Monday, May 20, 2013

The Lost Hoffman House Hotel -- Broadway and 25th Street

The Hoffman House with its annex on the corner was among the grandest of New York City hotels. -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By the time of the Civil War change was already coming to the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around Madison Square.  The first incursions of commerce into the exclusive residential district were high-end hotels and one of the first was the Hoffman House.

Another hotel, the Brunswick, was already in operation at the northern end of the park in 1864.  That year the Brunswick’s proprietors, Read & Mitchell, left to open the elegant Hoffman House nearby on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets.   Around three years later Mitchell retired, leaving the 35-year old Cassius H. Read as sole proprietor of the hotel.

The stretch of Broadway from 23rd Street to 25th was soon lined with hotels—the grand Fifth Avenue Hotel at the corner of 23rd, the Albermarle at 24th with the Hoffman House next door and its “new annex” of about 1870 reaching to the corner.   At the opposite corner of Broadway and 26th Street was the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant, familiarly known to New Yorkers as “Del’s.”

An 1870 brochure depicted the original 1864 structure (left) and the annex on the corner.
The combined hotel and annex contained 300 “elegant rooms and bath-rooms, with all modern conveniences, at prices ranging from $2 per day and upwards,” boasted an advertisement in 1870.  “The Cusine [sic] is Parisian, and unexcelled.”

The Hoffman House would become internationally known for its “grand salon,” or bar in the 1880s--but prior to that the hotel was remarkable for its lavish decorations, artwork and cuisine.  William Ballantine, in his The Old World and the New, noted “Their preparations of ‘beef-steaks’ in different forms, and under different names, are really good, and partake of the character of old English cookery.  Of course everything is expensive, and l’addition proclaims in no unmistakable language that its recipient has been dining in the midst of gilt and looking-glass.”

Eyebrows were no doubt raised when, on January 22, 1870, the New York Herald reported on sisters Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennessee (Tennie) C. Claflin who had taken Parlors No. 25 and 26.  The women were newsworthy because they had ventured bravely into a male-only domain: that of stockbrokers.

The Herald described Parlor No. 25 as “profusely decorated with oil paintings and statuary and…furnished with a sofa, chairs, a piano and the various other articles, useful and ornamental, which go to the make up of a ladies’ drawing room.”

Feminists before their time, the sisters undauntedly responded to the reporter’s questions.

“It is a novel sign to see a woman go on the street as a stock operator, and I presume you find it rather awkward?” he asked.

Tennie Claflin fired back “Were I to notice what is said by what they call ‘society,’ I would never leave my apartments except in fantastic walking dress or in my ballroom costume; but I despise what squeamy, crying girls or powdered counter-jumping dandies say of me.  I think a woman is just as capable of making a living as a man.”

The stock broker sisters would set the tone for decades to come.

In the meantime, the Hoffman was the favorite rendezvous for Democratic politicians, while the Fifth Avenue Hotel was popular among Republicans.  The Sun would later comment “But it was more than that.  It was the centre of a large sporting interest.  On the eve of every important election, every college football game or other vital event into which entered some element of chance it was at the Hoffman that one learned just what were the betting odds, and it was there large sums were staked on the issue…After the great football games the ‘rah-rah boys’ flocked to the Hoffman House bar to celebrate, and the brawny staff had their work cut out to restrain the celebrants within bounds.”

The hotel lured celebrities, politicians and writers.  Sarah Bernhardt took suites here when in New York and noted guests would include Grover Cleveland, Buffalo Bill Cody, Tony Pastor, John L. Sullivan, General Winfield Scott and others.

Famed actress Sarah Bernhardt strikes a post at the Hoffman House in 1888 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1883 Read took on Edward S. Stokes as partner.  It was a move he would regret.   

Stokes had been a guest at the Hoffman House in 1872 when he was arrested for the murder of James Fisk, Jr. on January 6.    While being held in The Tombs, he sent for Read and asked him to take care of his affairs.

Although the first jury sentenced Stokes to hang; he obtained a second trial.  When he was again convicted of first degree murder he was granted yet a third trial.  This time he was found guilty of murder in the second degree and spent four years at Sing Sing prison.

During his absence, Read diligently stored his personal property and looked after his Wall Street interests.  In addition, he gave the murderer a personal loan of $1,500.  Immediately upon his release from prison, Stokes went to Read “who supplied him with all the money he needed,” said The New York Times.

Although Stokes’s name would forever be linked to the infamous murder, Read stood by him.  The pair were involved with several business ventures until finally Read offered him a one-third partnership in the hotel.

Soon thereafter the hotel would acquire a single piece of artwork that would make its barroom internationally known.   In 1873 artist Willilam-Adolphe Bouguereau had painted what he considered to be one of his most important works, “Nymphs and Satyr.”   The large painting was exhibited that year in Paris and purchased by the American art collector John Wolfe.  Considered scandalous by many for its depiction of naked nymphs frolicking with an equally-naked satyr, it was later sold at auction and hung in the Hoffman House barroom.

A stereopticon view discreetly blurred the painting under the red velvet canopy -- Library of Congress
William Ballantine wrote in 1884 “A magnificent entrance hall contains many very exquisite works of art—amongst others, a large picture of modern date by a native artist, representing a mythological old gentleman, who has apparently given offence to a number of nymphs, who are about to execute ‘Lynch Law’ by consigning him to a pool of neighbouring water; really, as far as I am able to judge, it is a very fine work, and is an object of interest both to the citizens and to strangers.”

Intricate tiled floors, a carved and stenciled ceiling, tapestries and "bric-a-brac" take second stage to the Bouguereau painting in the saloon -- photograph from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Indeed it was an object of interest and visitors to New York made a special pilgrimage to gawk that the naked buttocks of the feminine subjects.  A red velvet, gold-fringed canopy sheltered the painting from the glare of gas lights.  It was cleverly positioned directly across from the large plate glass mirror behind the bar so that patrons could discreetly inspect the painting in the reflection.

Bartenders in the café were astonished on Sunday afternoon, July 27, 1885, when a policeman entered the decorous establishment.  Excise laws permitted the sale of alcohol on Sundays only as part of a meal—a point of law that caused a disagreement between police and bartenders.

“The neat, white-aproned bartenders of the Hoffman House were serving liquid nourishment to the gentlemen who sat at the mahogany tables among the bric-a-brac yesterday afternoon, when every one stood aghast at the entrance of Police Officer Samuel Ward, of the Twenty-ninth Precinct.  Bartender William F. Mulhall had just intrusted [sic] a waiter with a vermouth cocktail and a glass of frozen Kummel for a brace of dudes who were sitting at a table under a photograph of Judie, when Officer Ward arrested him.”

Frederick Loud, manager of the bar, protested “We are within the law because we do not sell anything to drink unless the customer has something to eat.”  When Mulhall was released, he returned to the hotel and “sold liquor as usual.”

Despite his having committed murder and despite the scandalous painting hanging in the salon-café, Edward S. Stokes would have no rumor of untoward goings-on in the hotel.  When Lord Lonsdale, manager of the British actress Violet Cameron called on her at the Hoffman House on September 27, 1886, Stokes asked to see him immediately.

Rumors were rampant concerning the married actress and Lord Lonsdale; causing Stokes to insist that the actress change hotels.  The Times reported that he told Lord Lonsdale “that he was running a family hotel, and that he felt sure that in view of all the circumstances of the case the 30 families that were living in the house would be annoyed at Miss Cameron’s presence.  He was compelled to protect his hotel from any breath of scandal that might find its way into it.”

In 1893 Stokes proposed that the old annex at the corner of 25th Street be replaced with a modern structure.  The new “Moorish” style addition, designed by architect George Edward Harding, opened in 1894—a stark contrast to the old, original hotel.  A picturesque Moorish loggia that wrapped the second floor was echoed along the uppermost story.

An 1889 stereopticon view captured the ornate "parlor" -- Library of Congress
In the meantime, Cassius H. Read who had given Stokes financial help and a job was in trouble.   When he took in Stokes, the hotel became a “stock company,” or corporation.   Read’s personal worth was about $700,000—nearly $15 million today. 

The New York Times would later recount that “gradually Mr. Stokes managed to get control of the majority of the stock and elevate himself to the position of President…A series of unsuccessful business ventures followed and Mr. Read’s fortune kept dwindling.  In 1895 he was forced out of the hotel business and he had lived a life of seclusion ever since.”

Three years later Stokes sold his interest to Graham & Polly; leaving the hotel business as rich as Read was now poor.

In 1895 the hotel had upgraded its kitchens with a modern innovation:  gas ranges.  The novel idea was such that The New York Times felt it was worth reporting.  “One of the pleasantest places in the city to dine during the past Summer was in the eleventh-story dining room of the Hoffman House,” it said.  “Probably, however, many of those who went there to enjoy the coolness and the view and the music did not know that all the food served wa cooked entirely by gas."

In 1888 the annex had been replaced with a "Moorish" addition and the original building had gained three floors on the roof -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The newspaper had little patience for those who were cautious about the new technology.  “The Hoffman House standard is well known in the hotel world, and its hearty approval of gas for cooking disposes at once of a great many stupid and ignorant objections that one sometimes hears urged.”

The Democrats continued to use the Hoffman House as their meeting place—sometimes to the disgruntlement of paying guests.   On June 5, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported that “The Bryan Democrats had a field day yesterday.  All morning and afternoon they thronged the corridors of the Hoffman House, packed the barroom, jammed the writing room and café, and overflowed into the street.  They came with a whoop and a howl, and they kept up a flail-like swinging of arms, a tremendous din of argument and a made scrambling to be seen and heard.  They were as noisy and disorderly as the law allowed, and made themselves as objectionable to the regular guests of the hotel as possible.”

On July 14, 1904 the management announced that the original portion of the Hoffman House—filling two thirds of the block—would be razed and a new section built.   The replacement building would be in the “Moorish Renaissance style” more in keeping with the annex, they said.  The Times noted that “An interesting landmark which will go with the ‘old Hoffman’ is the café on the Twenty-fourth Street side of the house, which has been known for years because of its pictures.”

The new building opened in October 1907 and was remarkable for its architecture which, in no way, imitated nor attempted to meld with the architecture of the Moorish-influenced annex.  The Times, however, reported that “Built of white limestone, it harmonizes well with the Moorish style of what is now the ‘old’ part of the hotel.”

The 1907 replacement of the original hotel buildling (center) spelled the end of the Hoffman House.  At the left is the Albermarle Hotel.  photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Earlier that year, in August, the well-known lecturer, writer, and suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch and a friend had spent the afternoon in the Women’s University Club.  Upon leaving Blatch invited her companion to dinner.  They entered the Hoffman House, but debated about the advisability of going to the roof garden—they were, after all, unescorted.

A young man at the clerk’s desk assured them they could have supper on the roof, so they took the elevator up.  As they sat, the waiter asked if they had an escort and, when they admitted they did not, he asked them to leave.

Embarrassed and angry, Blatch insisted on seeing “someone in authority,” and was taken to the office.  After hearing the story, the women were told “I am very sorry, but that is the regulation of the house, and we cannot make any exceptions in its application.  We do this for the protection of just such ladies as you are.  We do it to keep out objectionable women; women of the type you would not like to have dining in the same room with you.”

Harriot Stanton Blatch retorted “I have never been bothered by objectionable women.  When I have been annoyed it has been by men.  I do not suppose you make any effort to keep objectionable men out.”

The activist’s subsequent law suit against the hotel’s management caused consternation among some women.  On November 30, 1907 a headline in the New-York Tribune read “Women Fear to Offend Hotel by Discussing Mrs. Blatch’s Case.”

The timing of the upgrading of the hotel could not have been worse.   When the main building was closed for demolition and rebuilding, the operation sustained a great loss of income during a prosperous period in the hotel business.  When the new building opened, the country was suffering the Financial Panic of 1907.   In 1910 the Hoffman House went into bankruptcy.

The hotel staggered along for another four years before finally closing its doors for good in March 1915.  A month earlier the announcement was made that both the Albermarle and Hoffman House would be demolished to be replaced with a sixteen-story store and loft building.
For nearly half a century Bouguereau's "Nymphs and Satyr" was kept in hiding -- Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute

The scandalous painting “Nymphs and Satyr” was purchased and stored in a warehouse where the buyer hoped to shield the public from its “offensive” content.  It was rediscovered in storage in 1942 by Robert Sterling Clark and exhibited in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in the Berkshire mountains.

In May 2012 it returned to New York City to be displayed on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for two years.  Few viewers will realize that they are viewing a painting once seen only by men, many of whom stole a glimpse of it only as reflected in a barroom mirror.

No trace of the world-class hotels that filled the block remains -
 Many thanks to reader MjH for requesting this post.


  1. Thanks SO much for the posting (and honoring the request). Awesome read, great pictures! THANK YOU!

  2. I love the human aspect you give your posts. So fascinating. It's shame we don't have a bit of that "old world" left.

    1. Thanks -- it is the human history of the buildings and monuments that makes them come alive for me.

  3. Great post; I stumbled on Bouguereau's painting and Hoffman House while researching a blog post on Gilded Age gentlemen's signet rings in Gustav Manz's design book. Many a nymph and satyr flashed between cup and lip! Cheers, Laura

  4. Virginia BristoweJune 2, 2014 at 12:57 AM

    My grand father, Bertram Bristowe stayed at the Hoffman hotel in July 1897 while on the last leg of a trip round the world. He then boarded the SS Adriatic to return to England. He kept a wonderful diary of the whole trip which I am researching. This account of The Hoffman Hotel provides a great insight of where he stayed while in NYC. I wonder if he saw the nymphs!

  5. Thank you for this. Very interesting. This hotel was also known for it's collection of trompe l'oiel paintings. They had a painting of Buffalo Bills personal affects by George Cope that exist in photos only now. I'm trying to find a picture of it but haven't been succesful. Great read.

  6. Thank you for this post. My great-grandfather was the bartender William F. Mulhall that you mention in the post. In case you have not seen it, he wrote of the Hoffman House bar for Valentine's Manual of Old New York in 1923, which you can read here: