Monday, October 27, 2014

The Lost Hotel Belmont -- 120 Park Avenue

At the turn of the last century, a rather handsome two-story building stood at the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 42nd Street.   It housed Peter Tivnan’s restaurant and the Hetherington drugstore (and before that, Schoonmaker’s Drugstore).  As excavation for the coming Fourth Avenue subway commenced in 1902, the Victorian structure was razed.

One block to the south stood the massive Murray Hill Hotel which opened in 1884.  Before long the aging hostelry would have competition in the 23-story Hotel Belmont.  

The drugstore and restaurant were razed for construction of the subway -- The Sun, September 29, 1918 (copyright expired) 
Because of the sharp turn its route had to make at 42nd Street, the subway necessarily had to go under the now-vacant plot.  The Subway Realty Company (most of the stock of which was owned by the Interborough Rapid Transit) purchased the land, which it rented to the Hotel Belmont Company at $125,000 per year.  The complex set of negotiations was eased by the fact that millionaire August Belmont, Jr. had founded the Interborough and, not surprisingly, was highly involved in the Hotel Belmont Company.

In order to construct a substantial structure above the subway, massive columns had to be installed that reached five stories below street level.  On January 24, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported “These pillars, three times the size of any of the others [in the subway project], are of solid steel, incased in brick, and they support the new Hotel Belmont, now building.  Practically the entire weight of this huge structure rests on these pillars, supported on the subway roof, intervening between them and its foundations.”

As the subway and the hotel were constructed, August Belmont left his mark in the design of both in the form of a siding for his private subway car.  The “Mineola” would cost more than $11,000 to construct and was fitted out like the luxurious private train cars millionaires used above ground.

On September 25, 1904 as the hotel began taking form, the New-York Tribune noted “The ground area of the Hotel Belmont contains 22,000 square feet and its cost is estimated at $5,000,000, or $240 a square foot.”  The great expense would be understandable when its doors opened for business in 1906.

In December of that year, The Architectural Record said “To this monster hotel one might aptly apply the expression for large New York enterprises:  A city in itself.  On entering it the spectator experiences a sensation as in a large department store:  Where shall we go first?”

It was most likely no coincidence that Belmont chose for his architects Warren & Wetmore, who simultaneously worked on the magnificent new Grand Central Terminal across 42nd Street.   Despite the building’s grandeur and size, The Architectural Record was less than impressed with the exterior.  It called the cornice “ponderous” and “rather loud.” 

Turning to the lower floors the critic described “In it the two great entrance features, one on Park avenue, the other on Forty-second street, with their marquises in glass and wrought-iron, form the eyes, the centres of interest.  In the Park avenue elevation the stone pedimented windows are given such importance that they appear to fight the ironwork for supremacy and this antagonism of the windows and entrance is further emphasized by the negative way in which the intermediate long windows of the first and second stories are treated.”

Architecture critic H. W. Frohue found the cornice "rather loud."

Writing for the periodical, H. W. Frohue was as unforgiving regarding the interiors.  “The decorative treatment of the ceiling and wall surfaces calls for less enthusiastic praise.”  Regarding the lobby decorations, it said “Supporting the beams and on each side of the piers which look quite able to support their loads, there have been placed ponderous Atlas-like figures executed in white staff.  Aesthetically one can find no excuse for them, nor do they give any particular character to the room.”

Frohue disliked the ponderous Atlas-like figures in the lobby -- Architectural Record December 1906 (copyright expired)

The red marble entrance hall, said Frohue, “is rather cold and uninviting…The brilliant chandelier of cut glass in the centre forms the most attractive spot of decoration in a rather expressionless interior.”  The critic summed up the public spaces by saying it left an “impression of vastness.”
The Palm Garden featured exquisite crystal chandeliers, marble columns and a frescoed ceiling -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Despite H. W. Frohue’s tepid opinion, the hotel saw the comings and goings of wealthy travelers.   Among them was Mrs. Eva Briel Werner who arrived on Tuesday January 14, 1908.  The wife of Frederick A. Werner whom The World termed “a millionaire business man of New York and London,” she was 35 years old and, according to the newspaper, was “prominent in social life on both sides of the water, wealthy in her own right.”

In 1901 the Werners had lost two children.  “Since she has been inconsolable,” said The World. “Her ailment has been chronic.  She was given all the freedom in the world by her husband because he believed that travel and excitement would aid her.”

In March 1907 the pair was in London; but Eva traveled to New York as a guest of Mrs. Henry Wellington Wack of Riverside Drive.  Mrs. Wack’s husband was counsel to King Leopold of Belgium.  Now, nearly a year later, Eva Werner checked into the Belmont, locked herself in her rooms and began writing heartfelt letters to friends and family.  “In them she spoke of death, saying she had to die.”

Eva placed her jewelry—valued at $16,000—in a suitcase and left a diary in her room.  One entry read “I am not worthy of the love and kindness of my husband and all of my friends, and I must die.”

She walked out of the Belmont that evening and when she had not returned by Thursday, police started a search of hotels, hospitals and sanitariums.  Weeks later the mystery of her disappearance appeared to have been solved when relatives in Boston sent word to police “to no longer continue a search for Mrs. Werner, as she was found alive and well,” reported The World.

It is possible that the wealthy Boston family simply wanted to put a stop to the uncomfortable publicity.  What is certain, however, is that Eva Werner was by no means alive nor well. 

Eva Werner -- The Evening World, January 17, 1908 (copyright expired)

Five months after her disappearance, the body of Eva Werner was found in the East River by Pier 14.  When the badly decomposed body was brought to the morgue only remnants of a brown dress remained; but the label “Slattery & Co., Boston” was still legible.  It was enough for Eva’s brother to identify her.

The Hotel Belmont rises high above the Murray Hill hotel in 1908.  Park Avenue still boasts lavish mansions.

On July 8 that year 20-year old Nathan Schultz checked into the Hotel Belmont.   His arrival coincided with a rash of spectacular burglaries of the finest hotels in New York—including the Waldorf-Astoria, the Grand, and the Plaza.   The New-York Tribune said the thief had “led the police a merry chase for the last few weeks.”

In the suite on the 14th floor next to Schultz were Mostyn Cookson and his wife who were visiting from England. What the Cooksons did not know was that the man in the suite next door was New York’s most sought-after crook, Nathan Levine.  And what Levine did not know was that Cookson was a Major in the English Army.

Around 2:30 on the morning of July 9 the daring robber climbed out his window and along the three-inch wide stone coping 200 feet above the sidewalk and into the Cookson rooms.   After pocketing $2,000 of Mrs. Cookson’s jewelry, he was discovered by the woman.  He tied her up and threatened to kill her.

“She screamed and aroused her husband, who disregarded Levine’s threats and beat him thoroughly after knocking a revolver from his hand,” reported the New-York Tribune on July 10.  “Major Cookson covered the burglar with the captured revolver until the hotel employes and the police arrived.”

In Levine’s rooms the police found two revolvers, two “dark lanterns,” a dagger, several bottles of knock-out drops, and a box of red pepper.  As the Major and Mrs. Cookson sailed home on the steamship Baltic on the afternoon of July 9, Nathan Levine was being transported to Sing Sing prison to serve a sentence of 10 to 40 years.

Postcards pictured the Dining Room and the immense lobby fireplace.

A bizarre incident occurred the following year when Father Joseph Hirling was hurrying to Grand Central Terminal on April 13, 1909.  Mistaking the Hotel for an annex of the train station, he entered.  He walked to an elevator but it was too crowded, so he walked into the open door of another one.  The elevator was not there.

The priest plunged 60 feet down the shaft where he was found unconscious by hotel staff.  “For a long time his name and how he met his injuries were unknown, but late last night he recovered consciousness and explained,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day.   Despite suffering a broken right leg and several bruises, the unfocused priest recovered.

The Hotel Belmont, like all hotels, saw repeated suicides or attempted suicides through the years.  One of the most disturbing was that of 28-year old Jergen E. Muhlensteth.   The man had been butler to Dr. E. D. Kelsey in his home at No. 44 East 29th Street until June 1909 when he resigned “saying that he wished for a better position.”

He volunteered to join the U.S. Army but a month later, following a physical examination, received a rejection letter.  The rejection apparently ate away at the dejected man and six months later he checked into the Hotel Belmont.  Later the Army’s rejection letter was found, torn into many pieces in his room.

Muhlensteth threw himself from his 11th floor window that faced the interior air shaft.  His body crashed through the glass ceiling of the lobby and smashed to the floor among terrified guests.  The coroner arrived within ten minutes, and determined that he had been killed instantly with a fractured skull.

The hotel’s proximity to the train terminal made it a favorite for meetings of groups with far-flung attendees.  Such was the case when Senator Franklin D. Roosevelt called a meeting “to discuss the coming Presidential campaign and the question of the leadership and principles of the Democratic party in the State of New York,” said The Sun on July 14, 1912. 

Roosevelt said in a letter to independent Democrats, “It was the unanimous sentiment that the present methods of leadership in this State are utterly destructive of future party unity and success; that unless the present stupidity, arrogance and selfishness give way to an intelligent regeneration of the Democracy a State ticket capable of being elected will not be nominated and the success of Wilson and Marshall will be placed in jeopardy.”

As is the case today, upscale hotels in the first decades of the last century not only saw society functions, suicides and political events; they were the scenes of scandalous trysts.   In 1913 the suave Frenchman Jean Millon was chief chef at the Ritz-Carlton.   His highly-paid position afforded him the ability to mingle in his off hours among Manhattan’s socially elite.  Such was the case on March 10 that year when he dined at the exclusive Maxim’s restaurant.

Charles Lehman’s wife was there that night and introduced Millon to wealthy friends, Ernest Eidlitz and his wife.   The couple had been married in 1907 and, it appears that the spark that had died in their relationship reignited between the chef and Mrs. Eidlitz.

A few days later a basket of fruits and candies arrived at the Millon residence, a gift to the married woman from Millon.  When she hosted her own birthday party on March 22, Millon was “one of the honored guests,” according to The Evening World.  The attraction grew.  On April 10 Ernest Eidlitz waited until 3:30 in the morning for his wife to return home.

Things escalated when Marion Sterner was in the Hotel Belmont on May 23, a little more than two months after Millon had met Eidlitz’s wife.  She later testified that she “saw Millon and Mrs. Eidlitz at the Hotel Belmont drinking wine and later they registered as ‘J. Beanaux and wife’ and went to room 51.”

Eidlitz put two private detectives on his wife’s trail.  It all came to a dramatic conclusion when the lovebirds were followed into the Hotel Belmont on the afternoon of May 27.  After once again drinking wine downstairs, they registered as “Michaud and wife” and went to a suite of rooms.

Their romantic afternoon was soon shattered when Eidlitz’s lawyer and the two private investigators banged on the door after waiting a short period.  The Evening World reported on July 23 “finally the door was opened by Millon, wearing little clothing.  They went into the bedroom…and found Mrs. Eidlitz in bed.”

Devastated by the humiliating and scandalous press, Eidlitz’s wife fled to Paris rather than appear in court.   Eidlitz sued his wife for divorce on June 2, then sued the French chef for $50,000 (a substantial $1.15 million today) for alienating his wife’s affections.

Staff at the Hotel Belmont were apparently well taken care of.  At the time of Mrs. Eidlitz’s shocking affair the nation was swept with labor upheaval and worker strikes.   Earlier that year, in January, Manhattan’s most exclusive hotels were pummeled by waiter strikes led by the Industrial Workers of the World.

Representatives of the group told reporters that they “would send their well dressed strikers into the hotels, accompanied by equally well gowned women—their wives or daughters.  They figured they would not attract attention and cause disorder by such a method.”  Once inside, they would incite the waiters and kitchen help to walk off the job, leaving wealthy patrons at unattended tables.

On January 11, 1913 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (described by the New-York Tribune as “a slim and pretty young woman, with tired eyes) went to the door of the Hotel Belmont with “two gaily clothed strikers.”  The Tribune said that she “there bade them come out only when they had called a strike among all the waiters and kitchen help there.”

She waited.  And waited.  And finally went back to strike headquarters alone.  Later she found out that not only had the Hotel Belmont staff not participated in the strike; her two associates had been arrested.  “The two men walked into the Palm room of the hotel and then started to call about them the waiters in the room.  They told the waiters who they were and asked that they all ‘get together’ and call a general strike.”   Instead they called police.

Two decades after its doors were opened, they were closed.  On May 3, 1930 it “passed into the ranks of the immortals among the famous hostelries of Manhattan,” said The New York Times the following day.  “The hotel, for twenty-three years a landmark of the Grand Central zone, ended its career quietly and without ceremony.”

The wealthy full-time residents had been told of the closing just a week earlier.  At noon on the last day, they gathered in the main dining room for the last meal served in the grand space.  “It was a solemn luncheon, prepared by Pierre Camin, chef, and served under the direction of Joseph Parkes, the maitre de hotel.”

Within weeks the furniture, chandeliers, carpets, fireplaces and other decorative and utilitarian items of the hotel were sold at auction.   Among the items was “the historic, rather quaint bar,” as described by The New York Times on June 19, 1930.

After 23 years the grand hotel was slated for demolition  Architectural Record December 1906 (copyright expired)

In the days of Art Deco skyscrapers and streamlined, jazz age décor, Edwardian decoration was ill-regarded.  The heavy bar brought a bid of $2.  To up the price, auctioneer James P. Silo placed a “gin bottle, a seltzer bottle and two drinking glasses” on the bar.  The Times said “They stood in full view, where thousands of other bottles and glasses had stood—not so very long ago.”

The move brought a second bid--$27.   Silo brought down the hammer and Irving Finn of the Bronx had purchased the striking relic.  “Mr. Finn said he would present the bar to a friend who owns a home in the country,” said the newspaper.

Rumors were rampant regarding the site.  On August 30, 1930 it was reported that the city’s tallest office building would replace the hotel.  But demolition did not begin until April 1931.  Newspapers repeatedly spoke of the proposed 60-story office building, until July 1931 when The Times ran a headline “Abandon Plan for Skyscraper on Site of Hotel Belmont.”

The hotel would sit vacant and silent for three more years.   The building that replaced it survived until the 1982 Philip Morris Building took its place, designed by Ulrich Franzen & Associates.
photo by John 832
many thanks to reader P. Alsen for suggesting this post


  1. Another beautiful hotel removed and an ugly one put in it's place.

  2. The interim building that replaced it was interesting, but I've only been able to find a few pictures of it on the web, and the occasional article: