In 1890 architect Henry J. Hardenbergh had started work on William Waldorf Astor’s sumptuous Waldorf Hotel on the site of the Astor family home at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street. Four years later, his aunt Caroline Schermerhorn Astor brought the architect back to replace her home next door with the Astoria Hotel, connected to the Waldorf not only by corridors and the famous Peacock Alley; but by a dash.
As work on the massive project continued, Hardenberg embarked on another hotel project. Eight blocks to the north the Grand Central Depot area was a logical site for an upscale hotel. Congressman James. J. Belden headed the venture to construct a modern and luxurious hotel at the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 42nd Street.
Henry J. Hardenbergh received the commission. The 49-year old architect’s completed Hotel Manhattan stepped away from the heavy brooding brownstone design of the Waldorf-Astoria. The 14-story hotel—one story taller than the Waldorf—was a blend of French and Italian Renaissance, clad in gleaming Indiana limestone. It strongly foreshadowed his Plaza Hotel to come in 1907.
The hotel opened on October 14, 1896 with an eight-course luncheon for the builders. Hardenberg was among the 100 guests and commented simply that he was “gratified” with the results of the work.
“Viewed from without, the impression given is one of massiveness and sober grandeur,” opined The New York Times the following day. “Within the impression is somewhat altered by the elaborate and minute decoration of walls, ceilings, and floor. The variety is very great and is quite restful and pleasing to the eye.”
Entering the 42nd Street portico, the guest found himself in the rotunda, decorated by Tiffany. The white marble floor was inlaid with various colors of marble that formed borders and panels. The rotunda was supported by six large columns and the gray Italian marble walls were “divided into panels and enriched with frezes and arabesques of Tiffany ‘favrile’ glass mosaic, mother of pearl, and gold.”
Here were also murals by C. Y. Turner, who received a reported $10,000 commission. On the western side was “The Triumph of Manhattan,” which included Peter Stuyvesant and other historical figures. The mural traced the island’s history to include the Brooklyn Bridge.
The main dining room was decorated in the Louis XVI style. A mezzanine gallery was designed to hold an orchestra and visitors desiring to look down at the banquets and receptions. The Times described the dining room as “magnificent.” Instead of painted murals, the room was decorated with tapestries.
In the basement were the café and the Dutch beer cellar. The cafe, with its woodwork of maple, was decorated with a frieze of a landscape, executed by artist Frederic Crowninshield. In the Dutch room was one by Charles M. Shean, depicting a Holland landscape with windmills and dikes.
Guests who were impressed with the grand rooms of the ground floor were startled as they ascended to the second floor. Here the decorations were the most elaborate. “The foyer, in the second story, is the chef d’oeuvre of the hotel,” remarked The New York Times. ‘It has been most elaborately and richly decorated. The style is Louis XVI. The woodwork is a deep green, with which the rugs on the floor blend in colors and shades. This apartment is both a hall and a drawing room.”
On this floor, as well, was the private dining room for the permanent residents of the hotel. Called the “Hall of Beauty,” it was paneled in mahogany and the walls covered in silk tapestry. J. Wells Champney had executed the paintings in this room, including landscapes over each door and a series of feminine heads in pastel along the walls.
Room rates started at $2 a night (in the neighborhood of $60 in 2015). That would provide a transient guest with a “small single-bedded room.” More spacious accommodations of up to five-room suites were intended for families and more affluent guests.
The Hotel Manhattan boasted all the latest conveniences. There were five electric elevators, and a local telephone as well as mail service on every floor. Valets were on hand, and clothes would be cleaned and pressed on the same floor as the guest’s room. The Times noted “Life can be spent within its walls without missing very much of the fruits of modern civilization.”
Adding to the civilized air was the Transportation Club which took the entire 13th Floor. The recently-organized club was formed by railroad men and included some of the nation’s most powerful tycoons. Of the 350 members, 150 were New York City residents.
The club's lofty location afforded unobstructed views. “The home of the club, thirteen stories from the street, is like an eyrie above the city, and in that quarter which the skyscraping towers have not yet invaded, it looks out over the metropolis, and commands a wonderfully beautiful view. Not only the whole city may be seen, but Brooklyn, and the Jersey Highlands, and Palisades can be viewed with distinctness,” reported The Times.
Like the clubhouses that lined Fifth Avenue, it included a library, billiard room, dining room, reception room and other expected spaces. What was unexpected were the areas designated for women—a highly unusual concept at the time. The Times commented on the provisions for female visitors.
“Their pleasure and comfort have been considered in many of the decorations and conveniences. There are also several rooms set aside especially for them. These are reached by a separate elevator from the Madison Avenue entrance.”
The Hotel Manhattan was operated by the well-known hoteliers Hawk & Wetherbee. In their marketing, William Hawk and Gardner Wetherbee focused on the same light and air that attracted the Transportation Club. An advertisement in The Century magazine in April 1897 touted “Visitors to New York who have had previous experience with high-class metropolitan hotels will appreciate the superiority of a house that offers not only every comfort and luxury that money can provide, but the additional unusual advantages of space, air and daylight.”
The ad promised “There isn’t a dark or stuffy corner in the entire building” and said “In addition to every luxury that money, science and art can furnish the Hotel Manhattan provides the guests with the most sought-after and hardest-found of all metropolitan comforts—pure air and unobstructed daylight.”
In August 1898 President and Mrs. William McKinley stopped over in New York City on their way to a stay in Montauk Point. He chose the Hotel Manhattan and a suite rooms was fitted up for the occasion. McKinley was greatly impressed with the hotel and would return to the “McKinley Suite” repeatedly. The Times described the Presidential Suite as “a library, parlor, and dining room, looking out on Forty-second Street. On the other side of a private hall from these are three sleeping rooms, and back of them three bathrooms.”
Only eight months later, on April 28, 1899, The New York Times announced that McKinley and his wife were expected to arrive around 4:00 that afternoon. The newspaper explained “Mrs. McKinley has for some time been desirous of coming to New York to do some shopping and visiting, and yesterday the President wired his brother, Abner McKinley, who is staying at the Hotel Manhattan, that he had decided to come himself and enjoy several days of rest.”
Had the President and his wife arrived about two weeks earlier, they would have possibly witnessed one of the hotel’s more unusual entertainments. On April 14, 1899 Mrs. Henry Bruton hosted a breakfast “at 11 o’clock, to suit the convenience of the guests,” reported The Times. What made the event newsworthy were the guests of honor—three native Americans in town for the Wild West Show.
The newspaper commented “Indians in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of beautiful furniture, fine paintings, cut glass, silver, and charming women in beautiful gowns were a conspicuous feature of a breakfast given by Mrs. Henry Bruton at the Hotel Manhattan.”
Sammy Lone Bear, Joe Black Fox and Philip Standing Soldier arrived “in their most elaborate attire, feather headdresses, bead jackets, beaded blankets, and beautiful armlets.” The demeaning attitude of the 19th century press as well as the most-likely well-meaning hostess was evident.
“It may be said that the manners of the three were unexceptionable. They ate with their forks at the table and carried themselves during the two hours’ of their stay with dignified freedom,” said The Times.
Mrs. Bruton “bought all the trinkets the guests of honor had with them, to send to friends abroad” and she had a photographer on hand to document the event.
At the opening day luncheon, William S. Hawk had expressed his “hope that someday it would occupy the entire block.” That dream seemed to be coming true in May 1899 when Hawk & Wetherbee filed plans for at 15-story addition. The pair called back Henry J. Hardenbergh to design the $750,000 annex, which would extend the hotel along the entire block front from 42nd to 43rd Street on Madison Avenue.
|The addition, to the rear in this view, filled the Madison Avenue block front.|
The Hotel Manhattan was the scene of an early example of the conference call on May 23, 1900. Senator Chauncey M. Depew was scheduled to speak at a dinner at the Transportation Club that evening; but urgent business of one of the Senate Committees prevented his leaving Washington. Club officers scrambled to solve the problem.
The following day newspapers announced that Depew had made the speech from his home in Washington D.C. and was “heard and wildly applauded in this city by the members and guests of the Transportation Club.” The Times reported “The speech was delivered into the telephone by Senator Depew and, with the aid of sixty receivers, was transmitted to the ears of the assembled diners.”
As the senator opened his speech saying “I have spoken to 30,000 people. This is the first time I have made a speech 200 miles long.”
Among the celebrated guests of the Hotel Manhattan that same year was popular actress and singer Edna May. On January 14, 1900 she arrived in New York from a successful London production of The Belle of New York. May had starred in the play when it opened in the Casino Theatre in New York and the London production had played for 86 weeks, grossing more than $10,000 a week.
|Edna May -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
A journalist found interviewing the actress a difficult endeavor. “Miss May was exceedingly difficult of access at her hotel. Her time was so taken up by personal friends who called to welcome her home that reporters were not admitted until late in the afternoon.”
But patience reaped rewards. “Miss May was dressed at that time in a wonderful gown of red velvet, which matched perfectly a big pile of American Beauty roses lying on a table in the centre of the room. Her hair, which is luxurious, was arranged in a modified Cleo de Merode style. She spoke enthusiastically of her treatment at the hands of the British public.”
Edna told the group of reporters “London in many respects is not as nice a place to live as New York, but the people were so kind to me there that I want to live there always.”
Three months after Edna checked in, President McKinley and his wife were back in the Hotel Manhattan. The President was in town to attend the Ecumenical Conference. The New-York Tribune, on April 22, 1900, commented on Mrs. McKinley’s concerning appearance.
“Mrs. McKinley, who came over with him, was not so strong as usual, and the exertion of the trip exhausted her. She was compelled to rest all afternoon, and those who saw her commented upon her apparent illness.” The President, however, was seemingly faring well. “The President appeared to be in rugged health, and greeted his visitors cordially.”
The First Couple was back at the Hotel Manhattan just over a week later. McKinley was a guest at a dinner hosted by the Ohio Society at the Waldorf-Astoria on May 3. The hotel register was filled not only with the President’s entourage, but with family members who traveled from Ohio for the occasion.
In the party were McKinley’s niece, Miss Mary Barber; along with Abner McKinley and his daughter Mable. The Times noted that “Detectives Foy and Funston of the Central Office, who always attend the President when he comes to town, were on hand to see that he should not be annoyed by chanks or other obtrusive persons.”
As always, the Presidential flag had been hoisted over the portico, next to the U.S. flag, in anticipation of the President’s arrival and its presence attracted a large crowd seeking to get a glimpse of the McKinley and his wife.
|The McKinleys were frequent guests at the Hotel Manhattan -- from the collection of the Library of Congress|
By now Hawks & Wetherbee were familiar with the McKinley’s preferences and their rooms were ready. “The large public reception room on that floor was decorated with flowers and palms, among the flowers being a profusion of La France roses, azaleas, and lilies, of which Mrs. McKinley is very fond,” reported The Times on March 3.
As with every hotel, the Hotel Manhattan was sometimes the scene of misfortune. Well-to-do men and women burdened with unbearable troubles often sought the privacy of hotels in which to end their hopelessness.
Such was the case of 21-year old Helen S. Berry, the daughter of a respected Boston-area family. The New-York Tribune described her on September 15, 1905 as having taken “a prominent part in the church and social life” of Malden, Massachusetts.
The newspaper related that “She was fond of traveling and left home just a week ago, to take a short vacation.” When Helen arrived at the Hotel Manhattan, she signed the register as “A. W. Wildey, Washington.”
The alias caused problems identifying her after her body was found in her room, a victim of suicide. It was a week later that her brother sent a telegram to the managers of the hotel, solving the mystery.
Unmarried society girls who took their own lives in the first years of the 20th century often did so because of the shame of having been “ruined” by a lover; or worse because of pregnancy. The family was quick to address any rumors. “So far as known,” said the Tribune, “she had had no love affairs.”
In 1905 the hotel employees put together their own ball. It became an annual event that promoted morale among the staff; but came with a side-effect that no doubt worried management. On March 14, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported on the third such ball.
“If one is a guest at the Hotel Manhattan to-day and the waiter forgets to put a cherry in one’s cocktail, or the rolls are not so crisp as usual, or the call boys do not ‘hop’ with their customary agility, or the cashier hands out too much change, or the clerk gets one’s mail mixed with that of some other person, or the porter refused the usual tip, don’t complain or be astonished.”
The newspaper blamed it all on “the large attendance, the evident enjoyment of those present and the late hour to which most of them remained.”
The Hotel Manhattan had been the meeting place for political groups since its opening. In 1908 when Republican candidate for President William Howard Taft was in town, he not only held his meetings here, but he stayed in the hotel as well.
The vast difference between early 20th century security for Presidential hopefuls and today was evident when Taft and his wife met his brother at the Plaza Hotel for breakfast on July 24, 1908. The New-York Tribune reported “After breakfast the Messrs. Taft walked back to the Hotel Manhattan down Fifth avenue, on which thoroughfare there were many more greetings.”
Since 1899 Frank J. Dorian had been employed at the Hotel Manhattan as a cashier. Along with the trusted position came an apartment in the building—a highly desirable perk. Dorian was fond of the Broadway night life and The Evening World noted that he was “well known in the White Light district and was a patron of lobster palaces.” The cashier spent much money entertaining on a grand scale.
He may have been able to balance his spending and his income had he not been lured into the emerging automobile business as a sideline. He lost heavily in that venture.
On the afternoon of August 30, 1911, twelve years after Dorian first started working in the hotel, Detective Rooney of the Yorkville court square walked into the cashier’s office and told him that he was under arrest.
“I’ve been expecting you,” he answered.
Hotel managers routinely kept their eyes on the bellboys and hall boys in luxury hotels. The low paid employees were the most likely to pilfer and trespass into guests’ rooms. Staff members like Dorian were mostly held above scrutiny. In this case it cost the hotel dearly.
When a guest would pay his bill by check, Dorian’s scheme was set in motion. He put the check into the cash drawer and removed the equivalent in cash. This ruse went unnoticed until the amount of his embezzlement reached about $50,000—a staggering $1.3 million by today’s standards.
Rather astonishingly, The Evening World credited Dorian’s habits with his capture; not an audit of the books. “His spending money in entertaining caused suspicion.”
In May 1916 James Belden’s estate sold the Hotel Manhattan to operator August Heckscher for a reported $3.85 million by one newspaper and $4.5 million by another. He immediately announced his plans to demolish the building as soon as the leases were up. The editors of The Sun were puzzled. “The Manhattan Hotel, a fine building erected in 1895, is not to be permitted to stand after the lease on the structure has expired,” the newspaper said on June 4.
“It is one of the interesting features of Mr. Heckscher’s plan, the removal of a costly building, doing a big business, to make way for a commercial structure, a rival of his own, diagonally across these thoroughfares.”
Heckscher told reporters he was aware of what he was doing, saying “that the Grand Central section is coming to be the greatest business location of the city, and the sooner the changes to the improvement at the Manhattan Hotel property the better.”
By the following day, however, the mogul seems to have changed his mind. The New-York Tribune reported he had leased the building to the Biltmore Hotel Company and most likely intended to convert the ground floor to retail space.
While the back-and-forth regarding the future of the building played out, political groups continued to lease rooms for meetings. On May 22, 1916 100 women met here to organize the Women’s National Progressive League. One of the suffragist organization’s goals was “to line up the women for Roosevelt.” The Evening World considered that “This proposition is certain to create trouble in feminine ranks.”
In 1917 the hotel gained another social club as a tenant. The Old Colony Club, which had been headquartered for years in the Waldorf-Astoria, signed a lease for the venerable McKinley Suite, beginning on October 1. The club announced that “A force of decorators has been put to work remodeling the rooms.”
A glowing example of one woman who entered the men-only work environment was Patricia Lynford who ran the hotel’s cigar stand. On July 26, 1919 the United States Tobacco Journal seemed to have been giving the unmarried businesswomen kudos when it reported “Miss Lynford is a saleswoman of no mean ability, as is evidence by the fact that business is increasing by leaps and bounds.”
The journal then undid everything it had accomplished for feminine equality when it added “Miss Lynford’s smile, by the way, is enough to make any anti-tobacconist an inveterate tobacco user.”
Tobacco may have been a legal vice, but liquor was on the way out. With the onset of Prohibition in 1920 hotels and restaurants across the country felt the effects, causing many of them fail. It did not take long for the doors of the Hotel Manhattan to close. The last guest walked out the door on June 30.
The New York Times reported “The Manhattan was launched as one of the great institutions of New York. The ceilings were high and there was much room and plenty of ventilation. There were 600 rooms. Before the days of prohibition the Manhattan was one of the most popular hotels in the city.”
It was purchased by the National City Company, which would eventually become National CitiBank. The bank announced its plans to convert the structure into offices with stores on the ground floor. The auction sale of the furnishings began on July 16, 1920. The Times reported that “The famous ‘Presidential suite,’ where President McKinley made his home when in New York, will be about the last to go.”
|Signs announce the sale of the hotel's contents in 1920. Valentine's Manual of Old New York, vol. 6, 1922 (copyright expired)|
Following the renovations, another high-end club took up residence. The Uptown Club signed a 20-year lease for the entire 14th floor. It spent approximately $200,000 on decorating and “necessary equipment.”
Three years after the gutting of the Hotel Manhattan, The Times published a lengthy article about lost artwork—most of it commissioned for public or semi-public buildings. The piece included the line “C. Y. Turner’s Indians in the Hotel Manhattan have gone—where?”
Henry J. Hardenberg’s hotel-turned-office building survived until 1964 when Citibank replaced it with a 40-story office building that remains today.