Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The 1903 Hotel Woodstock -- No. 127 West 43rd Street



In 1896 traveling salesman Robert H. Spalding stepped off a train from Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania with his sample case of wood trimmings.  The 31-year old was taken with the ebullient residential and transient hotels that were rapidly rising throughout the city.   Gushing with Beaux Arts ornamentation on the outside, their interiors dripped with overblown Belle Epoque festoons and frescoes, marble columns and thick carpets.

With gutsy daring, Spalding decided to get in on the trend.   Against all odds (The New York Times later remarked “he had little capital to back him) he successfully constructed the Ganoga Hotel on East 27th Street.  He sold the new hotel at a profit and immediately commissioned architect Harry B. Mulliken to design the handsome residential Colllingwood Hotel just off Fifth Avenue on West 35th Street.  The former traveling saleman’s latest project cost nearly $1 million.

The Collingwood had barely opened for business before Spalding and Mulliken were working together again.   Robert Spalding now turned his attention to the Longacre Square neighborhood (later named Times Square), where the new theater district was emerging.  Spalding purchased the land on which the old New-York Racquet and Tennis Club stood at No. 127 West 43rd Street. 

By the time plans were filed in 1902, Mulliken had formed a partnership with Edgar J. Moeller.  Although Mulliken most likely took charge of the design of the Hotel Spalding, Mulliken & Moeller is given credit.

Demolition of the old buildings was completed and foundation excavation well underway by August 1902.  The neighborhood was still filled with high-stooped brownstones built in the 1870s; many of them now operated as boarding houses.  The construction site would cause neighbors what the New-York Tribune deemed “intense disgust and annoyance” on the night of August 18.

The excavation site, which stretched from No. 127 to 135 West 43rd Street, necessitated the construction of a 55-foot “timber bridge” over the sidewalk.  At around 7:30 that evening the heavy bridge caved in, breaking a six-inch water main and a four-inch gas main below.  Luckily, although the street was crowded with pedestrians, no one was on the bridge when it collapsed.  But the broken mains soon created a major problem.

“Gas escaped so it could be smelled for blocks, and the police would allow no one with even a lighted cigar or cigarette near the scene, and all the gas lamps were put out,” reported the Tribune.   The gushing water main caused additional problems as it ate away at the soil beneath the street, part of which caved in.  “While people were standing on the edge of the trench the water had been loosening the earth under the street, and a big part of the street pavement gave way and sank with a loud crash into the water.  This caused much excitement.  Women fled in terror, and men disappeared almost as quickly.”

The thick gas seeped into the houses, causing some people to get ill.  Many were seen leaving their homes with suitcases, expecting a massive explosion at any moment.  In fact, the newspaper reported that within an hour the atmosphere was so permeated with gas “that it got to be dangerous to have lights anywhere in the neighborhood.”

Around 9:00 more of the pavement and remains of the bridge gave way, loudly crashing into the water-filled crater.   Many of those in the now-inky blackness thought there had been an explosion “and there was much excitement for a time about the neighborhood.”

Gas workers arrived around 10:00 and groped their way around the gas main in the dark—no lamps could be used.  The main was finally capped and by 10:30 the danger had passed.  Unfortunately for residents, there would be no water or gas service until the next day.

With the regrettable incident now taken care of, construction continued at a rapid pace.  On December 12, 1903 the Hotel Spalding opened “in the customary manner,” according to the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper called it “the latest and most notable addition to the long chain of hostelries in this City.”

An early postcard depicts the surviving brownstones on either side of the new hotel.
“The lobbies and dining rooms were handsomely decorated with flowers and plants, and the house was crowded the greater part of the day with guests and visitors.  Musical entertainment was furnished by the management, besides the usual chefs d’oevres of the culinary department.”

Mulliken’s façade was more restrained than the recent Hotel Collingwood.  There were no sculptured figures or heavy festoons; yet the limestone and brick was nonetheless stylish.  A two-story portico sheltered the entrance and French-inspired iron balconies punctuated the upper floors.  Copper-clad angled bays gave dimension and the 12-story hotel was capped by an ambitious, deeply overhanging spiky cornice.

A postcard shows the portico with its glass and metal marquee.
The interiors, however, were meant to awe.  Polished marble columns appeared in several of the public rooms.  The main Dining Room was lit by an immense stained glass skylight.  Decorated “in the style of Louis XVI," its cuisine and service were touted by management as “as good as it is possible to have them.”  Off the soaring two-story lounge was the slightly less-formal Grill Room, decorated with oaken Jacobean-style furniture and matching paneled wainscoting.

Complementary postcards depict the main Dining Room (note the stained glass skylight), and the less formal Grill Room.  Through the Grill Room's doors the two-story lounge can be glimpsed.
Like Robert Spalding’s others, the Hotel Spalding accommodated not only transient tourists and businessmen; but permanent residents (including Spalding, himself).    Apartments for the long-term residents were provided unfurnished.

There were 300 rooms for transients, consisting of suites of two, three or four rooms with private baths.  An advertisement that appeared one week after the opening promised that “A cosey, home-like effect has been carried out in the furnishings—the walls are hung with attractive pictures, the furniture does not consist of two or three uncomfortable chairs and a centre table, but is of the most luxurious and home-like character, the sort that fills your heart with good cheer.  There are soft, thick rugs and books and bric-a-brac and other thing that contribute so much to the cheerful atmosphere of the place.”

At the time of opening, a single room and with private bath would cost the guest $2.50 a day—in the neighborhood of $70 today.

After checking in in the rather somber wood-paneled lobby (above), guests entered the airy Lounge.
Robert Spalding’s wife did not live to move into the new hotel with her husband.  She died in the summer of 1903.   And one year almost to the day after the hotel’s completion, Spalding died in his apartment here. 

On Friday evening, December 9, 1904, he was “entertaining a quartet of professional singers who were rehearsing in one of the apartments,” according to The New York Times.   The 39-year old suffered a heart attack which caused his death at about 5:00 Saturday morning.

At the time of his death, creditors had been close on his heels.   Quickly the hotel was put into receivership and on January 20, 1905 a petition of involuntary bankruptcy was filed.  The Hotel Spalding owed debts amounting to $700,000.  It was sold in September for $660,000.

Robert H. Spalding’s namesake hotel was quickly rechristened the Hotel Woodstock.   Guests and residents would have noticed no real changes; although the single room rate was raised by 50 cents.

As Spalding had predicted, the site’s proximity to the theater district proved attractive to tourists and theatrical types.  In 1907 the internationally-known stage actress Rose Coghlan was staying here while she rehearsed The Unwritten Law before taking it on the road.  She was understandably upset in October that year when she lost a gold lorgnette on a pearl chain somewhere in the Times Square area.


Rose Coghlan - from the collection of the New York Public Library
Among the permanent residents at around this time was the young Madaline Davidson.  On November 30, 1909 she was met at the hotel by Bostonian H. F. Kersberg who took her to a nearby spot for tea.  Kersberg was an athlete, a member of the Harvard football team which had recently defeated Yale for the first time in six years.

The young couple was apparently paying a great deal of attention to one other and not enough to traffic when they started across Broadway at 44th Street.  The pair was knocked down by a passing brougham.  Although Kersberg was uninjured, Madaline’s ankle was hurt and she had to be carried into the lobby of a theater.  The football player then flagged down a hansom “and took her away.”

The carriage driver, William Savin, was arrested for reckless driving.  Kersberg appeared in court the next day to defend him.  The New York Times reported “He and Miss Davidson, he said, had been to a hotel for tea, and in crossing the street were chatting and did not watch very carefully.”  Nevertheless, the judge fined Savin $10.

The Hotel Woodstock prospered under its new ownership.  On December 10, 1910 Mulliken & Moeller announced they were working on plans for a 12-story addition at Nos. 137 and 139 West 43rd.  The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported “The addition will be of the same style of architecture and finish as the present building.”  It added “the old dwelling on the site will be torn down at once.”

The addition successful melded seamlessly into the original structure.   The Hotel Woodward now offered 375 room and 285 baths.  Possibly because the main entrance was now off-center the two-story portico was removed and replaced by a long glass and metal marquee.

The 1910 addition was seamless.  photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The hotel continued to be home to wealthy permanent residents like Charles P. Dennin, president of O. Dennin & Sons, one of the largest brush manufacturers in the nation, who lived here through the World War I years.

The revamped entrance did away with the two-story portico.

In the years following the war, many hotel operators in the Times Square area were concerned that loft and office buildings were taking over.   Rumors were fueled by Vincent Astor’s closing of his hulking Hotel Knickerbocker in 1920 and converting it to office space.  The Du Pont family not only scoffed at the idea; but increased their holdings in Times Square. 

On May 29, 1920 the Record and Guide suggested “The passing of the Hotel Woodstock…into the hands of the Du Pont interests would seem to show that this syndicate, which controls much hotel space adjacent, believes that the Times Square neighborhood is not going to be captured altogether by loft and office buildings.”

As with all hotels, the Woodstock saw its share of tragedy.  One such case occurred in September 1924 while theater manager Howard E. Weaver’s wife, Katherine, was gone on a visit to upstate New York.  The 45-year old had been manager of the Henry Miller Theatre; but had recently gone on the road as manager of Merton of the Movies.  While in Detroit he was fired.

Weaver returned to New York and the Woodstock around 10 p.m. on Monday, September 15.  The next morning Peter Rice, a “theatrical man,” went to Weaver’s apartment to discuss his return to his former job.  When no one answered his knocks, he found the hotel’s manager, Samuel Wieder, who had also been a friend of Weaver for some years.

Howard Weaver was found hanging from an electric light fixture in the bathroom.  He had neatly typed three notes.  To his wife he regretted that he had become a “disappointment and a failure.”  He felt that losing his job had made him a burden.  To Wieder he apologized for the “mess he was making;” and the note to Peter Rice read “Am more sick than anyone knows—so what’s the use?  Please forgive me.”

Had Weaver held out a few hours, he would have discovered there was a job waiting for him.

The library featured comfortable easy chairs for reading.
The meeting rooms of the hotel were routinely rented by political and social groups, including the League for Industrial Democracy, several socialist organizations, and the Sunrise Club.  The topic of one of the latter club’s lectures, in February 1931, was “The Sources of Liberalism in Human Nature.”

And of course the banquet hall saw dinners thrown by fraternal organizations, corporations, and groups giving tributes.  On June 28, 1926, for instance, aviator and explorer Richard E. Byrd, Jr. and his pilot to the North Pole, Floyd Bennett, were feted here by the Adventurers’ Club of Long Beach, California.

Other timely issues were hashed out during meetings in the Woodstock.   In May 1937 a compromise was reached between the National Education Association and motion picture producers, represented by Hal Hode of Columbia Pictures.  The following day The Times reported “Cooperation between motion-picture companies and schools in the greater use of films in education was discussed last night by fifty educators."  

Movies, prohibited in the classroom, were defended by Hode.  “Movies do not create conditions—they are a vast mirror of society.” He offered that "the portrayal of evils on the screen led to their eradication by arousing the public."
  
In the 1940s liveried doormen still assisted guests, while inside the rooms were decorated in current war-time decor.  (postcard from author's collection.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York)
And on June 9, 1943 William A. Lydgate, editor of the American Institute of Public Opinion, addressed the Advertising Women of New York, Inc. at a luncheon.  He pointed out that with the steady increase of men heading overseas to fight the war, “Women will play a more important role in the 1944 Presidential election than ever before in history.”

The reputation of the Hotel Woodward as a respectable place to stay was not lost on two women living in the City Infirmary of North Adams, Massachusetts.  Flora Dampier, 64, and Emily Brown, 62, decided to tick one item off their bucket lists around this same time.  The women earned extra money by making quilts and bedspreads and when their “vacation fund” was sufficient, they headed to New York City—with an escort, of course.

A New York Times journalist visited the two women in their rooms on May 18, 1944.  “Mrs. Dampier, resident of the infirmary for forty-one years, proudly patted her new hair-do and smoothed the pleats of a new gray dress as she and Mrs. Brown prepared to go to dinner with their chaperone, Mrs. Delia Gorman, matron of the infirmary, who accompanied them here.”  The writer noted that Emily Brown’s plain black dress “was set off by a white lace collar which she made herself in preparation for the trip.”

The two elderly women had carefully planned their trip—wanting to see the Statue of Liberty, Radio City, the Empire State Building, Chinatown and Times Square.  And they were living high on their quilt money.   “Both had steaks for dinner last night and both have directed that they be served breakfast in bed during their stay,” said the article.

But Emily’s and Flora’s agenda was not merely about sightseeing.  High on their list was “to go to a night club and see the dancing.”

Mid-century brought about further updated decor.
While some once-grand Times Square hotels became little more than flop-houses after mid-century; the Hotel Woodward tried desperately to cling on.  In the 1950s it hosted weekly social dances for college students and in 1962 was the scene of a major jazz dance in the ballroom.

But by 1975 the time-worn hotel seemed lost.  The rusticated limestone base had been slathered in layers of paint.  Now outdated and dreary, it was described by one person as “dismally gray and decrepit.”  That year Project Find, a nonprofit agency that houses, counsels and feeds the elderly, leased the hotel.  Four years later it purchased the building.   Architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates initiated the $405,000 renovation that included a refurbishing of the façade, including stripping off the paint.


Still called the Woodward, the venerable hotel has lost its stately portico and its crown-like cornice.  But the integrity of the grand hotel, built by a traveling salesman when Times Square was just coming to life, survives.

non-credited photographs by the author
vintage postcards from the author's collection
many thanks to Marc Mentzer for requesting this post 

1 comment:

  1. A beautifully written article. People walk by this building and never guess at the dramas that have occurred here.

    ReplyDelete