Monday, March 31, 2014

The Lost 5th Avenue Hotel -- 5th Avenue and 23rd Street

The Fifth Avenue Hotel as it appeared the year after opening -- Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 21, 1860 (copyright expired)

When Henry Brevoort completed his Greek Revival residence on Fifth Avenue north of Washington Square in 1834 he set the tone for the street for more than a century to come.  His was the only mansion on Fifth Avenue; but it would soon be joined by others as Fifth Avenue quickly became synonymous with millionaires and mansions.

Three years after the Brevoort house was completed Fifth Avenue was cut through to 23rd Street and beyond.  There, in what would be the intersection of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue sat the farmhouse of John Horn.  The Common Council ignored the old structure until 1839 when it was moved to the northwest corner of 23rd Street and Broadway.

Still substantially north of the city, the Horn farmhouse became a roadhouse known as the Madison Cottage named for James Madison who had died three years earlier.  Run by Corporal Thompson, it was “a famous resort of the riders and drivers from the City, still some miles south, and was also a post tavern in the coaching days,” remembered The Fifth Avenue Bank’s booklet Fifth Avenue in 1915.

The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide in 1904 recalled the tavern.  “In 1850…it was the principal building in the neighborhood and at the time of the cholera epidemic its sign advertising ‘K.K.K.,’ Corporal’s Cholera Cure, attracted attention.”

In the decade before the Civil War, the intersection of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue bore no hint of what was to develop--from the collection of the New York Public Library

But by the time of the epidemic, the days of the Madison Cottage were numbered.  It was torn down and replaced by Franconi’s Hippodrome which opened on May 2, 1853.  A two-story brick arena, it was covered in canvas and could hold 6,000 people.  The oval ring in the center was 200 feet wide by 300 feet long.  But within two years the ambitious venture failed and the property was purchased by Amos R. Eno.

Eno hailed from New England and had already amassed a fortune.  He laid plans for an opulent hotel despite critics predicting that a hotel so far uptown was doomed to failure.  Eno was unmoved and in June 1856 began construction on his white marble palace.  It would not be completed until August 1859; although The New York Times would opine “Three years, however, is none too long a time to devote to the construction of such a building as this.” 

On August 23, 1859 his grand edifice was opened to the public.  Eno had leased it to the well-known hotelier Paran Stevens.

The New York Times said “That immense structure of white marble which has lighted up Madison-square and Twenty-third-street with its snowy fronts, has at last been christened the Fifth-avenue Hotel…It is worthy to bear the name of the magnificent street on which it is placed; and it may be taken, for the present at least, as the best specimen we can offer of the possibilities of hotel luxury, so far as mere externals go.”

The new building covered 16 building lots and covered the Fifth Avenue block from 23rd Street to 24th.  The Times described “The three fronts are of white marble, the rear being of brick.  The general design is of the so-called Italian style, the pillars having Corinthian capitals.  Passing in through the main entrance, under the portico, in front, opposite Madison-square, we come into the grand entrance hall, which is 165 feet long, 27 feet wide and 15 feet high.”

Victorian visitors would be struck by the grandeur.  There were 15,000 “superficial feet” of marble used on the interior.  The entrance hall floor was laid in a diamond pattern of white and dark red marble and the counter was solid white marble.

Readers of Harper's Weekly in 1859 were treated to a view of the main dining room -- (copyright expired)

On the first floor were the various shops and offices for the convenience of travelers: a Reading Room, Telegraph Office, a “literary depot for books, newspapers, etc.,” the barber shop, wash room, and a restaurant.  Aside from the main entrance, the portico of which was supported by cast iron columns painted to resemble marble, there were four other entrances.  One, of course, was devoted to ladies and led directly to the ladies’ reception room on the floor above.  “This room is exclusively for ladies, to which is attached bath, toilet room, closets, etc.,” noted The Times.

Below ground were the rooms used principally for “cellar purposes,” such as the wine vaults, storerooms, ice houses, coal vaults, and such; although there was a billiard room with twelve tables which The Times deemed was “large and handsomely fitted up.”

23rd Street is in the process of being paved in this early stereoscope view of the white marble hotel.

The second floor corridor was lined with double rows of Corinthian columns.  “It is handsomely carpeted and painted, and lighted with sidelights, the same as the hall below, and will be used as a kind of rendezvous for the ladies in the evening,” said The New York Times.  Eleven chandeliers lighted the hallway, the ceiling of which was “handsomely decorated.”  On this floor were the main dining room and another, “for early dinners and breakfast,” and the ladies’ tea room. 

Eno and Stevens had spent lavishly on furnishings and planned the hotel with top-notch accommodations.  “There are 8 public and 120 private parlors, 4 dining and tea rooms, 450 chambers, and 90 other rooms for servants.  The suites of apartments are arranged to suit the size and requirements of families or single persons.  These rooms are all furnished with wardrobes, bureaus, lounges, easy chair and table,” reported the newspaper.

“The furniture is of rosewood, walnut and bird’s-eye maple.  The chairs and the tete a-tetes are upholstered with rich silk damask, moquet and other costly fabrics, made in every variety of style and fashion.”

The hotel stretched far down West 24th Street, as well.  photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress

Miller’s Stranger’s Guide for the City of New York described the suites as “each combining the conveniences and luxury of parlor, chamber, dressing, and bathing rooms.”  But the innovation that grew the most comment was the elevator—reportedly the nation’s first.

“A new system has been devised and applied in the Fifth-avenue Hotel in this City,” reported The Times, "by Mr. Otis Tufts, a well-known engineer of Boston.  With it the appliances of safety are not only practicable but convenient.  The car, or little parlor, in this case, is elevated by a vertical screw, extending from cellar to attic, and revolved by a belt from a steam-engine.”  The contraption operated on the principal of a nut on a bolt—the nut being the passenger car.

The convenience of not having to climb several flights of stairs was attractive; if for some a bit frightening.   Before Otis would popularize the term “elevator,” the device in the Fifth Avenue Hotel was known as a vertical railroad or perpendicular railway.  Miller’s Stranger’s Guide noted “All the rooms, besides being well lighted and ventilated, will have means of access by a perpendicular railway—intersecting each story.”

Those who had predicted immediate failure were red-faced when, a year after the hotel opened, it hosted the 19-year old Prince of Wales—later to become King Edward the 7th.  Prior to his arrival Paran Stevens rushed to customize the Prince's suite of rooms which, according to The New York Times on October 12, 1860, “form a considerable portion of that wing of the building which stands on the corner of Twenty-third-street and Fifth-avenue.”

Stevens was tasked with making rather non-majestic rooms special.  The Times said “The furniture of the rooms devoted to the use of High Royal Highness is by no means gorgeous.  The upholstery is plain, not gaudy; rich, not ostentatious.  The wood work of the chairs, lounges and sofas is of brilliantly polished rosewood, carved in the utmost simplicity, but with exquisite taste.”  To upgrade the rooms, Stevens went to the city’s foremost dealers in art.

On loan to the Hotel for the Prince’s visit were dozens of costly oil paintings and water colors.  Included was Church’s “Great Fall of Niagara,” a portrait of Washington by Rembrandt Peale, a religious painting by Rubens and a miniature of the Queen Victoria painted at Buckingham Palace in 1841.  As a matter of fact, in the Prince’s bedroom Stevens almost exclusively hung portraits of the Royal Family—perhaps as a gesture to prevent homesickness. 

The Times noted that “All the paintings are acknowledged to be originals of the highest order, and were furnished for the occasion by Williams, Stevens & Williams…So valuable are they that an additional assurance of $20,000 has been incurred for these alone, in order to provide against any chance of injury or loss.”

The young prince was feted with dinners and balls and endless ceremonies.  But Gardener Wetherbee, who was a clerk at the hotel, later remembered “He had a suite on the first floor 23rd Street side, and was pretty much bored, as a jolly youth of nineteen might well be, by the ceremony he was obliged to face from the time he set foot in New York.  So great was his relief to escape to the privacy of his suite that he and his immediate companions engaged in an enthusiastic game of leap-frog in the corridor.”

In 1864 a Confederate terrorist plot involved the simultaneous setting of fires in the major hotels throughout the city.  The theory was that with major fires burning at the same time, firefighters would be overwhelmed and the city would burn.  At around 8:45 on the evening of November 25 fire was discovered in the St. James Hotel.  Within minutes fire alarms were sounded from the St. Nicholas Hotel, the Lafarge House, the United States Hotel, the Metropolitan, Lovejoy’s and the New England Hotels.

“The Fifth Avenue Hotel was the only place where the preparation failed to ignite,” reported The New York Times later, “although more than usual care had been employed to produce that result, the bedroom furniture being stacked together and turpentine and resin added, with the liquid solution of phosphorus.  Owing to haste or forgetfulness, the three bottles containing the latter liquid were left corked, and when the room door was opened the following morning the phosphorus had only just begun to smoke.”

A reception no less extravagant than any in honor of the Prince of Wales was held for General Ulysses S. Grant on November 20, 1865 following the end of the war.  Unfortunately, the event was poorly planned and, as described by The Sun, “Twenty-five hundred jostling, pushing persons crowded the halls, corridors and reception rooms…Little judgment seems to have been used in issuing the invitations.  The throng was indiscriminate.  Farce comedy was in the air.  Religious fanatics, passing before the hero, offered up prayers for the salvation of his soul.  Precocious children were thrust forward to his attention.  Preposterous questions were propounded by preposterous people.”

Fifth Avenue Events commented decades later “No doubt the worthy General felt immensely relieved when the ordeal was over, and he sat down to a banquet in his honor.”

In December 1865 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper published a cleaned-up version of the chaotic reception for General Grant (copyright expired)

Tragedy would eventually visit the Fifth Avenue Hotel.  On December 11, 1872 The New York Times ran stacked headlines reading:

Terrible Calamity at the Fifth-Avenue Hotel.   
Twenty-Two Women Smothered and Burned by Last Night’s Fire. 
Worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta---A Fearful Sight—The Hotel Damaged to the Extent of $100,000

Just before midnight fire broke out on the top floor.  When fire fighters brought their hose into the hotel, panic broke out among the guests who clogged the hallways and lobby with their valises and trunks as they sought escape.  Despite their understandable concerns, the guests were safe.  It was the servants’ floor that was ablaze and the fire did not travel downward.

Fifteen female domestics lost their lives; some burned beyond recognition.  Two days later The Times reported “The body of one of the victims was yesterday identified as that of Lizzie Campbell, aged seventeen years.  Her father went to the Morgue and recognized the remains by a ring on the middle finger of the left hand.”

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Manhattan’s millionaires grumbled about commerce moving up Fifth Avenue and encroaching on their exclusive residential neighborhood.  For the Fifth Avenue Hotel the process was reversed.  The building that once stood alone was now surrounded by mansions and high-end establishments like Delmonico’s Restaurant.  On April 12, 1888 a New York Times writer described its location as “perfect; it is so central and convenient that persons visiting the city must go to or pass by the doors it is the central point from which one can easily turn to elegant homes, churches, galleries, theatres, shops, etc.”

The Hotel's marble-lined lobby was no place for the under-dressed, as seen in this illustration from Harper's Weekly in December 1890 (copyright expired)
In 1895 King’s Photographic Views of New York reminisced on the hotel’s glorious history.  “No other hotel in the world has ever entertained so many distinguished people as have been received at The Fifth Avenue.  Beginning with the Prince of Wales in 1860, a never-ending procession of the great men of this and other countries has marched through its corridors.  Presidents of the United States, United States Senators, Congressmen, Governors, Judges, Generals, Emperors, Princes, foreign ambassadors, untitled men and women of renown; the list would fill a volume…The Emperor Dom Pedro, of Brazil, held court there.  Prince Nareo, Crown Prince of Siam, was entertained in 1884; and in 1881 Prince Napoleon, son of ‘Plon Plon,’ and heir-apparent to the throne of France.  President Arthur there received the Corean Embassy in 1883.  The Arcadian Club gave its great reception to Charlotte Cushman on the occasion of the tragedienne’s retirement from the stage.”

Few readers would expect that the Fifth Avenue Hotel was endangered.  Five years later, on April 21, 1900, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on the sale of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.  The article pointed out that “The Fifth Avenue Hotel is leased under an old instrument which expires August 1, 1903.”

Two weeks earlier the New-York Tribune pointed out that “it still maintains its position as the unofficial National headquarters of the Republican party, and the place by way of which much of the important party news reaches the public.”  The newspaper felt “The destruction of the hotel would create a void which could not be filled, and it would probably take a generation to secure for any other place the position as a political centre which the house enjoys.”

The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide was more pragmatic.  On April 28 1900 it reported “That the Fifth Avenue Hotel property possesses extraordinary speculative value is conceded by all who profess to speak with any weight of authority…The locality is thought to be the very best in the city for a retail store.”

On March 4, 1900 the New-York Tribune pictured the second floor foyer with its frescoed ceiling (above) and the lobby (copyright expired)

Speculation was put to rest on May 15, 1901 when The New York Times reported “Plans have been drawn for the construction of a twenty-five story building on the site of the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the ground now occupied by the Madison Square Theatre and one store on the north side of Twenty-third Street.”

The land had been auctioned a year earlier in settlement of the estate of Amos R. Eno and was purchased for $4.25 million.  The intended structure was anticipated to cost $5 million; not including the expense of demolishing the structures.

As was most often the case when landmarks were slated for destruction, newspapers wistfully reminisced about the old hotel; but no one considered preservation.  “There are many places of historic interest in this City of New York,” lamented The Times on July 7, 1907, “but few if any, that are more famous than the renowned hostelry, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, which, according to recent well-authenticated reports, is soon to make place for a new skyscraper.

“With the passing of this hotel will disappear not only the most noted of the old caravansaries of New York, but in the dust and debris of demolishment will vanish the halls and rooms and corridors of a building which for a half century has been celebrated as the trysting place of politicians, and where statesmen and men of affairs foregathered and largely influenced, if they did not altogether settle, the immediate destinies of the land.”

The hotel lasted one more year.  It closed at midnight on April 4, 1908.  “Men and women from all parts of the country, for whom the hotel holds a pleasant memory, have been visiting it for the last time,” noted The Times that day.  “Among the visitors to the hotel yesterday were an elderly woman and a middle-aged man.  They asked to see Room 363 and were accommodated.  The man was born in that room, and the woman with him was his mother.  He was the first child born in the hotel.”

Three months later the demolition process was well underway.  The exquisite marble and “choice decorations,” as described by the Record & Guide were carefully removed and taken to the Rheinfrank House Wrecking Company at No. 620 East 14th Street in a surprisingly early example of architectural salvaging.

photo by the author

On the site rose a modern office building designed by Robert Maynicke and Julius Franke, known today as the Toy Center Building, and completed in 1909.


  1. These photos are wonderful. Really takes you back to that window of time when life was so "genteel" for some.

  2. I'm confused about the farmhouse. I take it the structure was in the actual roadway of 5th and moved to the corner. But it was apparently the NW corner of 23rd & 5th. Your blog also has 23rd & Broadway?

    1. The site was at what would be the confluence of Broadway (running diagonally) and Fifth Avenue. If you look at the vintage photograph of the exterior above, the short section is facing onto Broadway and the longer front section is on Fifth Avenue. You might have to look at a map to fully grasp the strange configuration.