|Even during the Prohibition Era, in 1932, the former Speedway Hotel retained its picturesque 19th century charm. photo by Charles Von Urban from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Early in 1893 the Albany legislature passed the Harlem River Speedway bill. Immediately the Park Commissioners took steps to raise the approximate $1.2 million necessary to complete the ambitious project.
Speedways were cropping up around cities throughout the East. Only particular vehicles were allowed to use the roadways—horseback riders and carriages among them. Small or slow vehicles like sulkies, drays, and bicycles were prohibited. With no cross streets, they anticipated the freeways of the 20th century and were excellent for carriage races, earning them the name.
The Harlem River Speedway would run from West 155th Street to Dyckman Avenue. The Park Commissioners intended it to be scenic and by November had offered Frederick Law Olmstead the position of landscape architect for the project.
The Speedway was certain to be an attraction and entrepreneurs were quick to respond. On April 13, 1893 The New York Times reported “During the past month or so the Department of Public Works has had more than fifty applications for permission to locate ‘roadhouses’ on the line of speedway. It is not proposed to grant any such permission; indeed, the continuous line of cliff over forty feet high in many places precludes the possibility of allowing such buildings.”
The determined businessmen simply looked up. As the Speedway was being constructed, they built or converted hotels, inns and roadhouses on Amsterdam Avenue at the top of the cliff. Among them was Michael Seraphine, who leased the four wooden buildings at the northeast corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 185th Street from Alfred Beadleston. The joined, shingle-covered structures were reminiscent of a New England inn and were distinguished by the tall dormers with pointed hoods which punched through the steeply pitched roof. By the time the Speedway was completed in 1898, Seraphine's Speedway Hotel was ready for business.
It was not long before the Speedway Hotel appeared in newspaper columns for all the wrong reasons. In May 1900 three men walked into the hotel and spoke to Michael Seraphine about the possibility of holding a ball there on June 4. Seraphine later said they represented themselves as “officers of the Blackthorne Association.” He gave them a price for the event and they left.
Michael Seraphine was unaware that there was, in fact, no such thing as the Blackthorne Association. And he most likely forgot about the incident until well-dressed revelers arrived unexpectedly on the night of July 4. The following day The Times reported “The residents of Wakefield, on the Harlem Railroad, are mourning the loss of money paid for tickets and advertisements in the journal of the annual ball of the Blackthorne Association, which was to have taken place last evening at the Speedway Hotel and pavilion…It didn’t take place, however, and the ‘officials’ have left for parts unknown.”
Wakefield citizens told investigators that three well-dressed men had left placards throughout the town and sold tickets and ads in the “elaborate journal” for the ball. The newspaper said that some ticket-holders, unaware of the scam, “journeyed all the way to Washington Heights last evening, and were disgusted when informed that the Blackthorne Association was a myth.”
Exactly a year later, on July 5, 1901, the Fort George neighborhood above the Harlem Speedway was suffering an intense heat wave. Temperatures topped 90 degrees by 1:15 that afternoon when dark thunderstorms began appearing in the northeast. Forty minute later “the city was enveloped in semi-darkness,” according to one newspaper, as the storm reached the city.
By 2:08 the temperature fell to 75 degrees and cyclone-force winds and rain struck Fort George. The next day The New York Times reported that the previous rainfall record, set on September 23, 1882, was 6.17 inches in 24 hours. “The proportionate rainfall yesterday knocked this record into a cocked hat,” said the newspaper. At one point the downpour was 4.56 inches per hour—equal to 54.72 inches in a day.
The Times said “Fort George, near the head of Manhattan Island, afforded a splendid target for the exercise of the gale…unfinished buildings were blown down, verandas were ripped off of hotels, trees were uprooted, and giant limbs twisted off of trunks like toothpicks, and hundreds of booths and sheds were razed to the ground or picked up and dumped into the neighboring woods as if the structures had been made of cardboard.”
The people who fled into the Speedway Hotel for shelter were doubtlessly terrified when the building seemed threatened to collapse. “Another hotel to lose its veranda and to be generally wrecked was the one at One Hundred and Eighty-fifth Street and Amsterdam Avenue, owned by Michael Seraphine,” reported the article.
By 1905 the New-York Tribune was unhappy with the garish and possibly vice-ridden stretch of Amsterdam Avenue where the Speedway Hotel was located. That summer an investigative reporter toured the area. He reported his findings on June 5:
“The new Coney Island is Fort George…For more than a quarter of a mile the east side of the avenue is a continuous line of dance halls, Raines law hotels [essentially brothels], shooting galleries, side shows and catch-penny shops of all sorts, in flimsy buildings which hang over the bluff. Nearly every place has from one to four noisy barkers exhorting the crowd to eat, drink and amuse themselves.”
Saying that “the word has spread among those who want a ‘wild’ time that everything goes at Fort George,” the reporter turned his attention to Michael Seraphine’s operation. “A little further on is the Speedway Hotel, operated by an Italian. The hotel part seems to be in the basement and in frame buildings at the end of the hotel proper. There is the usual dance hall, with its throng of half intoxicated men, girls and women. Those who go to dance and not to drink soon find their presence unwelcome.”
Interestingly enough, on April 17, 1905, nearly two months before the Tribune’s visit, The City Record documented the fact that the Police Department had appointed Officer F. E. Ehardt specifically as a Special Patrolman “for M. Seraphine, Speedway Hotel.”
Nevertheless, the determined reporter was back less than two weeks later to see if officials had rectified the problems; making a point to show up on a Sunday. On June 19 the newspaper wrote “A visit paid to Seraphine’s Speedway Hotel, at 11:15 p.m. after a waiter had been arrested, showed the effect of the prompt and drastic action. Each person who was drinking had before him a regulation sandwich.”
The reporter’s sarcastic remark referred to the Raines Law, which allowed the serving of alcohol on a Sunday, in a hotel, if the patron was ordering food. But he found something even more scandalous going on in the Speedway Hotel. “Several girls in short dresses were seen in these resorts.”
After operating the Speedway Hotel for years, Michael Seraphine purchased the building from Alfred Beadleston in January 1906. He died in February 1916 and his obituary proudly remembered that he was the “founder of the Speedway Hotel.”
|photo by P. L. Sperr, November 3, 1934, from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The Seraphine family maintained ownership of No. 2508-2514 Amsterdam Avenue for years. Eventually four individual storefronts were carved into the ground floor. Then in 1949 the quaint shingled property was razed to be replaced with a dormitory building for Yeshiva University, completed in January 1950. By now the Harlem Speedway had been renamed the Harlem River Drive.