Saturday, November 10, 2012

The 1912 Vanderbilt Hotel -- Park Avenue and 34th Street



The over-blown Adam-style fans can be seen among the extended sidewalk awnings.
Among New York City’s fabulously wealthy citizens, it was the Astor Family that was known for its hotel building.   Beginning with John Jacob Astor’s exclusive 1836 Astor Hotel on Broadway to the hulking Waldorf-Astoria and then to John Jacob Astor IV’s luxurious 1901 St. Regis Hotel and 1906 Knickerbocker Hotel, the Astor name was as synonymous with hotels as it was real estate.  But the Vanderbilts had a slice of the hotel pie, too.

In 1911, as architects Warren & Wetmore were completing one Vanderbilt project—the new Beaux Arts-style Grand Central Terminal that straddled Park Avenue at 42nd Street—they were called upon to start another.    Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt envisioned an enormous upscale hotel conveniently located to the new terminal, just six blocks south on Park Avenue.  “Freddy” intended it to be done with true Vanderbilt class.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt would meet an untimely, but heroic, end.
Touted as fireproof, the building’s elegant façade would be clad in terra cotta fabricated by the New Jersey Terra Cotta Company.  Unlike the innumerable Beaux Arts structures appearing throughout the city with their lush garlands of fruits and flowers, and frothy embellishments, the Vanderbilt Hotel would be refined and classic, harkening back to 18th century England.

photograph The American Architect, February 14, 1912 -- copyright expired

The Sun, on March 17, 1912, gushed with approval.  “Everything has been made to correspond with the Adam period of English design intended to be worked into the building.”  The architects treated the ground floor windows with over-blown Adam-style fluted fans.  Inside, painted panels and delicate plaster ceiling ornaments echoed the period.

But despite The Sun's assertions, Warren & Wetmore allowed themselves some play in the Adams style.  The brick facade was decorated with terra cotta lions' heads ad other not-so-Adams motifs.  And the extraordinary parapet was spiked with enormous 500-pound terra cotta sculptures wearing fruity garlands--some apparently depicting Bacchus, others less identifiable.  The liberty of style would cause the Works Progress Administration's 1939 "New York City Guide" to call it "an example of the eclectic use of Italian Renaissance, Mexican, and Adam influences." 

“The architects have not been content to make of the front the big façade which is usually found in large buildings,” said The Sun.  The general plan is excellent, involving in addition to two frontages two large open courts, preserving more the comfort of the guest by giving to each room an outside window.”

The "two large open courts" described by The Sun resulted in three nearly separate towers -- photo by Alice Lum
Nevertheless, the interior appointments on the whole kept to the theme.  The silverware, provided by Gorham, was designed in an 18th century pattern as was the furniture.  Even the steel and iron fire doors, visible to guests, were treated in period.    The Sun said “they are not alone fireproof, they are presentable.  The casing is thoughtfully designed and singularly interesting in detail.  It is not merely a fireproof and smoke tight element of an interesting twentieth century building, but seen by the thoughtful must forever be a reminder of the culture of the eighteenth century when men of the type of Adam, Wedgwood, Chippendale and others ventured to present to an appreciative audience their conception of what the refinements of the classic period meant to them.”

The American Architect was as impressed with the craftsmanship as the design.  “It shows also a thorough understanding of up to date construction and of refinement of decoration.  It is so evidently the work of men who recognize and appreciate many of the things greater in a sense than architecture, while being neither callous nor indifferent to the tenets of the academic goddess, paying due allegiance to her ever changing moods.”

The hotel opened on January 10, 1912 and three days later its fireproof boasts would be put to the test.  On the fourth floor packing crates of excelsior stacked in a room suddenly ignited.   Although the fire “burned intensely,” according to The Sun, it “did practically no damage.”  The report of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters concluded that the confinement of “this intensely hot fire to a relatively small space” was due to the architects’ and engineers’ forward thinking designs.

Alfred Vanderbilt had the top two floors of the new hotel outfitted as a private home for his family.   The New-York Tribune noted that the Vanderbilt Suite was “the equivalent of a complete town house.”  He moved in with his wife, Margaret, their two sons and staff of servants.

The living room of the Vanderbilt family -- The New-York Tribune January 2, 1916 (copyright expired)
Below ground was a vaulted space known as the Della Robbia Room.   Tiled in Gustavino tiles laid in a herringbone pattern, it was decorated by Giovanni Battista Smeraldi.   Smeraldi made a name for himself painting the ceilings and walls of American hotels and civic buildings, changing his name to John B. Smeraldi.  Art critic Helen Henderson approved of the décor.   In her 1917 “A Loiterer in New York” she noted “The decoration of the Della Robbia Room of the Vanderbilt Hotel, done by Smeraldi, a clever Italian, in imitation of the famous Chambre des Singes, of the chateau of Chantilly, is an example of consistent and agreeable interior decoration, charmingly adapted to its destination."

The two-story Della Robbia Room featured Gustavino tiles -- The American Architect, February 14, 1912 (copyright expired)
The lobby, clad in Caen stone, was decorated with sculptured panels by Beatrice Chandler.

Things went well in the new hotel until May.  Then 150 of the hotel waiters, cooks and bus boys (known at the time as omnibuses) went on strike.  Among their demands were one day off every week, hours reduced to 10 hours a day, minimum wages of $10 a week for steady waiters and $7 a week for omnibuses, and “good and wholesome food” with a “daily change of menu.”

Waiters in the dining room (above) quickly went on strike in May 1912-- The American Architect, February 14, 1912 (copyright expired)
With labor problems put to bed, guests and full-time residents alike returned to their luxurious life within the halls of the Vanderbilt Hotel.   Even as World War I spread, cancer-like, across Europe, America went about its day-to-day life, seemingly unaffected.  But that would all change.

In April 1915 Alfred Vanderbilt planned a trip to London.  As a director of the International Horse Show Association, he was to attend a board meeting there in May.  He also intended to present a fleet of vehicles to the British Red Cross while he was there.   Margaret decided to stay home at the Vanderbilt Hotel for this trip and Alfred prepared to go alone, taking only his valet.

The night before his ship set sail, Alfred and Margaret attended the theater, seeing Frohman’s and Belasco’s coproduction of A Celebrated Case.  The following morning, on May 1, the Vanderbilts awoke to find a startling notice in the newspapers.  Framed in black a warning from the Imperial German Embassy reminded travelers that war existed between Germany and Great Britain and anyone sailing on a ship flying the English flag “do so at their own risk.”

The New-York Tribune May 1, 1915 -- (copyright expired)
Reportedly the couple laughed at the warning.  For one thing, Freddy Vanderbilt had a history of escaping maritime tragedy.  He had changed his mind one day before the RMS Titanic sailed, deciding on an alternative ship.  Vanderbilt and his valet confidently boarded the RMS Lusitania that morning.   They would never return.

Eyewitness on board reported that as the Lusitania sunk, having been torpedoed by a German U-boat, Alfred Vanderbilt removed his life jacket and personally strapped it on to a mother holding an infant.  Unable to swim, he realized his act of heroism would seal his own doom.  His body was never found.

A 1915 postcard shows the charming Mother Good Playroom, one of two rooms specifically designed for children.
Freddy's widow, Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt, an American divorcee and heir to the Bromo-Seltzer fortune, left the spectacular Vanderbilt Suite shortly thereafter.   Early in January 1916 it was leased to the newly-founded Women’s City Club.   The group was composed of women of vastly-varied backgrounds.

The New-York Tribune noted “A visit to the comfortable clubrooms discovers women of trades, professions, reform of uplift practices gathered into groups which discuss the disposal of high grade delinquents, baby week and the rapid removal of snow with quite as much freedom as the latest labor protocol or Brander Matthews’s definition of a ‘highbrow.”

In the meantime, downstairs the suites filled with the wealthy and the celebrated.  In the spring of that year Howard Hughes and his wife arrived, soon to be joined by Howard Hughes, Jr., known as “Sonny.”  Sonny was deemed by Hughes’s friends as “too over-refined, nervous, and sissified,” according to biographer Charles Higham.

He had barely arrived when he suffered an attack of infantile paralysis while having an argument with his parents.    The suite was transformed into a sort of hospital room staffed with 24-hour doctors and nurses.  As it turned out, his sudden attack was merely his spoiled machination to obtain sympathy.

In 1920, the same year that Admiral Lewis Bayly of the Royal Navy was given a suite of rooms during his New York visit, opera star Enrico Caruso and his family moved into the former Vanderbilt Suite (the Woman’s City Club had taken over a brownstone house nearby).    The New York Times quietly remarked on August 11 that “Enrico Caruso has taken the apartment at the Hotel Vanderbilt which was specially built and decorated for the late Alfred G. Vanderbilt.”

The tenor filled the immense apartment with his artwork and the mementos of his illustrious career.  He was in declining health, however, and in the spring of 1921 he left the Vanderbilt for Italy.   Before departing, he ordered his secretary, Bruno Zirato, to crate up everything and have it shipped to Italy.  “Who knows, Bruno?  I may never get back to New York,” he said..

“Until shortly before he left,” reported The New-York Tribune, “Mr. Caruso retained his cherished art objects here in his suite.”  But, in an apparent precognitive act, “he ordered it all packed into a score of large trunks and packing cases.  Everything went, even to the magnificent collection of gifts of all sorts which were lavished on hi on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his connection with the Metropolitan Opera Company.”

On August 21, 1921 the tenor died in Naples.   On the day of his funeral, Enrico Caruso, Jr. passed the day in the Vanderbilt suite with Bruno Zirata.

Howard “Sonny” Hughes, Jr. would come back to the hotel where he caused the earlier uproar.  During his honeymoon in 1925 he stayed here with his new wife, Ella.  He had had a pair of Rolls-Royce Silver Clouds, one for each of them, shipped to New York and waiting for them.   Little had changed in Sonny and before the honeymoon was over he had tired of married life, preferring to spend his time in nightclubs with his friends.

When journalist-humorist Ring Lardner’s East Hampton house was severely damaged by a storm in 1931, he and his wife Ellis Abbott took up residency at the Vanderbilt.   On February 13, he began a letter saying “My health hasn’t been so good.  I guess I am paying for my past.”   In fact the writer was suffering from tuberculosis and a heart ailment which would lead to his death in 1933.

As the 20th century moved on, the hold hotel declined.  It suffered foreclosure in 1935 during the Great Depression.  Although the New York World’s Fair of 1964 brought a much-needed boast it was not enough.  The New York Times reported on June 26, 1966 “Resurrected, it survived in faded elegance until the decline of the hotel business following the closing of the World’s Fair last fall.”
Patrons enjoy a drink in The Purple Tree Room in the 1960s.
An investment group purchased the 54-year old structure with intentions of renovating it into a dual function office and apartment building.    The top 18 floors would become studio and one-bedroom apartments while the lower floors would be offices and commercial space.  Warren & Wetmore’s Adam-style exteriors on the lower floors were about to go.

“New aluminum-and-glass curtain walls are being erected to sheath the office floors, while the masonry façade of the hotel will be retained on the upper stories,” said the article.   But that was just the beginning of the brutality.

The elegant Adam-style lower floors were replaced with featureless glass and metal -- photo by Alice Lum
Penthouse apartments were being constructed on the roof but the view was obstructed by the terra cotta parapet and its massive sculptures.   In June 1966 eighteen of the heads were removed, resulting in a gash in the roofline.   “The heavy pieces were removed over a period of several days by a 10-man crew of the Drachman Demolition Company,” said The Times, “which used jack hammers to cut them off the parapet.”
To create a view from the newly-built penthouse, the parapet and sculptures of the center section were scrapped -- photo by Alice Lum
When the new apartments were available for occupancy in 1967, among the first residents were Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wilson.  The Wilsons had held their wedding reception in the Vanderbilt on July 4, 1953.

Despite the vandalism of the lower levels and the partial decapitation of the parapet, Alfred Vanderbilt’s classy experiment in the hotel business still looms majestically over Park Avenue.

9 comments:

  1. about 15 or so years ago, Ebay offered a set of silver plated flatware that the seller claimed had been specially commissioned to furnish "Enrico Caruso's suite at the Vanderbilt Hotel". knowing that at one point the Vanderbilt had been owned by the Manger Hotel chain,I alerted a friend of mine whose grandfather had founded the hotel chain. He, in turn called his mother who recalled that as a newly wed (this would be in the mid 1950's) she and her husband had lived at the Vanderbilt, courtesy of her father-in-law, in what was always described as "Enrico Caruso's suite". The silver, alas, was unfamiliar to her.

    And were you able to discover if indeed, as rumor has it, there is a very grand railroad "station" deep under the Vanderbilt Hotel,constructed exclusively for the use of the Vanderbilt family? I'm sure the story is apocryphal, but it is oft repeated.

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    1. I could find no reference to an underground rail connection to Grand Central; so I have a pretty good idea that the story is urban myth. But a good story, anyway!

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    2. I lived in the building from 2010-2012, the basement levels are all utility rooms and a large laundry room for residents. Underneath the Duane Reade is all storage they unload trucks into. No grand railroad station I was ever able to find. I cannot fathom the gorgeous Della Robbia Room pictured in that space.a

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    3. There are rumors about the 'secret' train station that was under the building. Alfred Vanderbilt did have a private train that went from the Vanderbilt Hotel to Grand Central Station and built the Park Ave Tunnel that goes from 33rd Street to Grand Central Station for that purpose. It is now used by cars. I believe the tiled ceiling of what is now Wolfgang's Steakhouse is the only part left from the Della Robbia Room. That ceiling is the only land-marked part of the building. The building has a basement and a sub-basement.

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  2. I found an old skeleton key from this hotel attached to a pendant with one side a lady playing a harp the other side is the name and cross streets, how would I find out if this is authentic?

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    1. It is authentic. What room number is it?

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  3. The room number is 1630. Do you know if anyone who would want it?

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  4. Hello,
    Just found this & wondering if key is still available to purchase? Thanks

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