|Elegant carriages arrive at the Stevens Apartment House in 1895 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Paran Stevens had an uncanny ability to recognize opportunity and make the most of it. Born to a respectable New Hampshire family in 1802, he entered business at a relatively young age, eventually managing a hotel. The Sausalito News years later in 1888 would remember “he started in life as a stable boy in a country hotel up in New Hampshire. He was a genuine Yankee, and not a dollar of his scanty earnings ever slipped through his fingers in an unnoticed way.”
In 1837 he built an 800-spindle cotton mill with a group of businessmen, and invested in a carriage factory. His nearly flawless track record of investing on what was to come rather what already was resulted in a vast fortune. When he purchased land on New York’s Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street in 1848 for the staggering amount of $5,000 with the intentions of building a hotel, he was thought “crazy.”
Eventually Stevens would focus almost entirely on the hotel business. He purchased the Tremont and the Revere House in Boston; then in 1861 opened the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia. Before long he would simultaneously be managing the Tremont, Revere House, Continental and the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel.
Steven’s first wife died while he was still living in Boston and he met the 19-year old Minnetta Reed, a shop girl. When the millionaire married her “the people there raised their eyes in half wonder and astonishment,” said The Sausalito News. The former shop girl would become known in New York society as Mrs. Paran Stevens who did not let her humble beginnings get in the way of her social ambitions.
In 1870 the still-residential neighborhood of Fifth Avenue at Madison Square was seeing the construction of elegant hotels, like Parans’ own Fifth Avenue Hotel. That year he announced that he had hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a apartment hotel on Fifth Avenue at 27th Street, to be known as the Stevens Apartment House.
Completed in 1872, it was nothing short of massive—engulfing the entire block from Fifth Avenue to Broadway. Eight stories tall, it was clad in red brick with white marble trim and capped by three-story high mansard. Hunt lavished the facades with stone balconies, cast iron finials, and myriad dormers. A cast iron balcony wrapped the structure at the fifth floor. Expansive windows at ground level testified to the income-producing leased shop spaces. It was an architectural wonder worth a Sunday’s carriage ride to see.
|The colossal hotel dwarfed the buildings around it -- photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5MEHYM&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
More astonishing is that the goliath structure contained just 18 apartments. Each was the equivalent of a private home with dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, dressing rooms, parlor, butler’s pantry and bathrooms. Servants’ rooms were located in the mansard. Pampered residents did not worry about stairs—there were steam-driven elevators. The main rooms of the apartments were frescoed and the woodwork throughout was of handsome black walnut.
|The lobby was heavily paneled and included stained and etched glass panels with the crown of Victoria -- photograph by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5MEHYM&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
The skyscraper height of the eight-story building caused concern among many Victorian critics. The New York Times warned “When the Stevens House, at the corner of Twenty-seventh street and Fifth-avenue was being built, there were many who strained their necks to get a glimpse of the top of the cardboard-looking fabric, and wondered how on earth it was going to stand. These huge top-heavy buildings, run up in a hurried manner, have been increasing in our City of late, and one of these days there will be an accident which will effectually scare people from going into them for the future. Should a fire break out, they would burn like an old tinder-box, and they are scarcely strong enough to resist a puff of wind.”
|Streetcars, horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians share the streets around Richard Morris Hunt's hulking hotel -- photograph by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York |
Paran Stevens would not live to see the opening of his apartment hotel. He died in 1872 leaving an estate of between $5 and $6 million (in the neighborhood of $100 million today). Fully aware of his wife’s often unpleasant disposition and unwillingness to work with his lawyers and managers, he wrote several restrictions to her management powers into his will.
|The stairway hall featured a wonderful Aesthetic Movement-inspired railing -- photograph by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5MEHYM&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
Her somewhat diluted autocracy did not stop her from refusing to pay the architect. She claimed that Richard Morris Hunt “had never completed the apartment house according to the designs laid down; that poor materials were used, etc.” Although her deceased husband had faithfully paid Hunt his commissions, there was still an outstanding $6,020, plus interest, in 1878.
The frustrated architect finally took Mrs. Paran Stevens to court. After a nine-day case, Hunt was awarded $8,438.17 on January 18, 1878. Having been defeated on that front, Mrs. Paran Stevens turned her focus to Thomaselli the barber who had been subletting the basement of Ward & Hubbell’s store.
When she tried to evict the Italian barber, he refused to leave “claiming that he recognized only his lessors as his landlords.” After Ward & Hubbell moved out, Mrs. Paran Stevens accepted Thomasselli’s rent checks—a logistical error on her part—before once again attempting to dispossess him. When she started eviction proceedings, she lost. Thomaselli immediately turned the tables and filed suit “to restrain Mrs. Stevens from disposing him, and for an equitable construction of his rights in the matter,” said The New York Times.
In the meantime, Paran Stevens’ idea of an apartment hotel in this fashionable neighborhood was, unfortunately, a few years ahead of its time. Although luxurious apartment living would catch on among the wealthy in the next decade, for now the Stevens Apartment House was a failure.
In 1879 it was converted to a lavish transient hotel, The Victoria Hotel. A new “ornamental entrance,” as described by the New-York Tribune, was added in October 1880 to signal its new purpose. Although it now welcomed travelers and tourists as its main tenants, the Victoria Hotel still leased suites to permanent residents.
|Suites included a sitting room -- photograph by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5MEHYM&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
One such family caught the attention of a journalist for The Sun; not because of its position in society but because of its pet bird. “A family living in the Hotel Victoria have a canary bird named Beauty which has shown a wonderful aptitude for picking up tunes, and seems to be far in advance of others of his kind in general intelligence,” reported the newspaper on May 9 that year.
The Sun felt that the remarkable abilities of the bird were worth printing about. “When his master whistled an air, playing an accompaniment, the canary warbled and trilled in accurate tune and time, hopping upon the player’s fingers and over the keys. When the whistling and accompaniment ceased the bird perched upon his master’s head and awaited further orders.” The newspaper noted that “His education has been acquired within a month, and his tutor is the little daughter of the family.”
The year that the canary performed for the family’s guests, The French Cooks’ Ball was held at the Academy of Music. Acclaimed chefs from the kitchens of the city’s best hotels submitted “artistic” contributions to be judged. The exotic Victorian concoctions were imaginative and astounding.
The Albemarle Hotel sent a “dove cote of suet with cooked birds,” the Fifth Avenue hotel submitted “boned turkey, with real turkey heads sticking out of the parallelopipedon,” and Chef A. Schaffner created “the Egyptian obelisk in fat, three feet high, with the hieroglyphics accurately copied.” The Hoffman House brought “two Atlases holding worlds on their shoulders and, on the worlds, a great platter of iced meats, under the platter and at the feet of the Atlases a dozen mounted cannons, with gunners and matchlocks; from the Astor House the work of President Fere, a big roast pig on a standard, with a mammoth sugar eagle on its back, ready to carry it off; from the Union League Club, a representation of ‘Plenty’ made of fat,” reported The Sun on February 2, 1881.
The Victoria House’s chef brought a particularly American-themed creation: “a pate with a big Injun on top.”
Among the luminaries who stayed at the hotel in 1882 was Swedish soprano Chrstine Nilsson. After her arrival on the evening of November 27, several hundred torch-bearing fans marched from Madison Square across the avenue to the hotel. The New York Times reported that “As a feeble expression of their respect and admiration they tendered a serenade, and wished her a long and happy life.” The newspaper noted “The hotel parlors were crowded during the serenade.”
|Opera diva Christine Nilsson caused a sensation when she stayed here -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Because a large proportion of its guests were foreigners, a professional linguist was on staff who spoke Spanish, Italian, French, German and English and acted as interpreter between the guests and staff.
In 1883 waiters in the Victoria Hotel were earning $20 to $40 per month—about $11,000 a year today—plus meals. But a new European custom had infiltrated American hotels and restaurants—tipping. The New-York Tribune noted on June 10, 1883 that the head waiter was pulling in “from $50 to $120” a month in “fees” (the 19th century term for tips).
Although many moneyed patrons were annoyed by the new trend, the newspaper conceded, “It is a cosmopolitan city, and we must expect such customs.” Charles Delmonico, owner of the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant, added “People with plenty of money…liked little extra attentions and quick service and were willing to put down a dime or a quarter to secure them.”
In 1891 the new bookkeeper, William P. Wentworth, found an even easier way of making extra cash at the Victoria Hotel. He stole it.
Wentworth did not live extravagantly—he lived in a boarding house on Fifth Avenue nearby at 29th Street. But he had an eye for the ladies. And ladies, he discovered, demanded financial attention.
By the time he disappeared two years later he had absconded with nearly $30,000. When he was arrested in Jersey City, he had only $700. “Inspector McLaughlin says that much of the money Wentworth stole was spent in supporting and entertaining Mary Dicks of West Fifty-sixth Street and Bessie Livingstone, who used to visit him at his boarding house…It is not probable that the prisoner had more money than the sum taken from him in Jersey City,” reported The New York Times on August 24, 1893.
Earlier that year, on April 26, more positive press came to the hotel when President and Mrs. Cleveland and his party took nearly the entire second floor. Among the President’s entourage were the entire Cabinet and some of their wives, the President’s private secretary and the Ambassador to England, Thomas F. Bayard and his wife.
The Times noted “The apartments which the party occupy will receive, by this use, the distinction of being the only apartments in the city that have ever sheltered a President and his Cabinet at one time. They are thoroughly commodious and pleasant. A private dining room is attached to the President’s suite, which includes also a drawing room and several smaller rooms. The other suites are of the usual style with two rooms each. They are connecting suites, and cover the greater part of one floor.”
In 1894 The New York Times described the exclusive hotel, calling The Victoria “famous on both sides of the Atlantic, and a favorite stopping place for the celebrated foreigners who come to this country. Its management has always been generous, its table is celebrated, its appointments are modern and high-class, and from the proprietor down to the bell boys there is no one about the place who is not at all times eager to subserve the comfort and convenience of the guests.
“There is an old-fashioned air of hospitality about the place that is exceedingly grateful to people who are accustomed to the comforts of well-appointed homes. The guests are made to feel as if they belonged to the place, as if it was their own, and there is a complete absence of the ordinary stiffness that is so often characteristic of hotel life.”
The Times' assessment may have been true; but the fashionable Waldorf Hotel had opened a year earlier on Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street—drawing away the moneyed guests from the group of hotels to its south. Many New Yorkers were shocked when they read The Evening World headline on March 27, 1895: “Victoria Hotel To Close.”
Although the newspaper admitted that “The Victoria Hotel has been one of the prominent hostelries of the city for many years,” it noted “Lately there have been 100 guests in the hotel daily, when, to meet the expenses, there should be 200.”
No one was more shocked at the failure of the Victoria Hotel than Mrs. Paran Stevens. Upon hearing the news she suffered a fatal heart attack. On April 4 The New York Times wrote “To persons familiar with the peculiarly nervous and excitable temperament of Mrs. Paran Stevens, and to all who knew of the shock that the failure of the Victoria Hotel was to her, the sudden announcement of her death yesterday afternoon was not a surprise.”
Had the imperious woman who had begun life as a shop girl not been unconscious for days, the discussions of her managers may have rallied her. A week earlier, as she lay unresponsive in her white marble Fifth Avenue mansion, The Times reported “It was almost the toss of a penny last night whether the Victoria Hotel would dismiss all its servants and close its doors to-day or not.” Creditors and managers came to an agreement and the hotel was granted a second life.
Although the idea to convert the building into business offices was considered, in the end it was remodeled and re-opened as the updated Victoria Hotel. Here in 1902 the National League and the American League met to end the “base-ball war.” In 1906 the Nebraska delegation to the William Jennings Bryan reception in Jersey City took 70 rooms here. The Times warned readers that “The fact that the Nebraskans were quiet last night after their arrival here, however, does not argue that they will not whoop things up during the rest of their stay.”
|A turn-of-the-century advertising postcard announces rates at $1.50 per day|
Several well-heeled women were lunching in the dining room of the Victoria on July 3 that year. As they glanced out the window, they saw 13-year old bicycle messenger Richard Cooper hit by an automobile.
“He was employed as an errand boy by a florist in Twenty-seventh Street,” reported The New York Times. “He used a bicycle to deliver his goods. He started out yesterday morning on his wheel to deliver a box of flowers.”
Before the chauffeur could stop, the wheels of the automobile ran over the boy’s chest. The women, rather than shrinking in horror, rushed out of the hotel to the boy’s aid. “One woman lifted the boy in her arms and carried him to the curb. Another woman tried to stop the flow of blood from the boy’s head, while a third, who saw that his legs were powerless, knelt on the sidewalk and took off his shoes and stockings, thinking that his legs had merely been broken.”
Before the ambulance arrived, the young boy died on the sidewalk surrounded by his distraught caregivers.
|The remodeled dining room -- photograph by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5MEHYM&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
The Victoria Hotel had been inherited by Mrs. Paran Stevens’ daughter, Lady Arthur Paget who lived abroad. Despite its updating and its deep social history, the hotel could not compete with change in the neighborhood and increasing property values. On June 2, 1911 Lady Paget sold the property for $4 million, to “give place to a twenty-story building, costing from $3,500,000 to $4,000,000,” reported The Times.