Monday, December 24, 2012

The Lost Seymour Hotel -- 44 West 45th Street



The brick and limestone Seymour Hotel (left) was frosted with Beaux Arts decoration -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
At the turn of the last century the blocks between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in midtown saw the advent of high-end residential hotels and exclusive clubs as once-fashionable residences one-by-one were demolished or converted for business purposes.  One of the first, the Royalton Hotel for well-heeled bachelors, was erected in 1898 spanning the block from 44th to 45th Streets

Three years later A. G. Hyde would sell four lots on 45th Street, Nos. 44 through 50, and a single lot on 44th Street next to the New York Yacht Club.  On July 24, 1901 The New York Times reported that “The site will be improved with a twelve-story apartment hotel.”

By August of the following year the Seymour Hotel was nearly ready for occupancy.  Built by developers Irons & Todd, it was touted as “fireproof” and “positively exclusive.”  Unlike the Royalton or the Hotel Mansfield which would open on West 44th Street a year later in 1903 the new Seymour was not intended just for bachelors; but was marketed to well-to-do families.  

M. F. Miller was the President of the Iroquois Hotel at No. 49 West 44th Street and his brother, J.  C. Miller, was its Secretary and Treasurer.  On August 16, 1902 they added the Seymour to their responsibilities, leasing the new hotel from Irons & Todd for 21 years at a gross rental of $1,395,900.

The hotel (left) interrupted a row of once-fashionable brownstones on West 45th Street.  By 1910 "Rooms for Let" signs hang on the old houses and at least one has sprouted a commercial addition to the front.  photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On October 1 the Seymour Apartment Hotel opened its doors to its new residents.    The Beaux Arts building was constructed of red brick with limestone trim, sitting on a two-story rusticated limestone base.  The main 45th Street entrance was framed in a dramatic limestone portico above a set of three stone steps.  The white stone quoins and bandcourses contrasted with the red brick and a sumptuous balcony stretched the wide of the structure at the 10th floor.

On the narrow 44th Street side, the skinny building did its best to keep up.  It mimicked the rusticated base and even the balcony; yet the strange proportions resulted in a gawky, cartoonish structure.

The architects squeezed a compatible entrance on the skinny, West 44th Street, side.  photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Residents were offered apartments from two to “five or more” rooms with yearly leases.  The magnificent dining room offered both “Restaurant a la Carte” or “Table d’Hote.”   Guests were promised that the hotel was planned “for the comfort of its guests, luxurious and artistic in its appointments.”

Among the first of the wealthy residents to move in were J. H. Taylor and his wife.   Around 6:00 on a Wednesday evening in July 1903 the couple left their apartment, locking the door behind them, and went to the hotel dining room.  Upon their return the door was locked as they had left it; but upon entering the apartment they noticed things were out of place.  Mrs. Taylor discovered $8,000 worth of jewelry missing, including a diamond sunburst, a diamond brooch, several rings and other jewelry that had been left in a chamois bag in the dresser.  Within days three hotel employees were arrested, albeit with no evidence.

J. H. Taylor and his wife returned from dinner in the above dining room in 1903 to find their apartment ransacked.  photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Howard Montgomery, a bellboy, was fired and arrested on suspicion.  The New-York Tribune said of him “One of the prisoners was a clerk of the hotel, who was discharged because the only reason to suspect him of complicity in the robberyt was the fact that he had passkeys to rooms in the hotel.”

Norman Powell, a 21-year old porter, and Alice Howard, a 22-year old check attendant in the restaurant, also lost their jobs and were arrested.   Adding to the question of their character, Detective Walsh discovered that “the Howard woman and Powell” lived together unmarried.  A search of their rooms found a few items of silverware with the hotel restaurant’s monogram; but none of the jewelry.

Detective Walsh admitted to Magistrate Barlow that “he had no evidence that any of the prisoners were concerned in the theft of the jewelry.”  Nonetheless he requested that they continue to be held on $1,500 bail.

Another of the early residents was General Louis P. di Cesnola, the director of the Metroplitan Museum of Art, along with his daughter, Louise.   Upon the death of his wife, he took an apartment in the Seymour.   A veteran of two Italian wars, di Cesnola had come to New York in 1860 and opened a school of languages.  But the signs of the coming Civil War prompted him to convert his language school into a military academy where he taught militia officers in swordsmanship and tactics.  In 1861 he had 300 pupils and after the firing on Fort Sumter, the Italian offered his services to the Union.

A Colonel of the Fourth New York Cavalry, he was wounded at the battle of Nedia, Virginia and lay for four hours under his dead horse.  Discovered by Confederate soldiers, he was confined to a military prison for the rest of the war.  In 1865 President Lincoln appointed him United States Consul to Cyprus.

There General di Cesnola began his collection of  archaeological artifacts which grew to the point that in 1877 it was regarded as the “most wonderful” collection in the world, according to The Sun.  He sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for about $90,000 that year.  He was made a trustee and director of the museum and worked tirelessly to make it the foremost museum in the world.

The general filled the apartment at the Seymour Hotel with priceless artwork and antiquities and a substantial library of first editions signed by the authors.   

In November 1904 he telephoned the Metropolitan Museum saying he was “a little under the weather,” and asked that his mail be sent to him.  He worked from home that day, dictating letters to his secretary, Mr. Parry,.  The following day he was still not feeling well and summoned Dr. Carlo Savini who diagnosed a severe attack of asthma and a slight kidney complication.  The physician instructed di Cesnola to remain in bed.  “The General didn't like these orders, so he compromised by lounging around most of the day,” said The Sun on November 22.    He went to bed at 9:00 that evening and died an hour later.

A year later the General’s now-married daughter, Mrs. Guy E. Baker, returned from a short trip and noticed that items were missing from the apartment.  “They included paintings, bric-a-brac, clay modelings, ancient antiques and valuable books,” reported the New-York Tribune.    Once again it was an inside job.

The 21-year old elevator boy, Frank McCarthy, was arrested by detectives on May 20, 1905.  In his room at No. 777 Eighth Avenue they had found “costly paintings, antiques and editions de luxe.”  Among the recovered artwork was a painting by Murillo.

Not only did prominent citizens like former United States Senator John P. Jones and socialite Mrs. Jackson Gouraud live here in 1908; but successful entertainers were drawn by the hotel’s proximity to the theater district.   Signor G. Perguini, a singer, was among these, and another was English actor Charles Warner who had become internationally prominent several years earlier in a play titled “Drink.” 

Warner, in 1908, did a one-man vaudeville sketch “At the Telephone,” in which he was on stage for nearly twenty minutes holding an imaginary telephone and captivating audiences.  A member of the Lambs, he was well known in Broadway and theatrical circles.  But by the early months of 1909 he had grown “morose and melancholy,” according to friends.

Around 11:00 in the morning on February 11 he telephoned the front desk asking for a heavy ball of twine to be sent to his rooms.   He then carefully wrote a note in black ink which he pinned to the outside of his sitting room door, along with two checks.  The note read “Hounded to my death by thieves, liars and blackmailers….the criminal lawyer, principal rogue, who preferred to save me from ruin.  They fooled me out of thousands and thousands.  Now he is in prison.  God bless you all!  God bless you all at Lent.  Oh, my dear ones!  Oh, my beloved!”

Warner then closed the doors between the sitting room and his bedroom and made a noose from a valise strap which he fastened to the top of the door.   He stood on a chair and after fitting his neck into the noose, kicked the chair from under him.  Unfortunately for Warner, his neck was not broken and he slowly strangled to death.

The two checks were for $27, to cover his funeral expenses, and $150 to pay for his outstanding bill at the Seymour.

In the meantime Mrs. Gouraud had problems of her own.  She lived in the Seymour only during the winter months, spending the rest of the year at her Larchmont estate or traveling.   In October 1908 she was preparing for a trip to India for two reasons.  “First and foremost, because the East is so mystic, so romantic, so full of adventure,” she told a reporter from The Evening World.  “I adore romance, mysticism, adventure.  Here there is none of it.  Everybody is too busy.  Why, the average New York woman does not know what an adventure is!  A real adventure, I mean.”

But there was another reason she was returning to India.  She had stolen a Buddha from a shrine and needed to return it.  “The last time I was in the East I saw this little ugly god and wanted him.  A man stole him for me—really it was quite dangerous.  But ever since I have had him I have had the most dreadful luck.”

Mrs. Gouraud related that recently a Buddhist woman visited her and was “quite horrified” when she discovered how the socialite came to possess the Buddha.  The visitor informed her that she would never have any luck as long as she kept it.   To neutralize the curse, Mrs. Gouraud hung jewels on the statue and burned incense in front of it.  “But it was no good, so I am taking him back.”

The wealthy woman admitted to the journalist that she just might not return to the Seymour Hotel after her trip.  “Of course I will not remain in India long.  I am considering a permanent residence in Paris.  The people know how to live there—how to get more out of life.  The Orient is glorious, but next to it I think I love France.”

Whether the Buddha-stealing Mrs. Gouraud returned on not, the Seymour continued to fill with wealthy and interesting residents.  In 1912 State Senator John Godfrey Saxe lived here and in 1916 dancer Maud Allen was here.  That year The Evening World remarked that “Few dancers have met with Miss Allen’s success.  Seven monarchs have been her friends—King Edward VII, the Czar, the King of Portugal, the Kaiser, the King of Spain, the Emperor of Austria and King Albert of Belgium.”

At the same time the Russian Baroness de Beckendorf, wife of a Russian army officer, had an apartment here.   As the United States edged closer to involvement in the world war, she held a press conference in her rooms on July 30, 1916 declaring that German chemist C. L. Wettig had attempted to kill her husband, the Baron Beckendorf, before he returned to the Russia army and that he had stolen $1,000 of jewels from her.

“Why that man has even said that I was a German spy,” she exclaimed.  “And to think that only a few months ago I nursed him in my own apartment while he was ill.”

The handsome and popular silent picture actor Robert Harron lived in the Seymour Hotel in 1920.
In 1920 young motion picture actor Robert Harron had come a long way from his childhood home in Greenwich Village.   Called by the New-York Tribune “one of the best-known moving picture stars,” he had appeared in leading roles in D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance, “Hearts of the World” and other productions.  The handsome leading man was unpacking a trunk in his apartment in the Seymour Hotel on September 1 when a revolver fell from the pocket of a coat.  The weapon fired as it hit the floor, sending a bullet into the actor’s chest.

Five days later, at the height of his career, the dashing actor died of his wound.

The once-magnificent midtown hotels suffered in the latter part of the 20th century as new, modern hotels and apartment buildings left them dowdy and somewhat seedy.  On January 19, 1981 New York Magazine remarked about the Seymour Hotel.  “An AAA sign hangs out front, and, inside, the dim lobby and corridors—with the obligatory red carpet—give off a sense of better days gone by…Not as Spartan or desperate as some, it’s just…cheerless; call it a 4 on the Depression Scale.”

On 45th Street, the brick and limestone facade has been replaced with glass and steel -- photo by Alice Lum
While some of the old hotels—like the Royalton—were reclaimed with multi-million dollar makeovers; it was not to be for the Seymour Hotel.  In 2000 it was demolished, replaced with the soaring 30-story Sofitel which, almost ironically, has its main entrance at the skinny little plot on West 44th Street.
The thin 44th Street side is now the main entrance to the new hotel.  Next door the last 19th century carriage house on the block still holds on -- photo by Alice Lum

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