The Astor family’s tradition of owning opulent hotels began with the original John Jacob Astor who opened his lavish Astor House on June 1, 1836. Generations later things grew tense among the family when William Waldorf Astor demolished his father’s mansion and erected the Waldorf Hotel on its site in 1893—a deliberate irritation to his aunt Caroline Schermerhorn Astor who lived next door. In response John Jacob Astor IV replaced his mother’s house with the Astoria Hotel. A connecting corridor, “Peacock Alley” and a hyphen joined the Waldorf-Astoria in an edgy truce.
The same year that William Waldorf built the Waldorf Hotel, he laid plans for the immense Netherlands Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street—diagonally across from the Plaza Hotel. But when his cousin began construction of his extravagant St. Regis Hotel in 1901, William countered with a surprising move.
Longacre Square was the center of New York’s carriage-building industry and was just three blocks from Grand Central Depot. Unlike the St. Regis site which invaded Fifth Avenue’s mansion neighborhood, William Waldorf selected a questionable area for a high-class hotel. The Evening World noted “The last generation did not consider it good form to frequent hotels near ‘depots.’ The similar development of Long Acre Square is no less remarkable, this immediate locality being for the present day what Madison Square was a few decades ago.”
William Waldorf Waldorf commissioned the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell to design the Hotel Astor and the race between cousins was on. On March 24, 1902 The New York Times gave a hint of what was to come. “The Hotel Astor, the construction of which has just been commenced on Long Acre Square, will occupy the entire block from Forty-fourth to Forty-fifth Street, extending 162 feet down each street, and will be one of the handsomest structures in Manhattan.”
The newspaper reported that the “façade will be in the style of the modern renaissance, of limestone and red brick, crowned with a high curved mansard roof of slate and copper, with massive stone dormers.” What The Times termed “modern renaissance’ is known as Beaux Arts today.
On September 3, 1904 both hotels were nearing completion, and the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that upon their openings “New York will consequently soon be provided with two new hotels of the largest size and the most modern equipment. It is an interesting fact that these hotels have been built by members of the Astor family, which thus keeps up the tradition of owning some, if not all, the best hotels in the city.”
Four days later The Evening World ran the headline “Rival Hotels by Rival Astors.” The article noted “Two great hotels have just been opened to the public in New York, and both were built with Astor millions. The Hotel Astor, on Broadway…is owned by William Waldorf Astor, who arrived in New York to-day from his English palace. The Hotel St. Regis, on Fifth avenue and Fifty-fifth street, was built with the millions of his cousin, Col. John Jacob Astor. The Broadway hostelry represents an investment of $7,000,000, whereas the St. Regis cost $5,000,000 to build and $1,000,000 to furnish.”
The newspaper slightly overstated the costs. In actuality the Hotel Astor cost $5 million, and the St. Regis $3 million. And despite their opulence, the New-York Tribune was unimpressed, predicting they would soon be left in the dust by newer and grander hotels.
“A few days ago two hotels on this island were opened whose combined cost was estimated at $8,000,000. They were the Hotel Astor and the Hotel St. Regis. The town did not suspend business. The authorities did not celebrate with a banquet. Those who visited the new ‘inns’ commended on their frescos, paintings, draperies and mirrors, examined the clever mechanisms by which one servant may now fill the offices of a score, and then complimented their hosts on each having the ‘finest hotel in the land,’ but added: ‘It may not be long before you join the ranks of those in the body of the procession, not at the head of it.”
The Hotel Astor, under the management of William C. Muschenheim, had opened for a press preview on August 28, 1904. Journalists were shown some of the 500 rooms, each of which had a “long-distance phone and a temperature regulator.” One innovation was a trash incinerator, “cremating all its rubbish and dispensing entirely with the early morning garbage removal noises,” noted the Tribune. It was the first even installed in a hotel.
The elaborate interiors included themed rooms—the College, Chinese, Spanish and East Indian halls, the “Orangerie,” the “Yacht Cabin” with portholes offering views of New York Harbor; and a roof garden. Below street level was an East Indian grill room and, below that, a rathskeller meant to reproduce the Heidelberg Tun.
|Circular openings in the mansard provided "portholes" for the Yacht Cabin hall. photo by John Feulner, Historic American Buildings Survey, from the collection of the Library of Congress|
The Evening World described the 22-foot high “Italian Garden,” or “Orangerie,” as “a café for men and women in the centre” of the hotel. “The tables are of a soft, light green, unrelieved with napery, and the entire garden is hung with green things. The whole is lighted with soft violet tints that come out unseen from flowering plants and swinging arbors of trailing vines. In the rear is a fountain, the centre of which is set with a piece of beautiful Italian statuary imported by Mr. Muschenheim.” Live orange trees and palms were placed among the tables and the ceiling simulated the sky, including an electrically-lighted moon.
|The fountain in the Orangerie, or Palm Court, included imported statuary -- Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
The German Hunter’s Room was a dining hall “bristling with trophies of the rod and gun.” And the main kitchen in the basement (there was another that served the upper dining rooms) was deemed “the most extensive kitchen in the world.”
|Unseen in the photo of the Hunter's Room dining hall (above) are the many trophy heads that lined the walls. The Billiard Room (below) was "Pompeian" in decor. Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
Although the hotel appeared just nine stories tall, the two below street level made it actually 11 stories. In addition to the Broadway entrance, a ladies’ entrance was located on 54th Street--the “ladies’ side” of the hotel. Here were “the ladies’ dining room, cloak room, reception room, reading and writing room, telephones, &c., and the ladies entrance, with two elevators and a separate entrance to the palm garden,” explained The Times. The newspaper noted that the rooms on the ladies’ side of the hotel were decorated “in the French styles; those of the gentlemen’s side following English or German models.”
|The Ladies' Dining Room was French, with Wilton carpeting -- Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
“On entering the main lobby from the street there will be found on either hand two marble and bronze stairways leading to a mezzanine gallery overlooking the lobby, the palm garden, the restaurants, and the billiard room,” said The Times. Artist W. D. L. Dodge had executed four murals for the lobby, two of which depicted “ancient” New York, while two represented the modern city.
|Below the ornate ceiling of the lobby (above) can be seen one of Dodge's murals of "ancient" New York. Off the lobby was the Chinese Alcove (below) -- Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
The billiard was decorated “in Pompeian style,” the bar was Flemish and included a painting of the old Longacre Farm by Edward G. Unitt.
In the mansard level were the private dining rooms. The Louis XV-style Banquet Hall was capable of accommodating 500 guests; the Ballroom (which could be combined with the Banquet Hall) could seat another 250; College Hall (which included murals by A. D. Rahn of athletic games) was Colonial in design could seat 100 persons; and there were 12 smaller private dining rooms. A special feature of this level was the Grand Promenade, 130 feet long, where well-dressed patrons could be seen. “Here is a statuary display which is said to be unrivaled in America,” noted The Times.
|The Ballroom, or Banquet Hall (above) could be combined with the "Small Ballroom" for large assemblies Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
The New York Times described the many themes of the suites and sleeping rooms. The State chambers were done in Louis XIV and there were suites “in Colonial, Art Nouveau, Empire, Francis, Marie Antoinette, Madame de Maintenon, Spanish Renaissance, Dutch Renaissance, German Renaissance, Florentine, and Elizabethan styles.”
|The parlors of two of the "State" suites -- Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
In the basement, along with the American grill room, were the barber shop, manicuring and chiropodist parlors, toilets, baggage rooms and the receiving department.
|One of the wine cellars which mimicked a German rathskeller --Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
Guests would pay between $2.50 and $36 a day to stay at the new hotel; the highest rate translating to about $990 in 2015. It was a stark contrast to the St. Regis’s staggering room rate of $125 a day. The Evening World, on September 7, 1904, noted “A man of very modest income may have every luxury in this Broadway establishment.”
|The "College Room" was "colonial" in style. Below is the Art Nouveau dining room -- Architects' and Builders' Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)|
The Hotel Astor was fully electrified including the 12 elevators and nine dumbwaiters. But electricity in 1904 was unreliable at best. Only a month after opening, on October 9, 1904, the crowded hotel was plunged into darkness when the electricity failed.
The Evening World reported that at the time “the dining-rooms were packed and hundreds of persons were talking in the corridors.” After “fully one minute” of total darkness “the lights burst forth only for a few seconds, when they again sputtered and went out.”
Nervous diners now stood up and groped through the darkness, “but they were quieted by the head waiters, who shouted that there was no cause for uneasiness.” The crisis was soon over when the generators started up again “and this time [the lights] continued to shine.”
Two unnamed millionaires had been guests in the Hotel Astor since its opening at the time. They were less concerned with electrical outages than with their argument about “the ability of a man to start from New York without a cent, travel around the world and accumulate $1,000 by honest labor in two years,” as explained by The Evening World on October 14, 1904.
The argument arose one evening in an Astor Hotel dining room and festered to the point that the moguls were willing to put their money on their disparate stances. But neither could afford to leave his business for a two-year period; so they hatched the idea of recruiting assistant chef Emil Mulliez for the test. Both men were familiar with the employee and trusted him. But when they approached him with a two-year trip around the world, he said he would go only “if he had company.”
The solution was to enlist two pastry cooks, Achilles Plehiers and Octave Deroulez. No doubt to the annoyancre of proprietor Muschenheim, three of his kitchen staff prepared to leave for San Francisco on Saturday October 15. The World noted “Mulliez has a family at No. 318 West Forty-fourth street. His wife and children will be supported during his absence by the millionaires interested in the wager.”
From San Francisco, the three men expected to make their way to Japan working as ship’s cooks. They were challenged to circle the globe and return with $3,000. The Evening World reported “Their plan is to hurry through the trip, working their way and not trying to save until they get to Europe where they believe their ability as cooks will yield them plenty of money.”
The Astor Hotel offered complete services to its guests, including the cleaning and shining of boots and shoes. Among the original employees was 17-year old boot-black Marcello Saudo. But after only two months he was fired on December 3, 1904. The fiery teen was incensed at his dismissal and focused his wrath on his replacement, Pasquale Corrado.
Corrado had operated a boot-black stand on 14th Street and Seventh Avenue. He now gave it up to work at the Astor Hotel. The new job was a welcome opportunity. The Evening World noted that in the hotel “pay is good and tips are large.” Corrado and his wife lived at No. 335 West 26th Street and had just welcomed a new baby. On the night of his first day working at the Astor Hotel, they hosted a christening party in their third floor apartment.
Among the guests were Mrs. Corrado’s parents, who lived in an apartment one floor above, and in what must have been a good-will gesture, Marcello Saudo. It was one that ended tragically.
The Evening World reported the following day “When the christening party broke up Corrado escorted his wife’s parents to their rooms on the fourth floor above. As they reached the top of the stairs four pistol shots were fired and Corrado fell dead. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Josephine Mesarelo, dropped to the floor wounded twice in her left breast.” Police tracked the teen-aged assassin to the train to Boston and he was arrested the following morning.
The Roof Garden opened in June 1905. Following a concert by the German Liederkranz on June 11, the New-York Tribune reported “The garden covers the entire area of the building and has a seating capacity of thirty-five hundred. There are quiet nooks under bamboo trees from which one can survey the entire city east and west, the Hudson and the adjoining shore.”
Throughout the decades the Astor Hotel would be the venue for political meetings and dinners, perhaps none of which would be more tense than the clash between suffragists and anti-suffragists at the Fall Convention of the New York City Federation of Women’s Clubs on October 22, 1909.
The New York Times called it a “peppery contest” and reported that “suffrage and anti-suffrage adherents battled in a way which looked more or less like bloodshed.” The newspaper reported “But the President and presiding officer, Mrs. Belle de Rivera, stepped into the breach which threatened to become not only exciting, but riotous.”
On October 5, 1911 The Evening World ran a banner headline announcing "Fire In Hotel Astor Blocks Broadway." The article began “A wicked fire in the Hotel Astor this afternoon, largely confined in the roof, filled the big building with smoke, frightened the women guests, stopped the elevator service and afforded an immense crowd in Longacre Square and the surrounding streets a spirited free show.”
The fire had started in a flue in the top floors and, since the building was deemed fireproof, Manager Wishard assumed he and his staff could handle it. After ten minutes Police Sgt. Sheridan arrived and declared “You people can’t put this fire out. I’m going to send in an alarm.”
The delay could have been disastrous, but firemen extinguished the blaze before long. “Unfortunately for the hotel the firemen were not sparing of the water and floods of it rolled down to the lower levels of the house through openings in the roof leading to flues and shafts,” reported The Evening World. The fire was confined to the ninth floor; but water damage to the banquet halls on the floor below was extensive.
|A 1914 postcard shows the Hotel Astor to the right.|
By the end of World War I, Longacre Square had been rechristened Times Square, in honor of the newspaper’s headquarters relocation here in 1904. Now the center of the theater district, its location was perhaps a bit too flashy to attract the heads of state and celebrated guests that stayed at the St. Regis and other fashionable hotels. Nevertheless, the Hotel Astor frequently hosted them as guests of honor at banquets, luncheons and receptions; and it was several times the venue from which highly important speeches were made.
|from the collection of the Library of Congress|
On February 8, 1932 Winston Churchill spoke here, attacking deflation and advocating restoration of the 1927-28 price levels. President Dwight Eisenhower addressed the National Tercentenary Dinner in the ballroom on October 20, 1954. His speech was broadcast on radio and television nationwide. Other speakers that evening were Governor Thomas E. Dewey and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Irving Berlin sang “God Bless America” during the event. Four years later French President Charles de Gaulle was honored at a luncheon in the hotel.
|A postcard depicts the Astor Roof in the second half of the century. Tommy Dorsey's orchestra played at the Astor for years.|
On January 6, 1964 fire once again swept through the upper floor, essentially destroying the Grand Ballroom. In reporting on the blaze, the New York Times said “Since its opening 60 years ago, the Astor’s Grand Ballroom has been the scene of brilliant social events attended by 10 Presidents, numerous kings and queens and practically every major celebrity to come to New York. The late Mayor James J. Walker called the room ‘the Times Square annex to City Hall.’”
Fire Commissioner Edward bluntly declared “There is no doubt that this was the work of an arsonist.” The loss of the ballroom and the income it generated was especially severe considering the business that was expected in connection with the coning New York World’s Fair.
The ballroom was left a burned-out shell for five months before the hotel’s owners Webb & Knapp, Inc. decided to restore it. Work was commenced on a $1 million project at a pace to ensure its completion before the World’s Fair opening in October. Of the only 20 ornamental plaster craftsmen left in the city, 13 were put to work in the Hotel Astor ballroom.
On August 26, 1964 Joseph Lelyvelt of The Times wrote “If he had been in town, Louis XIV would have been at home at the Astor yesterday. The hotel’s Grand Ballroom was thick with ornamental plasterers putting the finishing touches on plumes, acanthus leaves, nymphs and cupids. Painters, with the delicacy and preoccupation of coiffeurs, carefully applied gold leaf to the frozen, vacant-looking faces of the nymphs.
“It was the way parts of the palace at Versailles must have looked three weeks before its opening.”
The expense and time was, as it turns out, pointless. Simultaneously The Times mentioned “The empire of William Zeckendorf, who operates the Astor as a subsidiary of Webb & Knapp, Inc., is in trouble and two weeks ago the subsidiary was forced to file a bankruptcy petition.”
|In 1966, just months before its demolition, the Hotel Astor was still a commanding presence on Times Square -- photo by John Feulner, Historic American Buildings Survey, from the collection of the Library of Congress|
Within two years the Hotel Astor was doomed. There was no discussion of preserving the grand edifice, although at least one concerned New Yorker worried about what would replace it. Harold L. Dunn penned a letter to the editor of The New York Times on July 8, 1966 which began “The erection of another glass cage on the site of the Hotel Astor should be discouraged. Times Square is deserving of something better.”
|photo by OptimumPx|
The imposing hotel was replaced with the 54-story office tower One Astor Plaza designed by Der Scutt of Ely J. Kahn & Jacobs and completed in 1972.