When this photograph was taken in 1929, the monumental structure was scheduled for demolition. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Born in Rothenkirchen, Germany, Jacob Rothschild arrived in New York City at the age of 13 in 1856, "a fatherless boy," as The New York Times later commented. The boy immediately went to work in a millinery store on Grand Street where he learned the business. He saved his money for ten years, and then then struck out on his own, opening his own small shop.
By the time he retired from the millinery business around 1880, he had amassed a fortune. He now turned his attention to real estate and in 1890 began what would be his crowning achievement in that field. He started buying up the vacant plots along Central Park West between 71st and 72nd Street. Finally, on January 24, 1891, the Record & Guide reported that he had acquired the last of the 12 lots. "By these purchases, Mr. Rothschild secures the block front of 500 feet by a depth on each street of 150 feet. On the plot Mr. Rothschild will erect, it is said, a fourteen-story hotel."
If Rothschild's grandiose plan seemed far-fetched to some, it did not phase him. In May the Record & Guide updated its readers, saying that Alfred Zucker had filed plans for the $1 million "family hotel"--the staggering cost around 29 times that much today. "It will be the most important improvement of years on the west side," said the article.
Construction on the Hotel Majestic took three years. Guests entered the 30-foot wide main entrance on 72nd Street into a marble-lined lobby, or "main hall." The 10,000-square-foot main dining room was on the 71st Street side of the first floor. Also on the first floor were "the usual parlor, drawing-rooms, reception and billiard-rooms, with private dining-room and ball-room," according to the Record & Guide.
The main hall included a stained glass skylight, marble walls, a frescoed ceiling and grand marble staircase. photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Its 12 stories were the equivalent of 14 floors in height. That, of course, required elevators and there were seven of them--four for passengers and three for freight. The Record & Guide described the finishes as being "of the finest description, marbles, hardwoods, bronze, brass and metal work of other kinds." Architecture and Building applauded the arrival of a "first-class family hotel for the upper west side." The article said, "The rooms in most cases will be rented in suites of drawing-room, bed-r0om and bath-room, or of five rooms, as the case may be." In all there were 560 rooms and 268 bath-rooms.
On December 27, 1894 the Hotel Majestic was formally opened with, as reported by The New York Times, "a ball, for which 1,000 invitations were sent out by the guests and management of the hotel." The article said, "The Colonial drawing room, the Empire room, and the large open hall were thrown open for the ball. Music was furnished by the regular hotel orchestra in the conservatory. Supper was served in the Winter garden from 10 o'clock until the end of the dance."
Munsey's Magazine described the massive hotel saying it "is certainly big enough to quarter a regiment." The New York Times suggested that Rothschild intended for the Hotel Majestic to rival "in appointments and appearance" the Dakota Apartments directly across the street. True or not, the two substantial structures formed an imposing gateway to Central Park.
In the background of this postcard of Central Park skaters the Hotel Majestic and Dakota Apartments vie for attention.
The Hotel Majestic accepted both transient and permanent guests. Mrs. Horace Chenery took a suite here in the summer of 1899 on the advice of her doctor, William B. Pritchard, who lived nearby on West 73rd Street.
The 25-year-old's husband worked downtown in the Havemeyer Building. They had been married for three years and "established themselves in a handsome home on Beach Avenue, Larchmont, where they entertained a great deal." In March 1891 Mrs. Chenery had a baby daughter and developed what today we recognize as postpartum depression. The New York Times said, "her illness developed into melancholia in an aggravated form, among the symptoms being a suicidal mania."
Dr. Pritchard recommended she be moved into a suite in the Hotel Majestic "where she could be under his constant care." Two live-in nurses were on constant duty. Each took an eight-hour shift.
At 3:30 on the morning of September 23 Mary Arbuckle was sitting in her patient's room, watching over her. The other nurse, Miss Cox, was asleep. "Miss Arbuckle left the bedside for a moment and stepped into an adjoining room for a glass of water...When the nurse returned to the room a moment later she was horrified to see Mrs. Chenery's bed empty and the window open," reported the New York Herald. She looked out the window to see Mrs. Chenery's body, clad in her nightgown, on the sidewalk.
The tragedy of Mrs. Chenery was, indeed, an exception to the goings-on in the upscale hotel. It was a favorite among the artistic community--most notably musicians. On February 9, 1902, Jacob Rothschild hosted a dinner for the "artists of the Metropolitan Opera Company and several dramatic artists and their friends who are staying at the Majestic," according to The New York Times. It placed the cost of the dinner at more than $61,000 by today's terms. "Favors for the ladies consisted of bouquets of violets and orchids, each bouquet costing $20. The souvenirs were miniature grand pianos, and the menus were of pink satin caught up with pearl tops."
The main dining room. photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The great Austrian conductor and composer Felix Mottl was a guest of the hotel the following year. He had just finished dinner in the grill room in the lower level on the evening of November 13, 1903 when, according to The New York Times, "he heard a burst of sound that made the walls of the spacious lobby echo." Heinrich Conreid, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, had brought the entire opera orchestra into the lobby as a surprise reception.
"The lobby, with the musicians sitting on one side, and gaily-dressed guests almost surrounding them, presented a brilliant sight. Many eminent operatic stars were present, among them Mme. Gadski, Anton Von Rooy, Alfred Hertz, and Andreas Dipple," said the article.
An advertisement in 1904 boasted, "this hotel is singularly blessed with light and air...Every window offers a new panorama of delightful vistas." It noted, "When the Hotel Majestic was erected men said the owner must be crazy to go so far up town. It was the wisest forethought possible. To-day this is the choicest residential spot in America."
In the warm months, guests and New Yorkers in general enjoyed the roof garden. In its November 1899 issue, Munsey's Magazine recalled, "The Majestic was the first hotel to inaugurate a roof garden."
On December 21, 1907 Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma, checked in. The hotel provided two grand pianos for their 11th-floor suite where they remained for more than a year. According to the Mahler Foundation's website, "It was from this apartment that Mahler [in February 1908] heard the muffled drum strokes of a funeral cortege that he later used in Symphony No. 10."
The Mahlers would be among many distinguished company in the Hotel Majestic. Other well-known guests over the years included actress Sarah Bernhardt, operatic tenor Enrico Caruso and novelist Edna Ferber. Lesser-known today were residents like actress Fanny Ward, a sensation on both the New York and London stages at the time.
Jacob Rothschild died on April 4, 1911. In reporting his death The New York Times commented, "The Majestic Hotel was probably the greatest of his building undertakings."
The proprietorship was taken over by Copeland Townsend who made a few, subtle changes. He renovated the roof garden, naming it the Hurricane Deck. It opened on June 18, 1917 and The Hotel Monthly noted, "The Majestic Hotel in New York City employs a social censor to free its dancing floor of undesirables."
The war that was spreading across Europe in 1917 had effects on the Hotel Majestic. On March 12 The New York Times reported, "Declaring that the tense situation between Germany and America makes it imperative that no society of Teutonic origin hold meetings of any nature at this time, Copeland Townsend, owner of the Hotel Majestic, yesterday asked Friedrich Michel, head of the German Society, to cancel reservations for the ballroom of the hotel, where the society has been holding its meetings."
At an earlier meeting in the hotel, Maria A. Stappert, a former Bryn Mawr student, criticized the current German "economic, social and moral conditions." Dr. John A. Mandel, who was in the audience, wrote to the Ministerial Director in Berlin, according to The New York Times, "asking that she be suppressed."
Townsend wanted no more political controversy in his hotel. He mentioned to a reporter, "It strikes me, that if every member of the society is an American, the name of the society should be changed to the 'American Society.'"
He was understandably more welcoming to The American Defense Rifle Club--an organization of women formed to defend the city while its men were away at war. On April 7, 1917 work on installing a gun range on the roof began. The New York Times explained, "The club was organized by Mrs. June Haughton, an expert rifle shot, and it is planned to teach women how to use rifles expertly."
Life returned to normal after the war and the Hurricane Roof was open for dancing again in the summers. The unused southern rooftop gained new life in 1920 when it became an artists colony. On April 18 The New York Times reported, "A group of New York artists are going to establish a 'Bohemia-in-the-Clouds,' and plans and specifications have been drawn up and contracts let for a group of skylight bungalows on the roof of the Hotel Majestic."
Copeland Townsend confirmed the rumors. The article said the "aerial Macdougal Alley will consist of a series of fireproof studios, some to be used only for working purposes and others for homes." Some of the artists who had already signed leases were relocating for the project. Sculptor Prince Paul Troubetzkoy was currently in California, artists Frank Godwin and Ray Rohn were both living in Philadelphia, and illustrator Dean Cornwell was moving in from Leonia, New Jersey. The New York Times noted, "Brinkerhoff, Webster and Briggs will have studio room there, but will live elsewhere."
Guests to the hotel in 1925 would have enjoyed the latest in decorative style.
photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A significant transformation to Central Park West began in 1928 as plans were begun for no fewer than four massive Art Deco Apartment buildings facing Central Park. On December 21, 1928 The New York Times reported, "Negotiations are reported to be well advanced for the sale of the Hotel Majestic." The article added, "the buyers will demolish the structure, which was one of the first hotels erected in Central Park West."
Four months later the Chanin Construction Company announced plans for a 45-story replacement building to cost the equivalent of $239 million today. Designed by Irwin S. Chanin and Jacques Delamarre, the twin-towered Art Deco structure was named The Majestic as a nod to its illustrious predecessor.
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