Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 1906 Trowmart Inn -- No. 607 Hudson Street

photo by Alice Lum
John T. Martin’s clothing business received an appreciable boost when he landed a large contract to supply uniforms to the Army during the Civil War.  Later he joined with Marvin Rogers to establish a wholesale clothing company which eventually became Rogers, Peet & Co.

In 1877 Martin’s son, William R. H. Martin, headed the company which would become one of the most recognized men’s shops in Manhattan.  Rogers, Peet & Co. offered ready-made clothing to middle class men and young men.  The firm’s success was due, in a large part, to treating its customers like the well-heeled clients of the expensive custom haberdasheries.

By the turn of the century William Martin had amassed a substantial fortune and he invested heavily in Manhattan real estate.   In 1900 he opened a large hotel near Times Square, naming it after himself—the Martinique.   Within five years he would turn his attention to a less-fashionable hotel in a less exhilarating neighborhood.

In the first years of the 20th century New York City teemed with unmarried women who worked in shops and department stores, or apparel and millinery factories.  Their long hours earned them a weekly paycheck of a few dollars—scarcely enough to buy food, let alone pay rent and do laundry.   While Victorian compassion fell on the indigent, the struggling working class girl was most often overlooked.  It raised the ire of one young woman who wrote to The New York Times.

“There is so much that must be done for the very poor that the needs of the middle class—that class that makes up the bone and sinew of our civilization—are quite overlooked.  The children of the poor area sent to the country to spend the hot Summers, while the children of the middle class, too sensitive and jealous of their self-respect to accept the charity that the poor accept as their right, are left to swelter, perhaps to die, in the hot city.”

Martin intended to do his part to alleviate that problem.   He began devising plans for a hotel specifically aimed at the working girl.   He had another solution to the struggles the young girls faced, as well.  A perfect means to raising the young women out of their mire of low wages and scant survival was marriage.

Martin purchased land on the southwest corner of Hudson and West 12th Streets and commissioned architect Ralph S. Townsend to design a six-story hotel in what The New York Times called “Colonial design.”   Townsend filed plans on March 2, 1905 for a $150,000 structure “of granite and brick, trimmed with terra cotta.”

Townsend was inspired by the current popularity of Colonial architecture -- photo Museum of the City of New York
The clothier’s young son, Trowbridge Martin, had tragically died and Martin named the proposed hotel in his memory, combining the first and last names.  It would be the Trowmart Inn.
Townsend incorporated handsome neo-Georgian elements into the structure -- photo by Alice Lum
The hotel was completed by April of 1906.  The Greenwich Village location was conveniently located to the shopping district where many of the young women worked, as well as to the West Side factories.  Able to accommodate 400 girls, the accommodations were comfortable if not luxurious.  Each 10 by 12 foot room had a window for ventilation and a closet.   A bed, dressing table, washstand, table and “a couple of chairs” filled the rooms.  The Times was impressed with the “mammoth” dining room with its 16 windows with muslin curtains.  “Aside from the bright air that comes naturally from these, the room has an added cheeriness from the ecru coloring.  The furnishings of the room are to be of dull antique oak and the tables will seat two, four, six or eight girls.”

The no-nonsense dining room must have rung with the chatter of hundreds of young girls seated on the bentwood chairs -- photo Museum of the City of New York
Ralph Townsend was especially proud of the kitchens, bakery and refrigerators in the basement, telling the newspapers that “neither the St. Regis nor the Waldorf-Astoria is superior in its culinary appointments.”   Girls were allowed to do their laundry, for free, in the porcelain tubs and use the building’s gas for ironing.

The lobby featured a stained glass panel, Mission Oak furniture and somewhat bizarre brass-and-milk-glass lighting fixtures -- photo Museum of the City of New York
“The girl who may wash and iron her shirtwaists, her little turnovers, her handkerchiefs, and her stockings at her boarding house considers herself a particularly privileged person,” said The Times.  “At Mr. Martin’s hotel she is to be encouraged to do her ‘small wash,’ and without extra charge she may use gas with which to iron it.  Each floor is equipped with a small ironing room which has tables, boards, irons, and holders all ready for the smoothing out of the dainty small accessories so dear to the feminine heart.”

But there was that matter of marriage.  “William R. H. Martin,” reminded The Times, “believes that all true happiness comes through marriage.  So a premium is to be placed on all matrimonial engagements which take place within the handsome new hostelry.”  To that end, Martin had Townsend design six parlors where the girls could entertain young men with decorum.

Two pianos and a fireplace made the main parlor a focal point of social activity.  Three times a week the furniture would be moved to the side for a dance.  -- photo Museum of the City of New York
“Girls of gentleness and refinement do not care to be courted upon the open highway, nor in public parks, and thus the world is filling with spinsters, who, according to Mr. Martin, had they a proper place in which to entertain their admirers would develop into happy, excellent wives and still happier mothers,” explained the newspaper.

There were also a library, a medical office with a full-time nurse, and—much to the delight of the new residents—numerous bathrooms.   A journalist from The New York Sun interviewed a few of the new residents and one girl exclaimed, “Think of having five bathrooms on every floor!”

Another girl added “And of a mattress without lumps and a clothes closet that shuts and locks.” 

The working girls excitedly piled on compliments.  “What I like best of all is the sewing room.  I’m always in a hurry to get through my dinner so that I can take my sewing and have one of the fine new sewing machines all to myself for an hour.  And a gas stove and irons at my elbow to press the seams without making a long journey to the kitchen and be snubbed by a landlady for wanting to press a seam at all.  I can make all my own shirt waists now, evenings.”

“I like the laundry best,” said another girl.  “All any of us has to furnish is the soap.  Last night I washed out a lot of small pieces, dried and ironed them before 9 o’clock.”

To enjoy such luxuries the girls paid $3 a week for a shared room, $4.00 for a single room.  Two meals a day were included (breakfast and supper), and for 15 cents extra lunch could be had on holidays and Sundays.  The rules, as compared with other women-only hotels, were few.

“No man, not even a great-grandfather, may be entertained by a guest in her room or taken on any pretext above the ground floor,” reported The Sun.  While guests were not questioned if they returned at a late hour, they were “not expected to make a practice of staying out late at night.”  The main parlor had two pianos, an accommodation that prompted another rule.  They “must not be operated at the same time if the players are bent on giving different selections.”

Why one of the pianos was not moved into a different sitting room seems never to have been addressed.

Townsend focused on the details -- variegated brick, splayed lintels, paneled lintels, and a festooned bandcourse--photo by Alice Lum
To be eligible for a room in the Trowmart Inn, the girls had to earn less than $12 per week and be under 35 years old.   When Martin was asked why there was an age limit, he said “An age limit is introduced in order to make it possible to reserve the inn for its original purpose, which is to furnish refined, comfortable quarters and good food at small cost to young girls employed in stores and elsewhere at small salaries and who find it more difficult to get accommodations in boarding houses than do women of more mature years.”

But then he added another thought.  “I believe also that an age limit will conduce to the greater happiness of younger women guests, most of whom like to romp and sing and play ragtime better than to sit quietly and read.  The nearer the same age the guests are the less likely one is to annoy another.”

On the bulletin board of the main hallway was another restriction.  Girls were asked not “to appear in the halls or dining room at dinner in their kimonos—complaints had been made.”

The Trowmart Inn made at least one working girl regret that she eked some minor success.  “When I consider what the girls will enjoy at the inn,” she wrote to The New York Times in July 1906, “I can almost find it in my heart to regret that my present salary renders me ineligible for participation…And surely Mr. Martin must have had the advice of some good woman, for how else could he have known how dear to the heart of all girls are the little economies that must be practiced with a small salary, and are delighted in when a large salary makes them unnecessary?  Oh, Mr. Martin!  Why, oh, why did you not evolve this plan when I was working for $8 a week and paying $6 for the privilege of freezing and starving in a boarding house?”
photo by Alice Lum

A year after opening the Trowmart Inn was filled.  The World’s Work magazine noted “There is a very pleasant social life.  Mr. Martin had a number of small reception rooms built on the main floor.  Here a young woman may receive her visitors with some privacy.  There is nothing ‘institutional’ about the hotel, and no Puritanic rules are imposed.  The girls dance and play whist or euchre.  The elevators stop running at 11 o’clock.  The girls who come after that time must walk up the stairs.”

Three times a week dances were held in the parlor.  The New York Sun noted on March 29, 1908, “Men friends are invited in on these three evenings, for dancing is like quarrelling; you can do it alone, but it isn’t so much fun.  Silk hats and frock coats punctuate the assemblies, evening dress is not positively insisted upon.  But to quote again one of the opinion expressing class, which sometimes exists under 35, if a man wants to make himself popular with the girls it’s a very good way for him to climb into the highest collar and the cleanest shirt he has got, and if he pins an artificial gardenia in his buttonhole the chances are he can have his pick of the garden of real flowers—girls.”  The dances were, no doubt, a development of William R. H. Martin’s intentions of marrying off his residents.

The Sun added, “no wonder a girl views a raise of salary with considerable dismay when she considers that it may mean if it should continue rising that she will have to look for accommodations elsewhere.”

The New York Sun provided a glimpse into a Trowmart Inn dance -- March 29, 1908 (copyright expired)
The coming of war would put an end to the happy life of ragtime and euchre playing in the Trowmart Inn.   The nearby, gargantuan Siegel-Cooper Department Store had been converted into a base hospital for the Army and the U.S. Government took over the Trowmart.  On October 26, 1918 the New-York Tribune announced that the hotel would be used “to provide accommodations for the nurses and men attendants” of the hospital.

With the war’s end, the nurses and attendants moved out and the Trowmart Inn sat empty.   John D. Rockefeller, Jr., still mourning the death of his wife Laura Celestia Spelman Rockefeller, donated $300,000 in her memory to the Y.W.C.A. for the purchase of the Trowmart Inn “to relieve the housing problem” of working girls, as reported by The Evening World on March 26, 1920.

Renamed “Laura Spelman Hall,” it was renovated by architect Katherine C. Budd to more commodious accommodations.  Where Martin’s hotel housed 400 girls, the new building would have 258 rooms for what were now termed “business girls.”

As the century progressed, however, the need for women-only hotels eroded and the purpose of Laura Spelman Hall became obsolete.   The old Trowmart Inn became the Village Nursing Home—the only such establishment in Greenwich Village.   But its life was a shaky one and the proprietors failed to maintain government standards.  In 1977 the 184 residents were nearly ousted when the Home was threatened with closing.  A coalition of church groups and social agencies formed the nonprofit Caring Community to save the Home, raising over $275,000 to keep the doors open.

A gash in the cornice marks the spot where a construction elevator clung to the facade during the last renovation (the cornice was subsequently restored) -- photo by Alice Lum
But by 2004 the aging building with its small rooms was outdated and dingy.   That year Village Care of New York proposed eliminating the Village Nursing Home and creating a network of community residential healthcare venues.   But six years later the Home was still in operation and visitors described cracked walls, water damage and unclean conditions.

In 2011 the Village Nursing Home was moved to new facilities on West Houston Street and plans were underway to convert the old Trowmart Inn to condominiums.    A year later the transformation was completed.  Where 400 young working girls once lived there were just 10 apartments, the smallest of them being 3,200 square feet.  One of the largest, a three-floor, 8,400-square foot residence was priced at around $20 million.  The Trowmart Inn had come a long way from its original purpose.

Now called the Abingdon, named after Abingdon Square across the street, it boasts a gym and sauna, a doorman and porter.  And while the interiors where unmarried shop girls romped to ragtime are gone, Ralph Townsend’s handsome exterior remains unchanged.

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