Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The 1898 Pierrepont Hotel -- No. 47 West 32nd Street

When silversmith and jeweler Alexander Rumrill retired around 1875 the neighborhood around his home at No. 47 West 32nd Street was still elegant and exclusive.  Just around the corner on Fifth Avenue, a block to the north, were the brownstone Astor mansions.  And the polished carriages of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens came and went along his street.

But when Rumrill died in his house in May 1894, things had changed.  The Waldorf Hotel had replaced the William Waldorf Astor house.  Within months of Rumrill’s death Caroline Astor’s mansion would be razed for the Waldorf’s companion Astor Hotel.  Commerce was taking over.

The following year, in October, Alexander Rumrill’s widow leased the house “for a term of years” at $3,500 per year.  The unnamed tenant most likely used the house as a shop or other business.  The lease would end soon, though, for the Cass Realty Company purchased the Rumrill house, along with the neighboring houses at Nos. 43 and 45 and laid plans for a sumptuous new bachelor hotel.

The concept of a residential hotel for unmarried men was relatively new.  On February 12, 1898 the Real Estate Record and Guide noted “It is not so very long ago that the bachelor was not considered to be entitled much consideration; any old thing was good enough for him, and consequently he was to be found in out-of-the-way rooms on the top floors of hotels or provided for domestically in the boarding-house, whose worse miseries were inflicted upon him.”  The paper added “Anyone who was old enough and had the means to marry and yet did not, was not thought to be entitled to anything better.”

Designed by architect Ralph S. Townsend, the 12-story Pierrepont Hotel was completed in February 1898.  Reflective of the still-upscale neighborhood and the status of the intended occupants, the entire façade was clad in Indiana limestone, trimmed in terra cotta.  A portico supported by columns led to the entrance.  The three-story rusticated base erupted in nine floors of frothy ornamentation that included columned balconies, elaborate framing of the openings with carved cartouches, and a deeply overhanging cornice.  The Record and Guide called the design “graceful and appropriate.”

Inside the lobby floor was paved with mosaic tiles and the walls were wainscoted in marble.  The ground floor included a large reception room, “beautifully decorated,” for the use of tenants and their guests.

The upper hallways were trimmed in mahogany and the doors and windows of the apartments were “of leaded, colored or opaque glass.”  There were eight apartments to each floor and the gentlemen residing here had their choice of the six that opened onto the main halls, or the more secluded apartments tucked away on private hallways.  The latter afforded “complete or partial isolation and seclusion, according to taste,” said The Guide.

There were also “double” apartments with connecting doors “wherein two parties can live in some sort of communion, yet have their own particular apartments and conveniences separate.”  Rather amazingly, every apartment had its own bathroom.                          

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, March 30, 1901
The Guide mentioned that the Pierrepont “was planned with an eye especially turned to the wants of bachelors.”  And, of course, bachelors were not expected to decorate or to pick out their own draperies or furnishings.  The newspaper noted that each apartment “has been decorated in a different style so that the fortunate bachelor has an almost bewildering selection of beautiful and artistic effects amid which to dwell.  Polished mahogany mantels, delicate tints of paint or patterns of wall paper, plate glass, polished hardwood floors, elegant light, and door and window furnishings are provided for him.”

The modern conveniences were, no doubt, astounding to the 1898 tenant.  Each apartment had a telephone (“if he wishes”), electric call bells, combination gas and electric lighting (electricity was unreliable at the time), gas logs in the fireplaces, and a refrigerator.  The ingenious refrigerators in the Pierrepont did away with the need for the often-messy icebox.   They were cooled by a system of circulating salt-water through coils.

Among the first to move into the Pierrepont was the highly-popular actor Thomas Q. Seabrooke.  Although a versatile player, he was most active in comedy and shared the stage with contemporary stars like Lillian Russell.
The dashing actor Thomas Q. Seabrooke was highly popular.  Celebrated Comedians of Light Opera and Musical Comedy in America, 1901 (copyright expired)
Despite his celebrity and success, Seabrooke spent more than he made.  The actor was humiliated while living here when, in December 1898, he was forced to declare bankruptcy.  The Sun said his liabilities amounted to $39,000 while his "only assets are clothing, which is exempt, and a scarfpin, which is not exempt."

The Pierrepont had always been touted as a completely fireproof structure.  In the spring of 1901 that assertion was put to the test when fire broke out in one of the apartments.  Although deemed “serious,” the blaze was confined to the apartment where it broke out.  No damages were caused in any other parts of the building.

Soon thereafter, in March 1901, Cass Realty put the Pierrepont on the market.  At the time the building was completely leased “to first-class tenants.”

Among the residents here in 1906 were policemen James Davis and Harry A. Pickel.  Their services may have been called upon when a shocking event occurred in March.  (By now apartments were being let to married couples as well as to bachelors.

August Louis Nosser and his wife, Eva, were new residents.  Nosser, who had once been an accomplished violinist in Belgium, had turned to gambling for his income.  Around 1902 Nosser had met and become infatuated with the actress Estelle Young Reynolds, who went by the stage name Estelle Young.

Estelle and Eva knew one another casually; however Nosser concealed the fact that he was married.  The attachment between the actress and the gambler grew.  Nosser promised to marry her, and they even planned a trip to Europe together.

Now, four years later, it occurred to Eva that her husband was cheating.  Bolstered by the knowledge that Estelle was an actress, she assumed her to be an “adventuress.”  Her frustration was worsened by Nosser’s declaration of bankruptcy late in 1905, and his use of drugs because of his financial problems.  When their resultant quarrels had no effect, she turned to focus on Estelle Young.
On March 14, 1906 Eva penned a letter on Pierrepont stationery and sent a messenger boy to the Baltimore Apartments where Estelle lived with her sister.  In it she said in part “It is for himself alone that I love him, and you would be doing a great act of charity if you would release him from this awful bondage.”  It was the first time that Estelle realized that Eva and Nosser were married.

The irate woman purchased a horsewhip and then stormed into the Pierrepont Hotel that evening.  The New York Times later reported “Miss Young, however, did not use her whip on Nosser.  Mrs. Nosser stepped between her husband and the actress and prevented Miss Young from striking the man.  There was no need, in fact, for any whipping, as Nosser appeared sufficiently humiliated.”

Eva, seeing that Estelle was also a victim, asked her to stay for awhile, and admitted she was afraid to be left alone with her husband at the moment.  Estelle reluctantly agreed.  But things would soon turn dark and tragic,

Nosser sat silently smoking cigarettes for about an hour.  Then, at around 10:00 he walked into the bathroom and drank half a small bottle of laudanum—a potent poison.  The women immediately sent for the Pierrepont’s physician, Dr. Townsend.

The doctor administered a drug to induce vomiting, and then told the women to keep walking Nosser to keep him from falling asleep.  They did so, and around midnight felt he seemed sufficiently recovered to allow him to lie down.  He began smoking again while lying on the lounge.

The hard feelings between the two women had disappeared and they both attended to Nosser.  Several times Evelyn had tried to go home; but each time Nosser would wake up and order her to stay.   Eva admitted she would appreciate the actress’s help.

Exhausted, around 4:00 a.m. Evelyn asked if she could lie down on the bed.  Still wearing about $10,000 in jewelry, she fell asleep while Eva kept walking Nosser between his periods of sleeping and smoking.  Later that morning, at around 10:30, Evelyn was still asleep and although Nosser was awake, Eva felt he was simply mulling over the messy matter.  She thought it was safe to take a bath.

But the moment she closed the bathroom door she heard the key turn in the lock.  The New York Times would report “She then realized that her husband for some reason had been watching for this chance.  She beat on the doors with her hands and cried out to Miss Young.  Then she heard her husband say: ‘You’ve gone back on me.  I’ll get even.’”

And get even he did.  Eva next heard a gunshot.  Then, after a moment, another.  She turned to the door that opened onto the hallway, for use by servants.  She beat on it until a chambermaid, Bertha Murphy, unlocked the door.

The women rushed around to the apartment door and entered.  Evelyn Young was lying unconscious on the bed, shot through the temple.  Louis Nosser had shot himself in the head and his lifeless body was lying on the parlor floor in front of the mantel.

The tragedy was followed by a somewhat comical twist the following week.  When the list of potential jurors was called in the courthouse on March 21, no one answered to the name Louis Nosser.  Justice Van Kirk fined him $100.  The Times reported “Clerk George Lyons then informed the Justice that Nosser was the gambler who killed Mrs. Estelle Young in the Hotel Pierrepont last week, and then committed suicide.”

Kirk responded “The fine is remitted.  I have no jurisdiction in the case of the juror named.”

The same day that Louis Nosser had murdered Evelyn Young, the sale of the Pierrepont Hotel was announced.  Four years later it was sold at auction for $440,000—equal to about $11.3 million in 2015.  Almost immediately the owners hired architects Townsend, Steinle & Haskell to make renovations.

In addition to remodeling the apartments, the renovations were necessary to accommodate the Mutual Bank which had signed a lease on the entire ground floor, other than the Pierrepont’s lobby.   Mutual Bank had just purchased property on West 33rd Street on which it planned a permanent home; but for now it took the first floor of the Pierrepont.

Upon the completion of the renovations, "newly furnished" one, two and three room apartments were offered at $750 to $2000 per year. 

In June 1918 the ground floor space that had been home to the Mutual Bank became a restaurant, run by the U. S. Lunch Co.   By now the building had become known as the Hotel Alcazar.  And as the neighborhood slowly changed, it was not only the hotel’s name that was different, so was the class of some of the tenants.

In 1921 resident Emil Hebeck marketed these clever "perfume burners" from his apartment in the Hotel Alcazar.   Merchandising Week, January 1921 (copyright expired)
In 1926 27-year old Harry Bender and his wife, Florence, lived here.   Bootlegging was a profitable career during Prohibition; but it was also a dangerous one.  Harry Bender took his chances.

On May 29 The Times reported that “An extra force of detectives was on duty in the lower east side last night to prevent further shootings in what was believed to be a feud between two gangs of bootleggers, which in the preceding forty-eight hours has resulted in the killing of one man and the probable mortal shooting of two others.”

One of those men was Harry Bender.  The night before he had been found in a lot in Forest Hills, Queens with two bullet wounds in his body and one in his head.  At Flushing Hospital there was little hope that he would survive. 

Bender told authorities that he had been grabbed off the street and driven to Queens where he was dragged into a different car.  In Forest Hills he was shot and thrown into the lot.  Police found a discrepancy in his story when they questioned Alcazar Hotel employees.  One said that Bender and his wife had been residents for about five weeks and “that he had left the hotel in an automobile with three men about an hour before he was found wounded,” said The Times.

Police theorized that bootleggers in Queens had planned the shooting because Bender had invaded their territory.  At the hospital, Florence knelt by the bed of her dying husband and pleaded with him to tell the detectives who had shot him.

Bender replied “Never mind; that will be taken care of.”

By the mid-1930s the name of the hotel had changed again.  It was now known as the Hotel Stanford.  George H. Grouard lived here at the time.  When he died on June 21, 1938, he left the surprising estate of about $300,000.

The decidedly seedy hotel was the scene of a heartwarming gesture on April 3, 1948.  Michael Whalen was a 30-year old out-of-work machinist and bartender.  He and his wife, Lillian, had four children—the oldest was six and the youngest just 11 months.  The family had been staying at the Yale Hotel on West 97th Street until Thursday, April 1, when they ran out of money.

Around 3:00 on Friday afternoon they entered Pennsylvania Station.  They were able to buy milk for the baby and with $2 given to them by a commuter, bought hot dogs for the other children.  Then, around 4 a.m. on Saturday, the parents were awakened by Detectives Frank Travis and Thomas Price who were making their rounds.  Whalen later told a reporter “I thought they were going to arrest us.”

Instead, after hearing the family’s story, the cops took them to the Stanford Hotel.  The night clerk, Samuel Ross, lowered the room rent and the detectives bought food for the children and paid the rent.

Later that afternoon, after nudging from the police, the Whalen family received an emergency home relief check and Welfare Commissioner Raymond M. Hilliard arranged temporary accommodations in the Municipal Lodging House.

In 1983 the Hotel Stanford became a project of the St. Francis Friends of the Poor, headquartered at No. 125 East 24th Street.  Assemblyman Alexander B. Grannis described the program’s purpose as “to provide speedy housing for…homeless discharged mental-health patients.”

The homeless would quickly make way for the more fortunate when in 1986 the nearly 90-year old hotel received a make-over.  It is now a “boutique hotel” with 122 “cozy rooms” stocked with amenities like Coconut Lime Verbena soap.  The restored façade retains its vintage blade sign; below which a modern awning stretches out from the still-intact 1898 portico.  

Ralph Townsend’s handsome hotel survives much as it looked when well-heeled bachelors first took apartments here; on a street then lined with similar high-class hotels.

photographs by the author

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