Monday, February 8, 2016

The Lost 1892 Hotel Savoy -- 5th Avenue and 59th Street

The Savoy was intended to fill the block, spreading south.  Instead it eventually went east.  Nevertheless, it perched a Hotel Savoy sign on the adjoining building.
As Central Park was nearly completion in 1867, Mary Mason Jones began construction of her white marble mansion at the southeast corner of still-unpaved Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.  Hers was the first hint of the mansion district to come.  But for now, she shared the neighborhood with shanties and a saloon one block to the north at 58th Street.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1891, The New York Times would remark “The saloon is a relic of the days when that part of New-York was unsettled and covered with the huts of squatters.  When its big sign was painted, goats roamed over the rocky knobs thereabout, and truck patches nestled in the valleys between the streets.  One by one the palaces drove out the shanties, and the goats retired to the lonely fastnesses of Harlem.”

But, surprisingly, Frank Mullen’s saloon had survived.

On October 1, 1890 the lavish Plaza Hotel opened opposite the old saloon.  It faced the plaza in front of central park and was mere steps away from the massive Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion.  The new hotel ignited a firestorm of demolition and construction.  Within months another grand hotel would begin rising directly across the avenue.

Like Mary Mason Jones, real estate operator Morris Littman had long ago recognized the future of this section of Fifth Avenue and purchased the eastern block front between 58th and 59th Street—except Mullen’s saloon property which belonged to George Rudd.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide later reported that Littman sold the three 25-foot plots to Supreme Court Judge P. Henry Dugro and John J. Gibbons “at a remarkable advance.”

The men commissioned architect Ralph S. Townsend to design an elegant hotel that would rival, if not surpass, the Plaza.   But there was the problem of the corner lot.  Frank Mullen paid the Rudd estate $2,000 a year for his saloon, which The Times described as “very small, and is almost obscured behind advertising signs that Mr. Mullen rents out at a high rate per month.  It has a little bar in front and a big bar behind.  The former is patronized by the ‘transients’ who travel on Fifth Avenue or visit Central Park.   The latter is for the accommodation of the workmen and hackmen in the neighborhood.”

The Rudd heirs were acutely aware that the Plaza Hotel had increased property values.  When Dugro offered them $90,000 for the plot, they refused.  “They would not listen to anything short of $125,000 for the land,” reported The Times.  The price they wanted for the residential-sized plot would translate to about $3.5 million today.  And when Dugro offered Mullen $2,500 to vacate, “Mr. Mullen listened and smiled, but gave no answer.”

Frustrated, Drugro instructed Townsend to go ahead with the plans, with the towering hotel inching up to the hold-out saloon.  On August 21, 1891 The New York Times noted that while the 12-story hotel was going up, “Yesterday Mr. Mullen sat in his saloon and counted out his money.  There was a far-away smile on his face.”

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Hotel Savoy was informally opened on June 6, 1892.  Judge P. Henry Dugro had spared no expense.  Construction costs were about $2 million and the decorations and furnishings of the banquet hall on the first floor alone cost $60,000.  Invited guests, according to The Times the following day, “wandered through its halls and magnificently furnished and decorated rooms and admired the splendor which met their gaze at every turn.”

The banquet room was the showpiece of the hotel.  African marble pillars, partially inlaid with Killarney green marble, upheld the ceiling with its large painting, “The Four Seaons,” by Virgilio Tojetti.  Sculpted groups by Karl Bitter flanked either end of the ceiling.   Satinwood wainscoting lined the walls, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and metal.  Bronze figures within niches held electric lights.  At the rear of the banquet room was the musicians’ gallery, its canopy upheld by Grecian caryatids.  In front of the gallery was a Sienna marble fountain.

The ballroom, or "banquet room," was the most lavish.  The sculptural grouping over the door was by Karl Bitter. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The interiors took advantage of American society’s fascination of things French.  There were five public parlors on the second floor—one decorated in the Louis XIV, one in the “First Empire,” and three in Louis XVI decor.   The Times reported that “The corner suite on the second floor is an exact reproduction of the rooms of Marie Antoinette in the Trianon Palace at Versailles.”  The furnishings of his room reportedly cost $20,000.

A stereopticon slide depicted the "First Empire" Parlor
In the basement were a “Pompeiian” barroom and a billiard room.

Two months after the Savoy’s opening, The Record and Guide remarked on the amazing transformation of the Fifth Avenue-59th Street neighborhood.  On December 17, 1892 an article announced “Fifty-ninth street, east of 5th avenue, is fast changing its character.  Private houses are being altered, one, two and three at a time, into stores and offices…The Hotel Savoy and the Plaza Hotel have brought a mass of people to the vicinity, who must be catered to by nearby establishments.”

The Grand Dining Room Hotel Savoy Illustrated, 1893 (copyright expired)
Within months Ralph Townsend was back working for Dugro.  If the Judge could not have the 58th Street corner, he would expand east along 59th Street.  By June 24 the foundation for a 50-foot wide extension was being dug.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that “it will be in the same style as the main structure.”

Groundbreaking for the addition may have been slightly delayed for the arrival of Infanta Eulalia of Spain.  She was the youngest daughter of Queen Isabella II and Francis, Duke of Cadiz; and the sister of King Alfonso XII and the aunt of his son King Alfonso XIII.  The Princess’s choice of the Hotel Savoy was a major coup over the Plaza.

A promotional brochure in 1893 pictured the lobby (above) and the Louix XVI Parlor -- copyright expired
Princess Eulalia was stopping over in New York on her way to the Chicago Exposition.  She arrived in Jersey City by train from Washington DC at 3:04 on the afternoon of May 25, 1893, and then boarded the steamboat the General Slocum to cross the river to New York.  (Incidentally, in 1904, the General Slocum would be tragically involved in the greatest loss of life in New York City until the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.)

The thousands of people who had waited for the Infanta at the pier at the foot of 34th Street were pushed back by police.  A platoon of mounted policemen, 90 troopers of the National Guard, and a 16-piece band were assembled.  “Soon afterwards fourteen carriages and the Hotel Savoy stage had driven up to the pier.  The footmen and coachmen were costumed in uniforms of blue coats, high hats, buff trousers and top boots.  Each wore a boutonniere of red and yellow roses,” advised the New-York Tribune.

Princess Eulalia and her entourage took the entire second floor of the hotel.  “Here are fourteen rooms in all, including several large parlors,” explained the New-York Tribune.  “The bedroom which has been selected for the Infanta is a corner room at Fifth-ave and Fifty-ninth-st., from the windows of which there is a splendid view of the plaza, Fifth-ave, and the entrance to the Park… The bedstead is of fine satinwood, inlaid.  The walls and ceiling are hung with worked and painted canvas.”

The newspaper described the bedroom of the Infanta’s husband, Prince Antonio D’Orleans, as “finished in the style of Louis XIV” and his parlor of the First Empire.  That of the Duke of Tamames, her chamberlain, “is furnished in Moorish style.”  Other bedrooms were held for the Princess’s ladies in waiting, and the Duke’s secretary. 

Newspapers closely covered the royal visit, publishing schedules of the couple’s every movement.  Finally, on May 30, the event for which society had been holding its collective breath came to pass.  The New York Times reported the following morning, “The Infanta Eulalie and Prince Antoine of Bourbon were ‘at home’ yesterday afternoon, and for the first time since their arrival in this city, the royal couple received the homage of New-York society in their own drawing rooms.”

Two committees, numbering 160 members, “undertook the management of the reception for the Prince and Princess…so that only the task of receiving the guests was left to the Princess.”  There were 300 highly-prized invitations issued to the cream of New York society.  In all about 400 ladies and 100 men were presented to the Infanta.

Guests pausing on this stair landing would find themselves amid a forest of palms -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
The guests were presented two-by-two in a circular route through the drawing rooms.  The Times noted “The guests after having been presented to the Prince and Princess strolled about the beautiful apartments and [some] soon took advantage of this freedom by being presented twice.”

The Times listed the socially-illustrious names who gained entrance to the Princess’s apartments that afternoon.  Among them were Mrs. Paran Stevens, John D. Crimmins and his daughter, Mrs. Alexander S. Webb and Miss Webb, and other expected names like Tillinghast, de Peyster, Lawrence and even merchant Isidore Strauss and wife.  Glaringly missing from the list were the Astors and the Vanderbilts.

Princess Eulalia -- photo Library of Congress
On June 2 the royal couple escaped the Hotel Savoy.  “Stealing quietly down the stairs,” according to The Times, they alluded their retinue and bodyguards.   While hundreds of pedestrians passed them, they stopped to watch the stone carvers working on the addition to Cornelius Vanderbilt’s chateau.   “Twice the Prince raised his tightly-rolled silk umbrella and pointed at the Vanderbilt house, at the same time speaking to the Infanta.”

The newspaper noted that the New Yorkers on the street were unaware “that the pretty, golden-haired woman in the sailor hat, whom they almost brushed against, was a Princess of Spain, and that she and the man at her side were the scions of a long line of monarchs, among the Louis XIV of France and Henry of Navarre.”

The pair wandered for an hour and a half, unperturbed by the public.  In the meantime, the Hotel Savoy was the scene of panic as officials searched for the missing couple.  Around 6:00 the Prince and Princess strolled into the lobby and their very public and royal lives resumed.

Three days later the Infanta and her large entourage left the Hotel Savoy for Chicago.  Before leaving, she instructed her secretary to give the hotel manger $500 to be distributed to any servants who had attended to her.  The 20 employees received between $10 and $50, according to the scope of their services.   They were indeed royal-sized tips; the largest being in the neighborhood of $1,400 today.

Construction could now begin on the Hotel Savoy addition.

Two days before Princess Eulalia had arrived, another titled couple checked into the Hotel Savoy.  But they attracted far less attention, just as they intended.

The couple arrived on May 22 and checked in as “R. C. Leigh and wife.”  Later hotel employees would said that they “behaved about the hotel as titled aristocrats, of fine breeding and unusual good sense.  No one suspected that they were not R. C. Leigh and wife, as they had registered.”

In fact “Mrs. Leigh” was Lady Meredith, wife of Sir Henry Meredith.  Richard Cecil Leigh was extremely wealthy and a member of the aristocratic Cecil family—at one time the most powerful of England’s political and social families.  He, too, was married and had several children.  

In the spring of 1893 the two met in Cairo.  Somehow a romance ignited and it appears that while there they plotted an escape to America.  They disappeared from London on May 8 headed for the Hotel Savoy.  Close on their heels was Captain Charles Leigh, Richard’s brother, and a private detectives.  Captain Leigh’s purpose in trailing the adulterous couple was not to dissuade them, but to get business out of the way.   The detective had other goals.

Captain Leigh located his brother on May 27 and they met at least once in the Hotel Savoy regarding a suit in London.  “As the situation was understood at the hotel, the meeting of the brothers closed the incident so far as the London branch of it is concerned” said The Times.

The detectives however, were closing in.  The newspaper reported that “At about that time detectives also located them, and made copious notes as to their behavior.”  On May 29 Richard Leigh and Lady Meredith “left the hotel in a hurry and went to Canada.”

While Sir Henry and Mrs. Leigh, back in London, were apparently irate; the management of the Hotel Savoy was modernly-American in its perspective.  One associate told a reporter “all that was needed was the necessary divorces in that country to allow the elopers to marry and live as happy as they could in this or any other country they may select.”

Pedestrians cross the plaza at 59th Street in 1898.  The entrance to Central Park is, unseen, to the left.  At the far right is part of Mary Mason Jones's "Marble Row."  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
As with all high-class hotels at the time, the Hotel Savoy accommodated both transient and permanent guests.  Among the latter were the esteemed lawyer and former Minister to Austria, John Jay; and the wealthy David Wallace and his wife.  In the depth of the night of March 31, 1894 they would be part of great excitement in the Hotel Savoy.

The hotel was outfitted with the latest in safety technology—electric fire alarms.  Around 3:00 that morning a chambermaid awoke to the smell of smoke.  Well-trained on emergency procedures, she did not panic, but grabbed a shoe and smashed the glass in the alarm box.  Bells began to ring in every room and 350 guests were startled awake.  “They arose as one man and began to act as frightened people do when there is a fire,” reported The Times.

The Fire Department was notified by phone while six policemen from the street searched for the fire with the night clerk.  Some lodgers helped in the search—most rushed through the halls in various stages of dress to the ground floor.

“One young man rushed there wearing a lace curtain which had been hanging in his room. Another appeared in an evening-dress coat, a silk hat, and a pair of black stockings.  Other toilets ranged from a pair of shoes and a nightdress to a full suit of clothes,” said The Times.

The fire was discovered in a closet.  While buckets of water were poured on the blaze, John Jay, seriously ill, was carried to the ground floor.  One person who was not perturbed by the fire was David Wallace, whose apartments were near the fire.

“Mr. Wallace partially dressed himself and stepped into the hall.  People were rushing about, screaming and gesticulating.  Mr. Wallace saw that a closet was afire, but that there were many men, with plenty of water, there to attend it.  He went back to his room, told Mrs. Wallace not to rise, undressed, and went back to bed, leaving those who wished to catch cold in their scanty attire in the corridors.”

The fire was quickly extinguished and the major damage, other than to the woodwork, was to the water-soaked carpeting.

A little over a month later, on May 5, 1894, John Jay died in his rooms at the Hotel Savoy.  His condition dated to September 1890 when he was run over by a cab near Grand Central Station.  “The accident resulted in the general breaking up of Mr. Jay’s vigorous constitution,” explained The Times.  He had moved into the Savoy in the autumn of 1893.

The Hotel Savoy continued to compete with the Plaza for notable guests and residents.  In October 1894 the Savoy was home to international opera star Madame Nellie Melba.  The diva suffered through an attack of influenza here that year.

Over a decade after its completion the Hotel Savoy had not lost its high-class stature.  In 1907 the yearly rental for a “beautifully furnished” suite of a parlor, three bedrooms and three baths was $4,000—around $8,700 per month in 2015 terms.

It was the sort of rent that only families like that of Charles N. Fowler could afford.   He lived here in 1911 with his wife and five-year old daughter.  Their apartment was the scene of a mysterious robbery on January 19 that had all the marks of an inside job.

According to The Evening World the following day, Mrs. Fowler and her daughter were alone in the apartment.  After lunch, Mrs. Fowler removed her $1,000 diamond horseshoe brooch and placed it on a table in the sitting room.  She reclined on the sofa there and fell asleep, awakening around 5:00 to find the brooch missing.

The cultured residents of the Hotel Savoy would have a brush with the less-tony class on June 6, 1920.  Frances Levy was the daughter of Lower East Side apparel manufacturer Joe Levy, known locally as the “Duke of Essex Street.”  The dress and suit maker had garnered a small fortune and was determined that his daughter would be married in style to Harry Levine.

“From all accounts nothing is to be left undone to make this one of the distinctly notable weddings of the year,” advised the New-York Tribune a few weeks ahead of the ceremony, “and the beauty and chivalry of the lower east side will have a day to remember.”

Joe Levy was equally determined to outdo Fifth Avenue in cost and display.  “The east side hears that Miss Levy’s wedding gown is to cost $5,000.” reported the newspaper.  “The ‘Duke,’ it is understood, will wear an eight-carat diamond stud, among other things.”

The Evening World, Monday, May 24 1920 (copyright expired)

By the time of Frances Levy’s wedding, fussy Victorian hotels were quickly falling from favor.   The old Plaza Hotel across the avenue had been demolished and replaced in 1905.

 On December 9, 1922 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that “Negotiations are about to be concluded for the sale of the Hotel Savoy.”  The sale would be just the first in a rapid-fire string.

Real estate operator Frederick Brown purchased the building for $3.75 million.  Only a few days later he sold it to the du Pont family.  It then became property of the Savoy Hotel Corporation, which resold it in May 1925 to the Childs Restaurant chain for $6.5 million.  The New York Times reported “the Childs Company said that they contemplated making extensive improvements on the site.  This was interpreted as meaning that a modern building will be erected.”

Within a week of the sale, on May 25, a public auction liquidated the “furniture, carpets, draperies, silver, china, glassware, pictures and statuary.”

On November 28 that year demolition was announced.  The “famous old structure,” as described by The Times, was to be replaced by a $17.5 apartment hotel 29 stories tall “according to plans prepared by McKim, Mead & White, architects.”

A postcard displayed the new building in 1927.
By the time of its completion in 1927 the new Hotel Savoy rose 33 stories.  It survived until October 1965 when—amid much protest from architects—it was demolished for the new General Motors Building, designed by Edward Durrell Stone & Associates, with Emery Roth & Sons.  The full-block, International Style structure survives.

photo realtytoday


  1. Had never seen the interiors of the original hotel. Quite impressive. It had to be unworldly during the late 19th century as a scattering of mansions were built among the endless vacant lots, saloons, farmhouses, public institutions, etc. while one waited for the rest of the city to expand northward? We all have seen those amazing street & aerial views on your blog of the few palatial townhouses sitting alone among what appears to be acres of rural land and nothing else. Had to be strange to return from the business district or shopping districts on lonely streets up to your mansion which was sitting like Xanadu among the dirt piles, wooden houses, billboards and unpaved streets.

    1. I've always thought about that inelegant those undeveloped plots all around finished mansions must have been. Love your description "sitting like Xanadu."

  2. The "full block International Style structure survives," contributing yet another tall dull building lacking in charm or character to the skyline.

    1. I'm not a fan of towers in general but I think this building does have a distinct and striking style. Unlike the Robert Moses tower in the park residential crap or the concrete/prefab boxy towers we're getting in the outer boroughs now. The unfortunate thing about ultra modern/minimalist or avant garde architecture is that it needs to be very high end and large scale to look good. Kind of like how minimalist avant garde fashion looks best on very tall women and looks a hot mess when H&M tries to knock it off. And then of course these buildings each want to be an iconic standout rather than integrating into the fabric of a neighborhood. It could work when you're building a city from scratch like post-war Asia/South America/parts of Europe. NYC really needs an approach to modern architecture that is about evolution not disruption.

  3. I am looking for photos of the "Savoy Room & Bar", the lobby bar of the Savoy Hilton Hotel as it was known from ~1960 to 1965. I am particularly interested in any photos which show all or part of the Peter Ostuni mural of King Arthur on reverse painted plexiglas panels, backlit, to appear like stained glass.

  4. As always you have provided a great story about a great building. My family held a dual wedding at the Hotel Savoy in 1914.