Monday, April 27, 2015

The Lost St. James Hotel -- Broadway and 26th Street

from the collection of the New York Public Library

 In 1859 Broadway near Madison Square saw the opening of two magnificent new hotels.  Amos R. Eno opened his Fifth Avenue Hotel, which engulfed the block front from 23rd Street to 24th, on August 23, 1859.   But his was not the first.  By January that year another white marble had opened, the St. James.

The six-story Italianate structure, run by E. E. Balcolm, was a block to the north, at the southwest corner of 26th Street.  Critics had warned that high-class hotels this far uptown would be doomed to failure.  Instead the St. James and the Fifth Avenue Hotel set a trend and within the next three decades Broadway north of 23rd Street would be lined with upscale hotels.

The St. James Hotel stunned visitors and New Yorkers alike with its gleaming white facade.  Guests entered on Broadway through an understated columned portico.  Baggage and other deliveries came and went through a lesser entrance on 26th Street.  The sitting and reception rooms were flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the first floor.  Here guests relaxed and watched the bustling Broadway activities outside.

One of the St. James employees who both lived and worked here got into trouble almost before the paint was dry.  On January 22, 1859 The New York Times reported “A colored gent, named George H. Combs, who boards at St James Hotel, New-York, and occasionally serves those more fortunate than himself, was brought before Justice Voorhies yesterday, on a charge of bigamy.”  It appears that the lothario had three wives.

The 200-room St. James vied with the Fifth Avenue Hotel for distinguished guests.  The Civil War brought with it the urgency of communication for traveling military and the hotel responded. On March 31, 1864 it announced that the American Telegraph Company had opened an office in the hotel.  The plan apparently worked and for decades the St. James would be the favorite for visiting military and political officials.

The reputation of the St. James extended overseas.  When the steamer Northern Light arrived in New York on July 21, 1864 the dignitaries who disembarked headed for the St. James.  Among them was His Excellency Governor Turnhelm, “Commander of the Russian Possessions in North America” and his family; Rear-Admiral Simpson and Lieutenant Simpson of the Chilean Navy; and the former United States Minister to Guatemala, E. O. Crosby.

Later that year the hotel would play a part in an act of terrorism which, had it succeeded, would have devastated the city.   A group of Confederate conspirators devised a plan to burn New York City.  Members checked into rooms across the city, including the St. James, and committed synchronized arson.  Their theory was that the Fire Department, receiving multiple alarms from across the city, would be unable to attack all the blazes and the fires would spread ferociously.

Each terrorist piled the furniture and bedding in the center of his room, doused it with turpentine, and, having set it aflame, sauntered out of the building.  The first alarm sounded came at 8:43 on the evening of November 25 from the St. James Hotel.  Within minutes Confederate Army Captain Robert Cobb Kennedy had set Barnum’s Museum on fire.  Quickly fires were discovered in the St. Nicholas, the United States Hotel, the Metropolitan, Lovejoy’s and the New England Hotel.

Before sunrise more hotels were blazing—the Belmont, the Fifth Avenue, Hanford, Astor House and the Howard.  Tammany Hall and several lumber yards were also torched.

The plotters’ scheme would have worked had it not been for the hotel staffs and patrons who fought furiously throughout the night to control the spread of the fires.  Amazingly, every fire was extinguished before the devastation could be realized.  In the St. James, a pre-packed arson kit was found.  A black canvas bag held paper, about a pound of flammable resin, a bottle of turpentine and a bottle of phosphorous in water.

Fire Marshall Baker ended his report saying “this fiendish plan was defeated by one of those slight miscalculations which so often interpose to frustrate the designs of evil-minded men.”

In 1867 a young boy, Dan Brady, was hired as a bellboy.  Such employment was a boon to underprivileged boys who suddenly sported a smart uniform and whose pockets jangled with tips from wealthy guests.  Three months later another position opened up, and Dan’s younger brother Jim was hired.

The boys had experience working in their recently-deceased father’s saloon.  Jim, although only 11 years old, was put to work in the St. James bar.   The boy was sent on errands by wealthy bankers and business titans, who rewarded him with hefty tips.  His exposure to the luxurious lifestyles and free-spending of the millionaires would stay with him throughout his life and sparked his ambition.  He was later best known as “Diamond Jim” Brady.

The Women’s Rights organization was formed around 1860 and to celebrate a decade of existence, it held “a levee” in one of the parlors of the St. James Hotel on October 20, 1870.  The New York Times said that women “most graciously received their male friends and admirers.”  Nearly buried in the list of speakers that day was the name “Miss Susan B. Anthony.”

When the Board of Fire Commissioners enacted the Combustibles Law of 1871, owners of older structures were suddenly in violation.  On January 10, two years later, inspectors found that the St. James had not been brought into compliance.  The report charged:

“A number of the servants sleep in the basement, in which there are no fire detectors or alarms.  There are four stairways from the second to the first floor, and a wooden staircase which runs from the kitchen to the top of the house.  Five detectors and alarms should be placed in each hall, and an iron ladder is needed t connect te roof with the roofs of the adjoining houses on the south.”

The owners, “two gentlemen who were backed financially by Senator Jones of Nevada,” who had purchased the hotel in 1869, apparently remedied the problems.  The “two gentlemen” were Paul Spofford and his brother Gardiner.   

But Senator John P. Jones’s involvement caused another problem.  In his autobiography, Mark Twain wrote “I also knew that Jones’s St. James Hotel had ceased to be a profitable house because Jones, who was a big-hearted man with ninety-nine parts of him pure generosity…had filled his hotel from roof to cellar with poor relations gathered from the four corners of he earth—plumbers, brick-layers, unsuccessful clergymen, and, in fact, all the different kinds of people that knew nothing about the hotel business.  I was also aware that there was no room in the hotel for the public, because all its rooms were occupied by a multitude of other poor relations gathered from the four corners of the earth, at Jones’s invitation, and waiting for Jones to find lucrative occupations for them.”

Senator Jones’s lack of business sense seems to extended beyond his generosity to his family.  On July 3, 1876 The New York Times noted that, in preparation for the Centennial Celebration, “The St. James Hotel spends $500 on lights and bunting and the endeavor will be to get the money’s worth of both.”  The cost of the decorations would amount to more than $12,000 today.

The extent of the financial problems was evidenced in March 1878 when the Spoffords, along with Jones, tried to eject the proprietor Francis T. Walton whose five-year lease was not to expire for another year.  Their complaint alleged that Walton owed $14,205.81 in back rent.

By now the hotel had become a favorite with athletes and politicians.  The Democrats would gather here for meetings for decades.  A travel directory, in 1892, called the St. James “a resort of the better class of sporting men, especially those interested in the turf.”

It was not only those involved with the expensive horse racing sport that were drawn here.  It also lured professional boxers, baseball players, and “pedestrians.”  Developed in Britain, pedestrianism was a popular spectator sport and arose from the necessity of English footmen having to keep up with pace of their masters’ carriages.  It had now infected American enthusiasts who bet heavily on the footraces which evolved into the modern sport of racewalking.

On April 30, 1879 Charles Rowell arrived from England on the steamer Parthia.  The New York Times reported that he “is to compete with Daniel O’Leary, Charles A. Harriman, and John Ennis in a match for the Astley belt March 10.”  Rowell was described as “a short, thick-set man, 5 feet 6 inches in height, and 140 pounds in weight.”  He and his trainer “and one or two friends” headed directly for the St. James Hotel after their baggage had been examined.

The history of baseball was changed in December one year later. The annual convention of the National League of Professional Base-ball Clubs was held in the St. James and rules of play were amended.  Among the new rules was that, unless a player was injured, he could not be substituted during play.  The pitcher’s position was moved from 45 feet to 50 feet from home base; and a base runner was “out” if he failed to retouch the base if play a foul ball was hit and not caught.  Perhaps the most noticeable change was that the number of strikes was reduced from four to three.

On May 16, 1881 prize fighter John L. Sullivan fought the intimidating John Flood, “the Bull’s Head Terror.”  The illegal bare-knuckle fight with a $1,000 prize had to be held on a barge in the Hudson River to escape police intervention.  Sixteen minutes after the bout began, Flood was down.  According to Gary K. Weiand in his The First Superstar, the crowd “carried John off on its shoulders to the St. James Hotel on Broadway.  There he allegedly washed down twelve filets a-la-chateaubriand with a river of champagne.”

City hotels were repeatedly the scenes of suicides; chosen for their detachment from family and to remove the messy affairs from home surroundings.  But the death of a young woman in the St. James Hotel on March 30, 1881 grabbed the attention of New Yorkers.

On Saturday, March 26 she registered as “Mrs. C. M. Johnson, New-Jersey.”   Described by The Times as “about 25 years old,” she “had the appearance of a respectable woman, was well dressed, and had plenty of money. She received few visitors, and went out but little during her stay at the hotel.”  She would be later described as “a rather plain-looking girl, with German features, a high forehead, and golden-brown hair. She wore spectacles, and was vivacious and intelligent.”

Hotel staff noticed that Mrs. Johnson did not make her usual appearance for breakfast on March 30.  Later, between 1 and 2:00 the chambermaid found her room locked.   When no one answered her knocks, she notified Francis Walton (who, by the way, had managed to stay on as proprietor).  The room was broken into and the woman was found semiconscious on the bed “moaning and gasping for breath.”

Dr. Kenneth Reed was called, but it was too late.  “She lingered in great agony until death ensued, between 6 and 7 o’clock,” said The Times.  The woman had committed suicide overdosing on morphine.

It took a month to solve the mystery of Mrs. C. M. Johnson.  On April 1 The New York Times explained that she “was an unmarried woman, 21 years old.”  She had been adopted by a well-to-do San Francisco man, M. Mendheim and was known as Kate O. Mendheim.

The Coroner had found Kate’s diary and letters which explained her despondency.  “He refused to show the letters to any one, but, after examining them and the diary, he said that he inferred that the girl took her life deliberately because she had become disgusted with her existence.”  The newspaper said “She had been living with disreputable companions and had been corrupted by them.”

Kate was financially well-off but she had fallen into the wrong crowd.  The Coroner said some letters “were mostly from women, apparently young and giddy.  Some letters were from men, and were epistles such as no respectable young woman would receive without feeling insulted.”

Investigation revealed that Kate had visited New York hotels in 1878 and 1879 and that she “was not a desirable guest.” The Times said “She was at the Coleman House with one Etta Johnson in December 1878, and they were in February told to seek accommodations elsewhere, their conduct having occasioned much scandalous gossip.  They went to a private boarding-house, and when the Summer season opened traveled to various watering-places.  At the end of the season they stopped at the Rossmore Hotel, and they are remembered there as flirts.”

Kate Mendheim’s flirtatious and scandalous life took a turn when she fell in love.  She met a theatrical agent and “they became intimate, and Miss Mendheim was infatuated with him.”   When her lover became ill in a Boston hotel, she nursed him back to health “and he repaid her by deserting her.”

Kate attempted suicide in Boston by asphyxiating herself with lighting gas.  She was ordered to leave the hotel when her attempt failed.  She took the train to New York and checked into the St. James Hotel, where she died.

Despite Kate’s shocking behavior, Victorian New Yorkers were taken with the pathos of her story and her deathbed repentance.  The final chapter came on April 2 when newspapers reported on her burial in Evergreen Cemetery.  “Her funeral was attended by a few friends,” said The Times.
The St. James Hotel, like most high-end establishments, offered permanent housing as well as rooms for transient guests.  Department store mogul Benjamin Altman was living here in 1882, for instance.  But the hotel’s most famous guest was the celebrated actor John McCullough.

The Shakespearean tragedian as he appeared around 1880--photograph Library of Congress

McCullough lived in the St. James for years.  Around 1881 he became ill and was convinced he was about to die.  He lost weight, grew melancholy and was unable to appear on stage.  The New York Times blamed his condition on his friends, who, it felt, contributed to his depression.  “The main secret of Mr. McCullough’s depressed condition was the melancholy attitude of his friends,” it wrote.  During the summer of 1883 a journalist entered the St. James and found McCullough sitting in one of the private parlors with several friends. “The sight presented was mournful.  The usually radiant countenances of the gentlemen…was downcast and doleful.  They drank with expressions of sorrow, and a jest would have stood a very poor chance of living through the act of telling in that neighborhood. In this sort of an atmosphere Mr. McCullough lived for a number of months.”

By February 1884, however, McCullough realized he was not going to die.  He was booked at the Star Theatre and claimed to have gained four pounds during the past four months.  On February 28, 1884 The Times opined “Discovering that he was not to die he concluded to cheer up.  The result has been a very decided improvement of his mental and physical condition.”  Then the newspaper frankly added “As a matter of plain, unvarnished fact, Mr. McCullough’s illness has been about two-thirds imaginary, and he has been very ably assisted in this view of life by his pessimistic friends.”

McCullough as Othello from the collection of the Library of Congress

Among those friends was William Conner who not only managed the actor’s business; but the St. James Hotel.   His dual-role ended in August 1884 when he announced that he “will hereafter devote himself to his interests in the St. James Hotel, and Mr. Joseph Brooks will take his place with the McCullough company.”

John McCullough’s improved condition was short-lived.  On October 9, 1884 The Times reported that about 8:00 on the evening before “the loungers at the St. James Hotel were rather more numerous than usual” when “suddenly the attention of all was called to the figure of a gentleman who walked helplessly up the lobby of the hotel until he reached the desk at the other end. His gait was uncertain and tottering, and his appearance betokened excessive feebleness.  His face was pale and unshaven, his features haggard and sunken.  Deep black lines encircled his eyes, one of which was slightly discolored.  He wore a light check suit fitting closely to his figure which was neat and well formed.

“’John McCullough,’ murmured the loungers in the hotel.”

William Conner intervened and contacted friends rather than take the actor to his suite.  “I thought it better to remove him from his old quarters, where he would be subjected to much unintentional pain.  He will remain for the present with some friends in one of the finest mansions on the avenue,” he explained the following day.

A month later one of McCullough’s friends told reporters, “John McCullough is in a very dangerous condition.  His mind, or that part of it which now remains, is rapidly going, and, in my opinion, a guardian of some kind should keep a watch over his movements and take absolute charge of him.”

While William Conner worried about his good friend’s mental and physical condition, he and his wife had their own problems.  A few weeks later, on the night before Thanksgiving, a friend asked Mrs. Conner if she could borrow a pair of opera glasses.  Mrs. Conner returned to their suite around 7:00 and noticed her jewel case was gone.  A search of the hotel commenced and the empty jewel box was found in an elevator room. 

A newspaper reported “The thieves got for their booty diamonds and jewelry valued at $7,500.”  Mrs. Conner told investigators “I tell you he might have got a good deal more. If he had only opened the first drawer of the bureau he would have found $400 in cash.”

In the meantime John McCullough’s condition worsened until on June 29, 1885 The New York Times reported “John McCullough, the tragedian, is now an inmate of the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane.”  Four months later his costumes and other personal effects were sold at auction.

In 1896 Broadway around the white marble St. James Hotel was still a well-heeled neighborhood.  What the man on he second story cornice is up to is unclear -- photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
As the turn of the century approached, the hotel district had moved far north.  Modern hotels lured wealthy businessmen with up-to-date amenities.  On April 18, 1896 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported on the rumor that the estate of Paul Spofford was in negotiations to sell the St. James for around $1 million.  The staggering price tag had less to do with the white marble structure than with the valuable land on which it sat.

On August 20, 1896 the first day of auctioning of the hotel’s furniture and fixtures was held.  The auctioneer noted that “The lower floors, where the costliest furnishings are, will not be reached before tomorrow.”   In reporting on the auction, The Times mentioned “The hotel, which was recently sold to Pennod Brothers of Philadelphia, will be torn down about Sept. 1 and a large office building will be erected on the site.”

On the last day the “costliest” furniture was sold.   But the outdated Victorian pieces, once the epitome of fashion, were worn and dated.  “The bidding most of the time yesterday was spiritless, and the attendance did not equal that of other days,” said The Times.  “Most of the furniture had seen at least ten years’ service, and the prices offered for it were low.  The carpets, however, which cost originally $1 a yard, sold for 70 cents a yard.  The furniture originally cost $60,000.”

The ground-breaking St. James Hotel was demolished, to be replaced with the handsome 16-story St. James Building, designed by Bruce Price, which still survives.

photograph by the author


  1. The replacement building is nice looking. It could have been much worse.

  2. I'm at cataloger at the OSU library and processed your book today. Enjoyed it so much I'm now following your blog. Good work.

    1. Thank you so much. My family is practically an OSU dynasty! I'm honored!