave him one last blow with the chair leg.  “I put all the strength at my command into the blow.  The fellow didn’t fall,” he reported.  “I said to him, ‘You’ve got the hardest head I ever struck.’”

The Irelands were furious with the other guests who did nothing to help.  “During all this tumult not a soul came to our aid.  I saw more than twenty men guests poke their heads out their doors, and quickly pull them in again and slam the doors shut when they learned I was pursuing a burglar,” complained Ireland.

Even as the Great Depression darkened New York City the Murray Hill Hotel retained its status and eminent clientele.  Early in 1933 author Pearl S. Buck moved into a suite of rooms here.  Walking into the hotel then was like walking into a time capsule of the Gilded Age.  The WPA’s “New York City Guide” said of it “The hotel with its red and white marble floors, carmine plush, gilt-framed mirrors, and rococo walls and ceilings, has been little changed…The lobby, entered from Park Avenue by a double stairway, is decorated in red and gold in the best Victorian tradition.”  The guide noted that of its 600 rooms, many “retain the original furniture.”

But that was all about to change.

On December 13, 1935 Benjamin Bates died in his apartment in the hotel.  The 71-year old bachelor had succumbed to pneumonia after three weeks illness.  Although the bulk of his nearly $4 million estate went to his sister Adelaide Roberts who also lived in the hotel, there was a somewhat surprising codicil to the will.   An agreement provided Helen M. Bates with $300 a month for the rest of her life.  Helen claimed to be Bates’s wife.  The New York Times said “The agreement explained that Mr. Bates disputed the marital claim, but was anxious to avoid notoriety.”

Berenice Abbott captured busy New Yorkers rushing past the hotel portico in 1935, the year Benjamin Bates died -- photo NYPL Collection
Within two months Adelaide Roberts had sold the Murray Hill to the Grand Union Hotel Management Corporation which owned a number of New York City hotels.   The corporation quickly announced that the hotel “will be modernized within the next few months to meet the changing needs of the present.”

Later that year Governor Alf Landon took over a 4-room suite during a visit to the city.  “Despite his party leaders, who urged a newer or larger hotel,” reported The Times, “the Governor decided in favor of the Murray Hill, where he had always stopped when in the city.”  More than a dozen other rooms were rented to others of the Governor’s party and the lobby was redecorated in a sunflower motif for the visit.

Despite a devastating explosion and a fire or two, the Murray Hill Hotel lived on.  Then in 1946 the owners announced the building would be razed and that the residents would have to find other accommodations.  The residents refused.

A series of court arguments followed.  The attorneys for the residents argued that they were “tenants” because of long-term occupancy.  The lawyers for the owners insisted they were “guests.”  In the end, it was a lost battle.  By December 1948 when plans for the new office building were announced, the Murray Hill Hotel had already been demolished.

In its place rose a $20 million skyscraper which The Times called “New York’s greatest office building of the post-war era.”  

2 comments:

  1. very interesting plot. thank you very much for the information :-) wolf guenter thiel

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  2. Wow! Thank you for this. Back in the '40s, my grandfather took over the lease of this hotel until it was demolished. My mother said it was "rather seedy" by then. After the demolition, grandfather opened "The New Murray Hill Hotel" on W. 35th St., now a Comfort Inn. It was much smaller and less grand. I recall running into someone who mentioned he had bought some of the furniture from the old hotel at auction. He said that back in the day it was a hangout for New York musicians. They would meet there before heading out to their gigs.

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