Monday, October 18, 2010

The 1894 Hotel Gerard - 123 West 44th Street

Photo NYPL Collection

Once Charles Frohman built the Empire Theatre at Broadway and 41st Street in 1893 the development of the entertainment district in Times Square was on.

As the theatres cropped up, developers William Rankin and Alexander Moore seized the newly-created opportunity. That same year they commissioned little-known architect George Keister to design a smart, residential hotel that could conveniently house well-to-do tourists and long-term occupants involved in the theatre.

In 1894 Keister’s hotel was completed. The tallest building in the area, it was meant to impress. A sophisticated blend of styles – Renaissance, Gothic and Romanesque – it rose 13 stories with bay windows, arches and balconies. Prominent, steep gables, reminiscent of Hardenbergh’s Dakota Apartments of a decade earlier, flanked central, exuberantly-decorated dormers.

The 362-room Hotel Gerard attracted the well-heeled, as intended. In January 1898 Colonel and Mrs. Richard Henry Savage celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in the banquet hall. High-ranking military officials attended, as well as dignitaries from Russia, Siam, Austro-Hungary and Germany. The room was the site of similar impressive gatherings for years – such as the Baltimore & Ohio’s grand dinner for 250 in 1914.

Fortune, however, would not smile on the Hotel Gerard for long.

In 1916 a fire in the kitchen ousted 350 guests in their Edwardian night clothes into the street and caused $10,000 in damages. Some trapped guests clambered over the roof of the adjoining theatre and down through the skylight. The New York Times reported that “For half an hour after the fire the orchestra looked like a refugee camp.” The women, the paper said “were almost helpless through fear.”


Although the hotel remained a favorite among the theatre set – actors Albert Phillips, Arthur Burckly, character actress Josephine Williams (who lived here 25 years) and playwright Augustin Machugh all long-time residents – the hotel was attracting a seedier clientele.

In 1921 Harriet Pendleton Hunt, “of a well-known Cincinnati family,” was arrested in her room for passing a worthless $10,000 check. On October 29, 1923 a shoot-out among convicted bank robbers took place in the ninth-floor corridors. One escaped convict, 23-year old Thomas J. Gillen, was shot three times in the stomach while six others escaped.

More trouble came for the hotel, now called the Hotel Langwell, in 1928 when Metropolitan Opera diva Mme. Marie Rappold was drugged by a thief using a passkey to her room. She reported $75,000 worth of jewelry stolen. And in 1932 resident John Evans, whom The New York Times deemed “a thug,” was arrested for pistol possession and assault.

The hotel became the site of repeated suicides. Here William James Henderson, one of America’s most influential music critics shot himself; as did Washington Seligman, the brother of Mrs. Benjamin Guggenheim. Several female guests, by the 1940s, threw themselves from their hotel windows.

During the Depression, the Langwell was lost to foreclosure and sold by the Harlem Institution at auction in 1934 for $585,000. Twelve years later when it was sold again the building was cited for numerous fire hazards as the property continued to decline. Once again, in 1950, it was taken by foreclosure and sold for $700,000.

As the Times Square area eroded, the once-proud hotel fell into decrepitude. Apartments which at one time boasted libraries and sitting rooms were now broken up to tiny single-room occupancy warrens. On January 25, 1969 a raid on the Langwell seized over $1 million in pornographic tapes.

By the time Seymour B. Durst owned it in the 1970s, it was a squalid, welfare hotel called the 123 Hotel. The New York Times complained in June of 1973 that “the city's Human Resources Administration, through its welfare arm, is placing hundreds of drug addicts, mental cases and other unstable people into some 20 seedy hotels in the Times Square area, creating sanctuaries for thieves, pimps, prostitutes and muggers who, the police say, prey on pedestrians in the Times Square district.”

With the renaissance of Times Square in the 1990s came a reprieve. In 2007 the building was renovated and restored by Korman Communities as AKA Times Square – a post residential hotel of 105 suites, including duplex penthouses with terraces.

When the building was landmarked in 1982, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that “As in 1893, the Gerard dominates West 44th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  The handsome facade with carefully executed brickwork and curving bays and the striking gables and dormers make the Gerard among the most prominent buildings of the theater district.”


  1. I have a butter pad from Hotel Gerard, NY. What is its value?

  2. Great article - what a place! I'm the author of "MAMA ROSE'S TURN: The True Story of America's Most Notorious Stage Mother," about Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc's mother, Rose Hovick. Rose was set up for a robbery at the Langwell Hotel in the late 1920's. Before she was famous, Gypsy Rose Lee got a nice write-up in the New York papers for thwarting the thieves with a well-placed kick. What a rowdy clientele!

  3. Varina Howell Davis, widow of President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and her daughter Winnie resided in the Hotel Gerard before the turn of the 20th century when she moved to New York after her husband's death in 1889.

    1. I was delighted to finally track this down and going to visit it on my next trip the this fall. A student of history and friend of a Living Historian who portrays Varina Davis at Civil War events and give programs. Although Varina lived in a number of apartment houses in New York, this was her last residence. To some it was strange the the president of the Confederacy of the War Between the States would live north of the Mason Dixon Line, least of all New York, but it was a place where she could live anonymously.

    2. I lived in this building in 1988 with several flight attendants. We lived in the 13th floor and affectionately called the building "stew zoo""

    3. Is it known which room she occupied, and if it is available to book. Would make a most interesting base for an exploration of Stanley White's early 20th Century New York.

  4. In 1969, commercial (consumer) level tape technology did not yet exist. Did you mean 1979? By that time, the adult VHS business was in full force....

    1. those "tapes" were apparently reel-to-reel, Newspapers in 1969 would not have anticipated coming technology and simply referred to "tapes."

  5. I also lived in this building from 88 until 99. Lived in 3 different apartments. 6E,4B and 7J

  6. Katherine SanderlinDecember 6, 2018 at 1:04 PM

    I also lived in the building from 2002-2005, apartment 7G. It had already been fairly renovated by was a doorman building and felt quite fancy...however, there was an escort service being run of the 7th floor, and when a john was murdered, the women who were waiting for their next call ran out the front door, tied up together and mostly naked...this fact kept our rent down...

  7. Wow! During my ancestry search, I stumbled across this helpful article; my g-g-grandfather is William Rankin, and his son John (my g-g uncle) was the hotel proprietor in 1920. I suspect he was there for at least some of the dramatics you have outlined above, but not sure for how long. Thanks for filling in the history gaps!

  8. Varina Davis did indeed live at the Gerard which she seemed to love. My husband's great grand father was a young Irish immigrant who worked at the hotel and Varina befriended. She employed him as her valette. We have several letters she wrote to him or letters of introduction/reference for him. She loved NYC and theater. Her grandfather was a governor of NJ and had family in the North. She was not for the Civil War and felt the South would never win. She was a good woman and judged no one based on their socioeconomic status. Southerners (some) judged her harshly and for several reasons she was never fully accepted by the entire southern pedigrees. While in NYC she became good friends with Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses.