Thursday, September 5, 2013

The 1883 Hotel Gerlach -- Nos. 49-55 West 27th Street





photo by Alice Lum
In the first years of the 1880s apartment living suffered the stain of tenement houses.  To differentiate the establishments that catered to financially-comfortable families from the squalid, crowded tenements, they were marketed as French flats.  

In 1882 the entertainment district was creeping up Broadway from 23rd Street.  As it did, hotels and apartment buildings replaced houses and commercial buildings of a generation earlier.

In 1882 Louis L. Todd demolished the four rowhouses at Nos. 49 through 55 West 27th Street and set architect August Hatfield to work designing a modern building of French flats.  Completed a year later, the Queen Anne-style structure rose ten stories to a tower.  Bowed bays along the sides captured the slightest breezes in summer.  A three-story base of rough cut stone supported red brick trimmed in stone.  But despite the comfortable accommodations, Todd’s French flats were quickly converted to a mixed residential and transient hotel.

photo by Alice Lum
Operated by hotelier Charles A. Gerlach, the building held on to its reputation as flats for a while.  When a fire broke out early in the morning on October 10, 1890, The New York Times remarked “There was a slight fire in the Gerlach Flat.”  The newspaper took the opportunity to pooh-pooh the structure’s fireproof claims.

“It was easily extinguished, and the damage did not amount to more than $100, but the incident proved that the big building was not as entirely fire-proof as people have been led to suppose.”

By 1893, when wealthy sportsman A. Gerland Hull had a suite here, it was formally known as the Hotel Gerlach.  The 40-year old Hull had studied medicine, but never practiced.  He preferred instead to live a gentleman’s life.  The New York Times noted that he “built a fine residence at Saratoga Lake” and was “one of Saratoga’s wealthiest and most respected citizens.”  The newspaper said that he and his young wife “moved in the best society and made themselves popular wherever they went.”

Sadly, Mrs. Hull’s heath had failed a year earlier and she died.  Despite his obvious grief, society did not believe that A. Gerland Hull was despondent until February 6, 1893 when, at 4:50 in the afternoon he committed suicide “by shooting himself through the head with a revolver,” as reported by The Times.

Interestingly, this child's face springs from a sunflower, the companion head on the opposite side of the entrance is winged.  Perhaps a silent tribute to a lost infant. -- photo by Alice Lum
Later that year, on December 13, Judge Henry W. Bookstaver of the Court of Common Pleas attended a dinner of the Fish Commissioners in the hotel.  The event lasted until nearly 2:00 in the morning and there was apparently drink to be had--of which the Judge partook freely.

The Evening World reported that “Policeman Carlin, of the East Fifty-first street station, found Judge Bookstaver wandering about in aimless fashion in Fifth avenue, near Forty-sixth street, a 3:30 o’clock this morning.

“He questioned him, but the jurist was dazed and could give the policeman no information.

“The officer saw blood streaming from a cut on Judge Bookstaver’s nose, and led him to the station.”

Bookstaver had been beaten “at the hands of a highway robber,” opined the newspaper.  Although the police could not get a coherent statement from him, he did realize that his watch and chain were missing.  He could not decide if he had lost anything else.

A doctor diplomatically tried to put the best light on the situation for the judge.  He told reporters he did not think the judge was intoxicated; however Bookstaver could not remember anything.  “It was as if two or three hours had been lost from his life.”

Palm trees wave from the roof in 1895.  The artist creatively added a few floors for impact -- "King's Photographic Views of New York" (copyright expired)
Unfortunately for Gerlach and his wife, Nettie, the Financial Panic of 1893 proved disastrous for the business.  On June 23, 1894 he listed his assets as $90 and his liabilities as $645,579.  The Evening World ran the lugubrious headline “Gerlach May Close.”  Calling the building “very handsome from an architectural standpoint,” the newspaper noted that “The hotel has been quite popular as a family hotel, and has always catered to an exclusive and fashionable patronage.”

An example of that “exclusive and fashionable patronage” was provided earlier that year, in February, when Mrs. Archibald A. Hutchinson lost a diamond and turquoise bracelet while on the way home from the house of a friend on West 78th Street.  The bracelet was valued at $400 (around $10,000 today).

A few days later it turned up only a half block away from the Gerlach.  “Tuesday evening two colored men entered a pawnshop at Sixth Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street,” reported The Times, “and one of them produced Mrs. Hutchinson’s bracelet and asked the pawnbroker to loan $100 on it.  The pawnbroker refused, and the negroes went away, but were arrested by two Central Office detectives who had been watching them.”

Despite Charles Gerlach’s financial problems, he managed not only to keep the hotel going, but to retain proprietorship.  In 1895 “King’s Photographic Views of New York” called it an elegant structure, absolutely fireproof, furnished and equipped with every convenience that can add to the comfort and enjoyment of its guests.  It offers all that is possible for luxuriousness in furnishings and delight in cuisine.”

That year Family Apartments rented for between $800 and $2000 a year; while transient guests paid $4.00 and upward per day.  One of the residents that year was Yugoslavian scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla.  His laboratory was located at No. 33-35 South Fifth Avenue.  Here he worked on his experiments in fluorescent lighting and wireless transmission of power.  The lab and the hotel were approximately 30 blocks apart—the perfect distant for experimenting with wireless transmissions.

Tesla erected his transmission equipment on the roof of the lab building downtown.  With his assistant Diaz Buitrago in charge of the transmitter, Tesla set up receivers on the roof of the Hotel Gerlach.  It was here that he proved that electrical energy could be received remotely.

Around 2:30 a.m. on March 13, 1895, a fire broke out on the ground level of the South Fifth Avenue building.  The entire laboratory was destroyed.  The New York Times lamented “The wizard and rival of Thomas A. Edison was burned out.  His shop, plant, all his apparatus for conducting the scientific experiments on which the gaze of the world is riveted these days, were destroyed.”

Tesla returned to the Hotel Gerlach and closed himself in his rooms, not to be heard from for days.  The scientist emerged with a greater fervor for his work.  Two years later journalist Franklin Chester wrote in part “The daily life of this man has been the same, practically ever since he has been in New York.  He lives in the Gerlach, a very quiet family hotel, in 27th street, between Broadway and Sixth avenue.  He starts for his laboratory before 9 o’clock in the morning, all day long he lives in his weird, uncanny world, reaching forth to capture new power to gain fresh knowledge.”

Meanwhile, the Hotel Gerlach enjoyed its respected reputation as travelers arrived from far points.  In 1897, the same year that Franklin Chester wrote his article about Tesla, 128 firefighters from the South stopped at the hotel.   The New-York Tribune wrote on August 17 “If the Gerlach Hotel should happen to catch fire any time within the next two or three days no one need worry.  The guests of the hotel went to bed last night in the calmest possible frame of mind, and with a soothing sense of security akin to that felt by a child when its mother comes to quiet it in the night.”  The newspaper explained that the “guests” were firemen “and from the South, where people eat fire.”

That same summer about 100 residents of Augusta, Georgia filed into the hotel, “including some of the most prominent business men of that city, and their families,” said The Times.  Indeed, the party of tourists, who intended to “remain in New York long enough to visit all of the attractive Summer resorts in this vicinity,” included a U. S. Senator and a long list of professors, colonels and captains.

After nearly two decades of running the hotel, Charles Gerlach stepped down.  On June 22, 1899 The New York Times reported that the hotel had been leased to Warren Leland, Jr. for ten years.  “It was also said that $150,000 is to be expended in general improvements to the house, which is to be opened under Mr. Leland’s management Oct. 1.”

Leland told reporters that he intended to change the name to the Knickerbocker.  Instead, E. M. Earle was put in charge of the hotel and it was renamed the Hotel Earlington.   From a marketing point of view, the name made sense.  Earle also ran the Hotel Earlington in Richfield Springs, New York; an upscale resort hotel where millionaires spent their summers.  In 1901 the hotel advertised what seems to be a bargain price for dinner.  “Restaurants and Palm Room, Orchestra; Table d’Hote Dinner, One Dollar.”  At the time Samuel Clemens and his wife and daughter were staying in the hotel.

Earle's renovations included an iron-and-glass sidewalk canopy -- (copyright expired)

Earle’s renovations brought the aging hotel up to date.  Rand, McNally & Co.’s “Handy Guide” described the Hotel Earlington in 1901.  “Practically a new house is the Hotel Earlington, in Twenty-seventh Street, near Broadway.  Formerly known as the Gerlach, it was run as a family hotel, but now that it is to be used for the transient trade as well, it has been thoroughly made over, wholly remodeled on the inside, and refurnished, all at an outlay of nearly $200,000.  The building itself cost $1,000,000.”

Among the innovations were a system of telephones and call bells that connected every room with the office.  A private electrical plant supplied power to over 3,000 electric lights.  The building was heated by steam and the elevators “are large and run all night from floor to roof.”

The hotel's new name was emblazoned over the entrance -- photo Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GWTOOJJ
Earle had gutted the interiors.  “Only the walls and floors were retained in the reconstruction,” said the “Handy Guide.”  There were 250 guest rooms which were arranged so they could be opened into suites of up to seven rooms each.

Perhaps the most startling innovation came a year later.  Eugene M. Earle was also the owner of pedigree show dogs.  He transformed the tower room on the roof to a kennel for his 38 high-bred dogs.  The Times reported that “The cost of the kennels has mounted already to the sum of $2,500, an amount that might be begrudged dogs by any but a lover of the animals.  The surroundings are artistic, the woodwork being stained, the walls done in green, and hung with pictures.”

A kennel master kept charge of the dogs who had their own bathroom, and steam heater to dry them after baths.  “When the hour of exercise comes, they only run loose on the roof at certain hours.  A treadmill has been invented for them, and they wait anxiously for their turn at grinding the mill.”

Perhaps the extensive renovations, coupled with a $2,500 dog kennels, were too much.  On August 1, 1907 Eugene M. Earle filed a petition in bankruptcy.  The new manager, Guernsey E. Webb, decided that the best thing to do was to entirely revamp the hotel.

The architectural firm of Waid & Willaur was commissioned to redesign the upper fa├žade.  The architects removed the Victorian trappings—the tower room and parapet; but left the lower floors intact.  The interiors received another make-over.  An advertisement in The Daily Telegraph on December 1, 1909 boasted “This well known, absolutely fireproof hotel, after being entirely renovated, redecorated and fitted up completed with new plumbing has now re-opened November 2.”

In September 1911 the hotel was host to an internationally-prominent figure.  Leonid Menschikoff, the former chief of the Russian secret police, came to America to “expose the Czar’s police.”    With revolutionary stirrings causing upheaval at all levels in Russia, “he admitted to reporters that he had come here ready to expose hired agents of the Russian Government who are posing as revolutionists, but against whom he says he has documentary evidence gathered while he himself was in the inner circle of the secret political police,” said The Times.  He warned Americans that they too were being spied on.

By now, the end of the line for the Hotel Earlington was not far off.  The entertainment district had now passed 27th Street by and one by one the Broadway hotels in the neighborhood were closing.  In April 1915 the Earlington became another casualty.

On April 28 The New York Times said “The final closing of the Hotel Erlington, in West Twenty-seventh Street, last week, removes from the list of New York City hotels another of the popular hostelries which flourished in that section over a quarter of a century ago…The Hotel Erlington was always more of a family home, and for twenty years after its erection it was one of the most select houses of its kind on Manhattan Island.”

As the United States entered World War I, the old hotel was recycled as a servicemen’s hotel.  “The hotel, which has been vacant for some time, has been leased by the [National Service Commission] for the period of the war, at a nominal rental…As soon as it can be fitted up the commission will throw it open to soldiers, sailors and marines at nominal prices, which will lift the enterprise out of the charity class.”

Called the Service Hotel, it was operated by the New York War Camp Community Service.  The New-York Tribune commented on March 18, 1918 that the servicemen here “were representative of practically every section of the country and branch of the service.  Aero squad men from Mineola mingled with ambulance unit boys from Camp Dix.  The navy—regular and reserve—and the army—National, Regular and National Guard—had their representation.”

A soldier and a sailor use the library at the Service Hotel -- photo from "War Libraries and Allied Studies" 1918 (copyright expired)

With the war’s end, the old hotel, which was now sitting squarely in a bustling business district, was sold.  The New-York Tribune reported on May 15, 1920 that “It contains 200 rooms and covers 100x100, and is to be rebuilt into a store, office and showroom building at a cost approximating $200,000.”

The converted building filled with businesses, many connected to the nearby garment district.  One of the first tenants was Carmel Bros, “manufacturing furs and featuring children’s furs.”  Throughout the 20th century the floors hummed with light manufacturing and sales rooms.

In 1938, in an attempt at modernizing, sleek granite slabs were plastered over the arched entranceway.  Later unattractive retail spaces were gouged out of the street level walls.  But overall the structure was barely tampered with.  Happily around 1981 the granite was removed and the original handsome entranceway reemerged.

The carved entrance was undamaged by the 1930s attempt at modernization -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the old Gerlach Hotel still looks like a hotel.  Called the Radiowave Building with a nod to Nikola Tesla, it is a stubborn survivor in a somewhat gritty neighborhood.

4 comments:

  1. Did the term "French Flat" signify anything more than the supposed class of the building? Did it, for instance, identify a particular layout or type of apartment?

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    1. French Flats typically were on one level (hence "flat"), and provided rooms found in homes but not tenements--a maid's room, for instance. I do not believe, however, that there was any regimented layout and the term was bandied about very liberally.

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  2. i wondered if this building was still extant, i always assumed it was destroyed. thankful to see it still there and what a beautiful structure

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  3. I went looking to see what the building was used for now, and found a pic that shows the ground floor shops you considerately clipped out of the first photo. Gak.

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