Saturday, August 30, 2014

The 1904 Hotel Latham -- No. 4 East 28th Street

By the turn of the century Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens had all but abandoned Fifth Avenue south of 34th Street.  High end retailers like art galleries and dressmakers took over the mansions not yet razed and replaced by commercial structures.  The side streets—like 28th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues—rapidly saw the rise of high-end hotels.  These were as much apartment buildings as they were lodging houses for travelers.

In 1904 L. George Forgotston climbed on the bandwagon with plans for an upscale hotel stretching from No. 4 through 8 East 28th Street.  His would be just one of several Beaux Arts-style hotels lining the block opposite the still-fashionable St. Leo’s Church.

Forgotston commissioned architect Augustus N. Allen to design his Latham Hotel.  Twelve stories tall, it was surprisingly restrained at a time when hotel facades dripped with carved festoons and frothy ornaments.  Instead Allen’s two-story limestone base featured formal fluted Ionic pilasters.  The sole ornamentation of the brick façade above were the copper-clad bays which not only added dimension; but caught any wafting summer breeze.

Allen turned to an innovative building material for the upper floors.  Rather than the expected red or yellow clay brick his were a grayish color.  This was due to their composition—what the Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide termed “sand-lime brick.”  A mixture of lime and sand, the bricks were pressed into shape by heavy machinery, then hardened under pressure in large cylinders.  The Guide noted “Its appearance is said to be very pleasing.”

As with all the hotels in the neighborhood, the Latham offered permanent and transient accommodations.  At lobby level was the Café Thomas and by 1907 it had become a destination spot.  What to Eat, in January 1907, said the café “is the headquarters of buyers for great mercantile houses in other parts of the country.  It has an interesting collection of prints and views reminiscent of old New York.  This restaurant is also a favorite resort of women shoppers.”
A postcard of the lobby showed marble walls and leather tufted furniture.
That year Mrs. J. P. Case was staying at the Latham and on April 11 her mother, Mrs. Sarah E. Anderson arrived from Baltimore to join her.  The following morning Mrs. Case woke after dreaming that something horrible had happened to her mother.  The Evening World reported later that day, “So strong was her premonition that Mrs. Case ran to her mother’s room and tried to arouse her.”

Tragically, Sarah Anderson had died of a heart attack.  “The shock undid the daughter,” said the newspaper.  Mrs. Case threw open a window and screamed for help.  Her shrieks caused guests in the nearby Prince George Hotel to flock to their windows.  She was put in the care of the Latham’s in-house physician, Dr. Bellamy.

“Mrs. Case was in a highly nervous state from her experience, and for a time it was feared she would be critically ill.  She responded to restoratives but Dr. Bellamy was obliged to remain by her for the rest for the night,” said The Evening World.

A 1909 advertisement lured tourists and businessmen -- New-York Tribune, June 6, 1909 (copyright expired)
A year later broker James R. Collins and his wife moved into the Latham.  They had previously been living in a suite of rooms at the Plaza where, according to the New-York Tribune “Collins spent his money lavishly.”

In May 1908 the Collins’ hotel bill there had risen to $250—in the neighborhood of $6,500 today.  The couple moved out, leaving a check for $125 as partial payment, and secured rooms in the Latham.  The problem was that the check was no good.

The New-York Tribune noted “Collins, it is said, was once wealthy.”  Apparently those days were over.  The Plaza management filed a complaint and on July 15, 1908 the Latham Hotel suffered an untidy scene when Collins was led out in handcuffs.

The Hotel Latham had much to offer.  As its advertisements boasted, it was just one block from Madison Square Garden, “one door from Fifth Avenue,” and was touted as fireproof.  There were 300 rooms which ranged in price from $1.50 a day and up, to $2.00 per day and up for rooms with private baths.

In the dining room a painted border depicts children in various seasons.

Perhaps the Latham’s most curious resident in the pre-World War I years was Marion Hamilton-Grey.  The young man “represented himself to be heir to the Dukedom of Hamilton in Scotland,” reported The New York Times on January 21, 1910. 

Police Inspector McCafferty received word that Hamilton-Grey, a suspected con artist, had recently come to New York.  McCafferty traced him to the Hotel Latham.  But the guest had recently left, leaving an outstanding bill of $10.50.  That bill was settled by the St. George’s Society, the inspector learned.  The Times explained that, according to E. D. Langley of the Society, “the young man represented himself as a nephew of Col. Hamilton-Grey of the British Army in India, and had declared that he had an allowance of $4,000 a year, but that this was being held up temporarily abroad because of trouble he had had with the executors of his father’s estate.”  The St. George’s Society paid the hotel bill and gave the man a furnished room on West 24th Street.

Inspector McCafferty now took Detectives McKenna and Cassassa to the 24th Street address where they found “their quarry” near 8th Avenue. When the detectives told Hamilton-Grey they wanted to talk to him, they were startled when they heard the response.

“Why, you’re no man.  You’re a girl!” Cassassa said after hearing the voice.

“Well, what’s the harm in that?  I never said I wasn’t.”

Now in custody, the 19-year old girl said she had been born in Punjab, India.  Her father had been Colonel Hamilton-Grey and she was orphaned at the age of four.  An “old friend in India had advised her to adopt men’s clothes as an easier means of making her living, and she had followed his advice for the last ten years,” said The Times.

“The girl made a handsome youth in her boy’s clothing.  Her brown hair was clipped short like a man’s and she wore a gray suit, gray slouch hat, and gray overcoat with a gray stock.  She had black patent leather shoes and wore blue spats over them,” reported the newspaper.

The fine wardrobe resulted in her being charged with “masquerading in men’s clothing.”  She had her suspicions concerning who set the police on her trail.  “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a wealthy widow of Newark was behind this,” she said at the police station.  “She fell in love with me and never forgave me when I wouldn’t marry her.”

Despite down-on-their-luck guests like Collins and Hamilton-Grey, the Latham continued to see well-to-do residents.   Among them were John Gilbert Gulick, his wife, and their son Earl.  On October 19, 1913 the New-York Tribune’s society page noted that they “have returned to the city from their summer home at Lake Hopatcong and are at the Prince George.  They will take possession of their apartments at the Hotel Latham to-morrow for the winter.”

Charles Vail, Vice President of the Transcontinental Freight Company rented rooms here in 1913—but his purposes were less upstanding that those of the Gulicks.  On the evening of December 12 that year he entered the hotel with a suitcase.  When he appeared in the lobby half an hour later he was in “faultless evening dress and accompanied by a tall, blonde woman,” according to The Evening World nearly a year later on November 20.

What the wealthy executive did not realize was that his wife, Emma, had a private detective trailing him.  After the couple had dinner at the Hotel Imperial, they returned to the Latham.  

The detective had checked the register where they were signed in as “Mr. and Mrs. Vail, Chicago.”  With Vail and the blonde upstairs, he summoned Emma.  She brought several witnesses with her and they commenced a raid on Room No. 1102.

The detective testified in the subsequent divorce case, “The woman pulled the bedclothes over her face, but wasn’t quick enough for Mrs. Vail, who struck her.  Then she went after her husband.”

Caught red-handed—or red-faced, anyway—Vail was directed to pay his now-former wife $100 a month alimony. 

The protruding bays extended along the side wall.

By now World War I was raging in Europe.  Far from the fighting, the Hotel Latham felt the effects.  Many of the tourists who stopped at the hotel were European and a large percentage of those were German.  By the end of 1915 the hotel had to close.

On November 25, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported that the hotel “will close its doors at noon to-morrow, according to an announcement made last night by Albert Pratt, the manager…The European war is given as one of the contributing causes to the failure.  Many German patrons since the war started have failed to put up at the hotel.”

The same day The New York Times reported that “Guests were notified last night that they would have to seek other quarters, and all employes received notice that their service would terminate tomorrow.”

The extremely short notice given to hotel residents resulted in tragedy for one elderly man.  Lawrence Peterson had been living here for a year and a half.  His father had been the owner of Peterson’s Magazine of Philadelphia, by now out of publication.  Mary Casey, proprietress of the Hotel Latham, told a reporter “he was the sole heir to an estate amounting to about $10,000,000.”

Petersen’s finances, however, were tied up in a trust and its executor, G. F. Kean, gave him only a few dollars a week.  Now forced to find new accommodations, the old man was panic-stricken.  The stress of his situation finally became too much.

The Times reported on November 26 “An old man, well dressed, but penniless, stumbled into the lobby of the Home Club, an apartment house at 11 East Forty-fifth Street, last night and told an elevator boy to summon a doctor because he felt he was reaching his end.”  The newspaper said “As the Hotel Latham was about to close by order of a bankruptcy referee he said he did not know where to go.”

The elevator boy suggested calling a taxi, but Peterson said he did not have a penny to pay for one.  Before a doctor could arrive, Peterson had died of a heart attack. 

Peterson had earlier pleaded with Mary Casey.  “He said he was more than sixty years old and that nobody would give him a home if he were put out of the Latham…It is believed at the hotel that this circumstance aggravated the heart trouble which caused his sudden death,” said The Times.

Within a year the hotel was back on its feet.  Like every hotel, the Latham had its share of heartbreaking stories.  Around the first of November in 1916 Brooklyn Union Gas Company employee B. L. Graham checked in.

In the first years of the 20th century the leading cause of death in the United States was tuberculosis.  Around 110,000 Americans died each year from the disease, and those diagnosed were normally whisked away to be isolated in sanatoriums.  A few months earlier Graham had been diagnosed with the deadly illness.

Late on the night of November 2, when Graham had not been seen coming or going for some time, Manager Max Hoestmann sent a porter to check on him.

“The porter opened the door with his master-key,” reported The Evening World.  “On the bed he found Graham’s lifeless body.  He clasped tightly the picture of his wife.  By the bed was an automatic pistol with one chamber empty.”

Graham had shot a bullet into his head.  The newspaper described the photograph of “a remarkably handsome young woman in evening dress.  She was sitting.  A string of pearls hung gracefully about her neck.”  On the reverse Graham had written:

God keep and make happy this girl—the sweetest and most wonderful woman in all the world.

Following the war’s end the Latham remained a respectable hotel for years.  In 1920 Margaret Prescott Montague stayed here as her motion picture Uncle Sam of Freedom Ridge opened at the three Manhattan theaters.  Montague told reporters that the purpose of her film was “to express the idea of the League of Nations, and, more fundamentally, to impress upon all the ideas of atonement and resurrection.”

The Depression years saw a change to the Latham and to its neighborhood.  Called by Rider’s New York City Guide a “quiet family hotel” in 1923, by 1931 it attracted a more sordid clientele.  On the evening of March 31, 1931 several men including a former vice squad policeman, Richard E. Ganley, were playing poker in one of the rooms.  Suddenly three men broke into the room with drawn guns and ordered the poker players to line up against the wall.

Ganley, however, pulled his service pistol and fired at the leader of the gang, William Horowitz.  What ensued was described by the Brooklyn Standard Union on April 10 as “a gun battle.”  When it was over, 53-year old Albert Shaw, one of the card players, lay dead.  Howoritz, badly wounded, was captured in the hotel lobby and charged with murder.

One of the Latham’s most renowned residents was photographer William Henry Jackson.  He was 99 years old when he fell and hurt himself here on June 26, 1942.  He was highly responsible for the creation of Yellowstone National Park when his photographs of the magnificent landscapes were presented to Congress in 1872.  Four days after his fall he died in Midtown Hospital and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

But the most notorious guest of all would be Rudolf Abel who lived here in 1957.  FBI agents shadowed the man, finally knocking on his door at 7:02 on the morning of June 21.  In a search of the room the agents found a hollow shaving brush and hollow pencils, used for hiding microfilm; cameras for producing “microdots;” and other Cold War Era espionage paraphernalia.  He was arrested as a Soviet spy.

Five years later, in February 1962, the United States government exchanged Abel for Francis Gary Powers.  Powers had been shot down over Russian in a U-2 spy plane, creating an incident reported globally.

The respectable days of the Hotel Latham were already over and things would get worse before they got better.  By 1983 the city was using the building as a home for “displaced families.”  There were 25 homeless families living in the hotel that year.  On August 31 Philip Shenon of The New York Times described “At the Latham, in the light of bare bulbs and short white strands of neon lights, rats crawl across the floors, and paint peels on the walls.  Roaches, water bugs and ants crowd the sinks.  Toilets frequently do not work, and repairs are slow.  Halls and stairwells reek of mildew, urine, and marijuana.”

On January 25, 1988 one man was fatally shot and four others wounded in a gun battle over illegal drugs.  The bodies fell to the sidewalk directly in front of the Latham Hotel.

Two other hotels of the period survive alongside the Latham.
Today the once-proud Hotel Latham has been rescued by businessman and philanthropist Carl Celian Icahn.  Now called the Icahn House, East, the renovated facility houses the homeless and provides medical care.  Considering its sometimes harsh past, the exterior appearance of the Hotel Latham is astoundingly unchanged since 1904.

photographs taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. my friends and i discovered this semi shitty but affordable hotel in the mid 70's then we moved on to the semi luxurious seville.i always imagined thurber stumbling in here demanding a brandy