The battle for Fifth Avenue between millionaire homeowners and commercial enterprise was well underway by 1890. Although jewelers, dressmakers and art dealers were making inroads among the brownstone mansions, it was the grand hotels that were the largest threat to the residential neighborhood.
As early as 1871 construction began on the block-wide Windsor Hotel between 46th and 47th Streets. Now, in 1890, the doors opened to the new Plaza Hotel at the northern fringes of Millionaire’s Row and William Waldorf Astor demolished his father’s mansion at the northwest corner of 33rd Street and broke ground for the hulking Waldorf Hotel that same year.
As Astor’s massive hotel designed by Henry J. Hardenberg rose, the millionaire commissioned William Hume to work on another grand hotel, diagonally across from the Plaza at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. Hume presented Astor with designs for an imposing brick and stone structure with remarkable similarities to Hardenberg’s Waldorf.
|A sketch of the coming structure was published in 1893 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The 17-story structure, like the Waldorf, featured Romanesque arches, turrets and a high mansard crowned with a balustrade. To enable the structure to attain such heights, Hume used steel framing—one of the first examples of the structural process in the city. The architect incorporated all the latest technology of the day to ensure the hotel would be state of the art. Elevators, plumbing and electricity would provide guests with the latest in convenience. There would even be a telephone in every room—a feature that would prompt a newspaper to later comment “so that the millionaire who is ill may transact his business in bed.” As opening day approached an advertisement boasted that the hotel had “Every scientific appliance in ventilating, heating, plumbing & Electric Lighting.”
|An advertisement promised "The Furnishings of a palace. The table of an Epicure." Club Men of New York, January 1893 (copyright expired)|
On August 3, 1892 Electricity: A Popular Electrical and Financial Journal remarked that work on the hotel “is rapidly nearing completion. The work of a structural nature is about completed, and the decorative, plumbing and electrical work is being pushed with all speed. Wiring has commenced, and the work of placing the power plant is at present receiving attention.”
Perhaps questionable by 21st century minds was the engineer’s idea for the in-house generators. “A noticeable feature of the electric installation lies in the fact that no belts are to be used in power transmission; imported cotton rope will connect the engines, jack-shafts, and dynamos. When completed, this will be the largest rope-driven electric plant in this or any other country,” said Electricity.
As the hotel neared completion, Astor leased it to Ferdinand P. Earle who also ran the high-end Hotel Normandie on Broadway. One of Earle’s first challenges concerned the waiter’s union. To avoid the labor problems several other hotels were experiencing, he agreed to hire union waiters. But he put his foot down when it came to facial hair.
On May 13, 1893 The New York Times reported “The members of the International Hotel Employes’ Association were happy yesterday. A report was brought down to their headquarters at the Chimney Corner that the manager of the New Netherlands Hotel, which is to be opened on Decoration Day, had decided to employ association waiters, but on the condition that the men should not insist on wearing mustaches.
“The waiters will waive their claim to the right of wearing mustaches.”
If Astor had paid a fortune for the construction of the hotel, Earle was not far behind in its furnishings. All told, the project cost $3 million—more in the neighborhood of $75 million today. The interiors were decorated by James T. Hall & Co. of New York and no expense was spared.
In a well-conceived publicity ploy, Earle invited three United States Senators to spend the night in the hotel one day before the opening. Senators David B. Hill of New York, Charles J. Faulkner of West Virginia and Fred T. Dubois of Idaho had the cavernous hotel to themselves “in apartments equally as gorgeous and far more extensive than those which the Nation’s Spanish guests have been given,” said The Times on June 1, 1893.
“The parlors of the house, with their costly drapings and upholstery, the immense dining room finished in Mexican onyx, the spacious halls and corridors, approached by a staircase in carved Numidian marble, and even the bridal chambers were at their disposal, with none to molest or make them afraid,” reported the newspaper.
Among the works of art was an immense oil painting by Franklin Tuttle in the lobby depicting the purchase of Manhattan Island from the native Americans. The painting measured 25 by 12 feet and the figures were nearly life sized. A clerk explained to Senator Dubois that the price paid for the land was $24. “’There has been a noticeable increase in the value of that real estate,’ mused the Senator as he moved away to look at another painting, which represents the refusal of Peter Stuyvesant to cede Manhattan Island to the English,” said The Times reporter.
The following morning the senators joined the Senate Committee on Immigration in the New Netherlands Room. The Times said “The room is a reproduction of the best finished and furnished of old Dutch rooms;” and The Decorator and Furnisher said “This quaintly beautiful room is deeply imbued with the spirit of the German Renaissance. The woodwork throughout is dark antique oak, and the tile decorations a brilliant Dutch blue, a combination rather strong and starling in its contrasts, but in a room of this character, perfectly allowable.”
|Delft-style tiles covered the upper walls of the New Netherlands Room -- The Decorator and Furnisher, March 1897 (copyright expired)|
But first there was the matter of formally opening the hotel. And it would be an astounding exhibition of electrical technology. At 10:00, with the senators and newspaper men crowded around, Earle’s young son, Guyon Locke Crocheron Earle, pressed a button. “This act will start the machinery plant of the house, unfurl a United States flag on the flagpole, seventeen stories higher, and discharge a cannon which has been fastened to the roof. The house will then be declared open for guests,” said The New York Times.
The remarkable hotel made news far outside New York City. Maine’s The Lewiston Evening Journal announced on June 1, 1893 “The New Netherland is a magnificent structure, 17 stories high, of dull, yellowish brick, with brownstone trimmings. The entrance is imposing and broad, with massive carved stone pillars supporting the portico. It is a palace for a king, magnificent in its appointments, solid and durable as the ages.”
Calling the hotel “elegant, “ the newspaper said “But the parlors surpass in beauty and magnificence of furnishing everything in the hotel. They open directly into the hall and connect with each other. There is one that is especially unique and beautiful, and that is the empire room. Their [sic] furniture is upholstered in the prevailing tints and the magnificent rugs harmonize with the whole.”
|The Empire Parlor -- The Decorator and Furnisher, September 1896 (ciopyright expired)|
The Evening Journal described the bridal suite in detail. “The parlor is a symphony in cream, pale pink and Nile green. The ceiling is a stucco work of garlands and roses, rosebuds and delicate leaves. The walls are upholstered in Nile green tapestry, with pink and white rosebuds, and the gilt furniture is covered with satin brocade of the same color.”
The newspaper summed it up saying “There is no evidence in the hotel that money has been spared.”
In fact, no expense had been spared. Earl purchased the carpeting, draperies, wall hangings and upholstery from W. & J. Sloane for $74,000. The Phoenix Furniture Company had custom built the furniture for $180,000. The silverware was provided by Gorham Manufacturing Company at a cost of $65,000. The combined outlay to these three suppliers alone would amount to about $8 million today.
The Evening World chimed in, saying that the 370-room New Netherlands was even finer than the Waldorf. “Of the series of Astor hotels which have so far been erected in New York the New Netherlands is, architecturally, the most magnificent. It is, indeed, considered by many persons the most wonderful hotel structure in the world.”
The day following the opening, The New York Times commented on the technical advances, including the fire alarm. “As a precaution against fire telemeters are connected with each room by which, whenever the temperature rises higher than 130 [degrees], the annunciator tells that fact to the office.”
The Times reported on the painted ceilings, the many oil paintings and tapestries, and the marble, onyx and hardwood trimmings. “The general effect is of substantial elegance, and a degree of taste has been displayed which leaves no room for criticism as to over finish.”
The New Netherlands was intended more for permanent residents than transient guests. Among the first to move in were Thomas W. Strong and his wife Lena B. Graves Strong, according to the 1893 Social Register. The New-York Daily Tribune noted on Sunday, November 26 that year that “Mrs. N. S. de L. Wyse will give an afternoon tea to-morrow in her apartments in the Hotel New Netherlands.”
Ten days earlier, the hotel had been the scene of a politically and socially-important function. On Thursday November 16 St. Patrick’s Cathedral was “filled with distinguished people,” according to The Evening World, as Elizabeth Elkins married Edwin E. Bruner. Not only did Archbishop Corrigan participate, but Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore had traveled to New York to officiate in the ceremony.
The bridal party, including the maid of honor, Grace Davis, who was the daughter of Senator Davis of West Virginia, and the Elkins family took rooms in the New Netherlands Hotel. The bride’s father was Stephen Benton Elkins, the Secretary of State under President Harrison.
Following the ceremony, “The wedding party were driven directly to the New Netherlands Hotel, where there was a wedding breakfast in the banquet hall, on the parlor floor. The breakfast was eaten standing. The guests were 125 in number, and the breakfast was followed by a reception, the whole of the magnificently appointed parlor floor being given up to the reception,” said The Evening World.
The newspaper noted “Mr. and Mrs. Bruner will go on a two-weeks’ wedding journey, and when they return will take up their residence at the New Netherlands.”
Unfortunately for Ferdinand Earle, his extravagant outlays for silver, antiques, artwork and furnishings were more than the hotel could provide in income. In March, less than a year after the opening, Earle was no longer able to pay the rent and, as The Evening World worded it on April 6, “he was evicted from the palatial New Netherlands Hotel.”
By the end of June William Astor had found a new proprietor in Stafford & Whitaker. The Evening World announced on June 29, 1894 “A lease for a period of ten years has been signed, and the work of refurnishing and refitting the big hotel will be begun very soon.” In reporting on the change in managers, the newspaper added, “It is one of the most magnificently appointed houses in the world.”
Stafford told The New York Times “There are a number of changes to be made inside. The house is fully furnished, and if we can make a satisfactory arrangement with Gen. Earle’s creditors, we will purchase the furnishings, but if we cannot, we will refurnish it from cellar to roof.” He added “We shall continue to run it as a family hotel, and cater for regular boarders, although we will in no wise refuse transients.”
The magnificent appointments referred to by The Evening World would invite trouble later that year. The hotel was decorated with costly objects and works of art—a fact that was a bit too tempting for some employees. In September 1894 the manager noticed “that choice bric-a-brac, rare vases, silver and chinaware were mysteriously disappearing,” reported The New York Times.
The house detective was put on the case, who discovered within 30 days “several thousands of dollars’ worth of goods had been stolen,” and eight employees were under suspicion Two police detectives were called in to help on the case. “They found that the method was to throw the valuable booty into the ash carts, and afterward pawn it,” explained The Times on November 27.
Detectives arrested three employees, William Shannon, Allen J. Curry, and John Rooney, as well as Shannon’s wife, Mary. They were charged with robbing the hotel of $5,000 worth of goods. “The stolen property included almost every article of household furniture that could be used in furnishing a flat in complete style,” said The Times on November 28. “Several truckloads of goods were removed [from the homes of the employees] and stored in a vacant room in the New Netherland, where they are practically under control of the Property Clerk of the Police Department.”
Twenty-nine year old Allen Curry was a watchman with a salary of $40 a month. His participation in the ring enabled him to spend $45 a month on rent. “When the premises were searched large quantities of the finest provisions that money could buy were found,” said The Times.
|The New Netherlands was joined by the Hotel Savoy (right) -- photo by John S. Johnston, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWQC1166&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
As with any hotel, The New Netherlands had its share of customer peculiarities. Near the top of the list of most unusual was Anna Held, a French-Polish singer. The chanteuse arrived in New York in 1894 under contract with Florenz Ziegfeld. It would be Held who suggested to the impresario that he stage an imitation of the lavish Parisian Follies.
|The beautiful singer checked into the New Netherlands in 1894 -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library|
But for now the woman whom The Times called “the much-advertised French singer” checked into The New Netherlands Hotel. Among the diva’s demands was 40 gallons of milk every day “for bathing purposes.” Ziegfeld contracted with the Long Island milk merchant H. R. Wallace to supply to milk at 20 cents a gallon.
“Miss Held had used 320 gallons, when she says she discovered that it was not fresh, and lacked the ‘creamy’ quality essential,” reported The New York Times on October 10, 1896. Anna Held refused to pay for the milk, so Wallace sued her for the $64.
Victorian courtrooms were no place to air the subject of naked women in tubs of milk. “Mr. Marks, Miss Held’s personal representative, said yesterday that the matter would be settled out of court, as milk baths were too peculiar to be discussed in public,” reported The Times.
Despite the publicity about milk baths and Anna’s questionable talents (The New York Times said “her abilities are of the most ordinary kind…her voice is not sweet or very strong and she uses it with no remarkable skill”), Ziegfeld was enamored with her. In the spring of 1897 the couple signed a document in Anna’s suite in the New Netherlands proclaiming themselves married.
Although the “ceremony” had neither clergy nor public official, it was witnessed by “Diamond” Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, and Flo and Anna lived together as husband and wife for nearly sixteen years.
As the 20th century dawned, the hulking Victorian hotels of a generation earlier lost favor. In 1905 the Plaza Hotel was demolished and in its place Hardenberg’s lavish new Plaza was erected. The handsome French Renaissance palace stood in stark contrast to the dour brick-and-brownstone New Netherlands across the plaza.
|A sketch was released in 1926 depicting the coming replacement for the old hotel -- The Architect, October 1926 (copyright expired)|
In 1926 demolition of The New Netherlands began. It was replaced by the 38-story Sherry-Netherland Hotel designed by Schultze & Weaver with Buchman & Kahn. Now an apartment hotel, the Sherry-Netherland survives as a familiar landmark for New Yorkers, few of whom are aware of its magnificent namesake that stood here before it.
|photo by Beyond My Ken|