In June 1901 Building Trades reported on plans filed by architects S. B. Ogden & Co. for yet another Manhattan hotel. This one, 75-feet wide on the north side of West 54th Street just off Broadway, was being built by prolific developer Andrew J. Kerwin, Jr. The journal noted “it will be eleven stories high, with a front of brick, granite, and Indiana limestone.” But what it found more impressive was the staggering cost—fully half a million dollars.
Kerwin was jumping onto a hotel-building bandwagon. His was one of 46 hotels planned in 1901 in Manhattan, at an aggregate cost of $20,374,000. All but six of these were, like Kerwin’s, apartment hotels which provided full-time occupancy. As the Hotel Carlton rose at Nos. 203-205 West 54th Street, others sprouted in the blocks nearby—the Hotel Quentin at 208 West 56th, the Ramon at 338 West 57th, and three more at 221 West 54th, 118 west 57th, and 120 west 57th Street.
|from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
The Hotel Carlton was completed in 1903 and was sumptuous enough that Andrew J. Kerwin, Jr. himself took an apartment. The architects had created a Beaux Arts-style confection frosted with elaborate stone balconies, carved decorations and the nearly obligatory mansard roof with its intricately-styled dormers. The red brick and white stone feast of the nine upper floors were in contrast to the surprisingly stark two-story limestone base. The planar, relatively unadorned first floor was joined with the rusticated second by four severe engaged columns upholding an entablature and balcony.
The social caliber of the original residents was evidenced in Club Women of New York’s listing of Mrs. J. T. Pendegast in 1905. Her address was noted as “Hotel Carlton, NY and California.” Dr. Charles E. Farr, an 1898 Yale graduate moved in in 1906.
That year, in October, Kerwin sign a 10-year lease for the operation of the hotel with Atlantic City hotelier Alfred C. McClellan. McClellan agreed to pay $31,000 per year, about $70,000 a month in 2015 dollars. His first step was to rename the building, now the Hotel Lyndemon. It would be the first in a long list of name changes.
Among the residents were well-to-do businessman Frank A. Perry Burrelle and his second wife, Nelle. Their four-story brownstone home at No. 2 West 19th Street had burned on August 9, 1903 while they were “in the country.”
Burrelle was the owner of Burrelle’s Press Clipping Bureau. His divorce from Julia Burrelle had been messy and his three children had sided with their mother. He remembered that when he wrote his will on June 12, 1908.
Like many moneyed New Yorkers, the Burrelles escaped the Manhattan winters for a few weeks by traveling south. On January 25, 1910 they were in the Gulf of Mexico when Frank A. Burrelle suddenly died aboard ship. Following the filing of his will a week later, The New York Times wrote “It shows that the internal affairs of the Burrelle family were in a strained condition, to say the least.”
Although he left his son, Douglas Curtis Burrelle, $10 a week as long as Nelle Burrelle lived; and $20 to his daughter, Mignon Hazel Burrelle, he was clear in his disappointment in them. In his will he said they “have taken a stand against me and also have not acted in a manner satisfactory to me; [and] that I have tried to bring up my son to learn and take an active part in the press-clipping business and have found him lacking in attention or ability to attend to this business.”
He also vented his aggravation about the legal expenses and annoyance his former wife had caused. The will said she “has not acted toward me in the past in ways satisfactory to me and is now harassing me with litigation.” She received nothing.
On March 6, 1912 a series of underground explosions caused shock and terror as six manhole covers on Broadway from 57th to 54th Street were blown into the air. The explosions came in quick succession, lasting about a minute. The Times reported “Though the iron covers crashed down to the street and sidewalk to be shattered into pieces, no one was hurt.”
At No. 205 West 54th Street nerves and glass were shattered. All of the front-facing windows from the first to the sixth floor were blown out or cracked. The hotel’s telephone operator, May Anderson, was knocked off her stool by the force of the nearest explosion.
A year later it happened again. This time a resident, Mrs. Lewis Brooks, narrowly escaped injury or death. She was crossing 54th Street at Broadway when another series of explosions occurred. She had just stepped off a 50-pound manhole cover and was about two feet away when she heard the first of the explosions. She stopped and turned to see what had caused the loud noise when another explosion occurred at her feet.
“The cover blew off and went mounting skyward right before her eyes,” reported The Evening World. “Out of the hole poured a volume of fire and singed her eyebrows. Involuntarily she staggered backward and down came the manhole cover on the spot where she had been standing.”
Alfred McClellan did not retain the proprietorship of the Hotel Lyndemon for the full 10-year lease. It was transferred to John Kirwan who renamed it the Hotel Belleview. Then, in July 1913 Andrew Kerwin leased it to “Mrs. Lindeman and Miss Shelt.” The women announced that “It will be extensively remodeled by the lessees and conducted as a high-class family hotel.” Despite their intentions to remodel they purchased all the existing furniture. And they changed the name back to the Lyndemon.
Seventy-six year old Theolhilus Francis Rodenbough lived here at the time. A one-time soldier, he was a recognized author, having written Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor and other works. And J. Harry Myers and his wife had an apartment in the building in 1915 when it seemed that their family might grow from two to three.
On the cold night of Friday, January 15 that year two little boys were found on abandoned on the street. Richard and Jimmie Hefter, four- and two-years old, were left with a note written by their mother saying she was “down to her last cent” and could not care for them.
When newspapers reported on the case, offers to adopt the boys flowed into the Gerry Society. One of them was from Mrs. J. Harry Myers. The Sun reported on January 18 that “Mr. Myers told The Sun that he was willing and that anyway a husband’s chief function is to say “Yes” to his wife’s propositions.”
By 1916 the hotel had changed its name again, this time to the Hotel Albemarle. Dr. David A. Robertson had been living here with his wife, Sarah, until she left him on January 21 that year. Sarah moved to No. 47 West 49th Street, much to the displeasure of her 41-year old husband.
Sarah Robertson told police that he had “frequently threatened her with violence,” so when he banged on her door on Monday night, March 6, she understandably did not let him in. Determined to enter, he returned with an axe and broke open the door. Sarah had him arrested for disorderly conduct and they met in the courtroom of Magistrate Barlow three days later.
The judge dismissed the case and discharged the prisoner. The New York Times reported that he ruled that Robinson “had the right to enter his wife’s home.”
Despite Robinson’s violent disposition, most of the residents were well-behaved and respectable. Joseph W. Jacobs, general manager for the Shubert theaters lived here at the time; as did Walter C. Holmes who published the Braille-printed Ziegler Magazine for blind readers.
When Warren G. Harding was inaugurated President of the United States on March 4, 1921, the hotel had just come under the proprietorship of Edward Arlington and his 62-year old mother Amy. (Amy Arlington and her husband, incidentally, had long been connected with the Barnum & Bailey Circus.)
The Hotel World noted that “Extensive improvements are being made.” It also reported that Arlington, like his predecessors, was changing the name. “The name of the Hotel Albemarle, 203 West Fifty-fourth street, New York City, has been changed by its proprietor…to Hotel Harding in honor of the President.”
The Hotel Harding still had its respectable residents—John Morris Benore, President of the Huebel Manufacturing Company lived there, for instance—but change was coming. In 1922 19-year old Roberta Belmont had an apartment in the building. She was a showgirl working at Murray’s Restaurant on West 42nd Street. Vice police did not appreciate Roberta’s performance early in the wee hours of June 17 that year.
The New York Times reported “Six young women, garbed only in one-piece bathing trunks, were bundled into taxicabs…and taken to the West Fiftieth Street Police Station, charged with being ‘indecently dressed’ and participating in an immoral dance.” The club’s manager, Joseph Suskind, was arrested as well “for permitting the dance.” Roberta paid $500 bail for her release.
In 1927 burlesque star Ina Haywood suffered the same humiliation. The string of arrests would continue as the occupants of the Hotel Harding became increasingly shady. On June 22, 1928 “Mr. and Mrs. Leo Gordon” checked in. In fact, Gordon was bank robber Anthony Bonelli, wanted by police for murdering a Kansas City policeman and wounding another during a hold-up in which he escaped with $20,000. The following night detectives stormed the hotel and arrested Bonelli and his wife.
Later that year, in October, Edward Doyle would be arrested for accepting bets and illegal gambling on the greyhound races. But it was what was going on below in the basement of the hotel that was even more scandalous.
Former actress Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan was best known by the name “Texas.” In 1920 she opened a speakeasy, the 300 Club, nearby at No. 151 West 54th Street. It was infamous for its 40 barely-clothed fan dancers. Repeatedly arrested on violating Prohibition, Texas Guinan always defended herself saying the patrons had brought their own liquor. Those patrons included millionaires like Reginald Vanderbilt, Walter Chrysler and Harry Payne Whitney.
Her success (she reportedly earned $700,000 in 10 months during 1926 despite the continual police raids) led her to open another operation, the Club Intime, in the basement of the Hotel Harding. Like the 300 Club, the Intime served liquor and entertained patrons with scantily-clad dancers.
When Andrew J. Kerwin discovered exactly what was going on, he moved to put an end to it. On April 17, 1929 The New York Times reported “Texas Guinan’s cabaret show at the Club Intime in the Hotel Harding at 203 West Fifty-fourth Street, is doomed to remain closed at least until next Monday unless the Supreme Court comes to the club owner’s aid.”
Just after midnight that morning, as “sixty patrons had pushed back their chairs and were waiting expectantly for the performers to appear,” detectives raided the club. Frank Pisaro, captain of the waiters, and waiter Robert Ronan were each arrested for “possessing liquor.” Six other employees were charged with “handling food without a Health Department permit,” and the club was padlocked on the allegation brought by Andrew J. Kerwin that “the Club Intime has been operating in the Hotel Harding without a certificate of occupancy.”
Texas Guinan had been piggy-backing on the hotel’s license; but Kerwin charged that she had altered the appearance of the cellar so that it was no longer a part of the hotel, but a separate business.
The Club Intime closed, only to be replaced by an equally-notorious operation, the Club Abbey, in the spring of 1930. Gangsters and the wealthy rubbed shoulders here, entertained by its popular, purposely-effeminate host, Gene (or Jean) Malin. The Daily Mirror wrote “Standing on the floor for an hour at a time and making no bones about earning his living as a professional pansy, Malin intrigued those customers who did not resent this type of thing.”
If Texas Guinan’s Club Intime had brought Kerwin’s hotel (renamed the Hotel Alba in 1930) unwanted publicity, the Club Abbey was worse.
In December 1930 mobster Dutch Schultz was shot here in one of a series of unsuccessful gangland attempts on his life. Schultz was back in the club on the night of January 24, 1931 with one of his lieutenants, Marty Krompier, and another gang member, Larry Carney, along with two women. Unfortunately for other patrons, members of a rival gang were in the club as well.
|Dutch Schultz's mugshot of 1931|
Threats and insults turned to fisticuffs and attacks with broken bottles, which progressed to gunfire. Although the Schultz group was wearing bullet-proof vests, Dutch Schultz was once again wounded, this time in the shoulder. The following morning The Times reported that the Club Abbey “was wrecked” and that police were searching for Schultz for questioning in the incident.
|In the 1970s, nothing had changed on the exterior of the hotel. photo by Edmund V. Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
In the meantime, arrests continued in the hotel proper. On February 24, 1931 Morris Sweetwood, who had already served a two-year term for racketeering and was at one time called “the richest bootlegger in the United States," was arrested in his room in the Hotel Alba for bootlegging. On October 21, 1931 at 4:45 p.m. Edward Rosen was arrested in Room 26, charged with “betting and bookmaking.”
On February 27, 1932 police were back at the Hotel Alba, breaking into a room and arresting seven men for kidnapping. Abraham Rosenberg owed several thousand dollars to “a rum-running gang,” according to newspapers, and the gang’s patience had worn out.
The day before the arrest, Rosenberg and Eugene Murphy were about to enter Murphy’s car when they were ambushed and forced into another automobile. The brazen, broad-daylight crime was witnessed by a passerby.
The Times reported “The kidnappers drove to the Hotel Alba, it was said, where Rosenberg was beaten and Murphy finally released on promise to keep quiet.” When police found Rosenberg “his eyes were blackened and he bore marks of a beating about the face.” He had been trying to raise money to cover his debts when found.
Another resident, 45-year old Louis Greenstein, was arrested and held without bail on June 22, 1934 for beating and robbing two Harvard students. He had recently been released from prison on conviction of attempted grand larceny.
In 1936, perhaps in an attempt to improve the hotel’s reputation—or simply to improve its clientele—architect Emery Roth was hired to renovate the building. Roth was highly regarded as a hotel architect, already having designed the Hotel St. Moritz on Central Park South, and the San Remo, Ardsley and 275 Central Park West, all on Central Park West, along with other important hotel and apartment buildings.
Roth’s renovations resulted in seven apartments per floor, and a penthouse containing two. The improvements worked and in place of gangsters and thugs, the building now housed businessmen and entertainers. Among them was blouse manufacturer Harry Feller; Edward Bimberg who ran the Palm Garden on West 52nd Street; renowned events promoter Lawrence Weber; actor James O’Neill; and actress and theater manager Mrs. James Troup, who once played opposite George M. Cohen on stage.
Current owners have gone back to the name The Albemarle—at least the seventh name change in the building’s history. There are still seven co-operative apartments per floor, although no historic interior elements survive. Nevertheless, while the building’s named repeatedly changed, its façade did not. Easily overlooked, the frothy Beaux-Arts structure claims a most colorful history.
non-credited photographs by the author