East 28th Street between 5th and Madison Avenues in 1904 was the perfect location for a posh tourist hotel. Just two blocks north of the Madison Square Garden and close to public transportation it was, as it would be advertised, “convenient but quiet.”
The Prince George Hotel was designed by Howard Greenley who trained under Carrere and Hastings then went on to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His Beaux-Arts training would be reflected in the new hotel.
His 14-story hotel, which would receive a substantial addition to the north in 1912, was built of red brick on a rusticated, two-story limestone base. The terra-cotta and stone façade embellishments were restrained and attractive.
It was on the inside that Greenley pulled out all the stops.
Drawing from a variety of styles and periods, he produced lush public rooms and hallways. The Ladies’ Tea Room, or Palm-Room, featured pastel trellised piers, illuminated glass clusters dripping from faux vines on the arched ceiling, a Rookwood fountain and murals by George Inness, Jr.
The Tap Room
The quaint English Tap Room was rustic and oak-paneled with a beamed ceiling, Windsor chairs and wrought iron light fixtures hanging from chains; while the piece de resistance was the Ballroom. Renaissance-style murals, elaborate plasterwork, herringbone oak floors and 18-foot coffered ceilings exploded in brilliant primary colors touched with gilding.
The Architectural Record of 1905 was impressed. It used the Prince George to illustrate the proper way to decorate a hotel. Howard Greenley, it said “went about it in the right way.”
“The designers and builders of other apartment hotels in New York City would do well to visit the Prince George Hotel, so as to learn how to combine economy, propriety and good taste in the decoration of such a building,” the Record suggested.
The first hotel in New York City to provide a private bath in every room, the Prince George became a favorite among tourists. While New York society still entertained at the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria, the Prince George hosted celebrated names like Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell.
The hotel enjoyed remarkable success throughout most of the 20th Century. Well into the 1960s it was a destination for tourist families attracted by its affordable rates and convenient location. Refurbishing replaced Edwardian furniture with sleek “blonde-modern” pieces and canary-colored upholstered valances matched the draperies.
By the 1970s, however, the hotel had fallen on hard times and the aging building became a welfare hotel in the 1980s -- before long one of the most notorious and dangerous in the city. Prostitution, drug dealings, muggings and other crimes rooted at the hotel forced every business in the area, with the exception of one bank branch, to close.
At one point The New York Times referred to the Prince George as “hell’s embassy in Manhattan.” On July 17, 1988 a three-year old boy was severely beaten at 3:00 am by his guardian, a 44-year old female resident, when he refused to panhandle for her. It was the second time in four months that a child was beaten while involved in panhandling by an adult staying at the hotel
Residents reacted with resignation. “Bad stuff is always happening in there,” one woman told The Times. “They should just shut that place down.”
Another resident then sighed, “Then there’d be a lot of homeless people. Where they going to go? What they going to do? They ain’t got no choice. That’s the problem.”
Children of the 500 homeless families housed there, called “hotel kids,” nicknamed rooms “the crack room” and “the pot room.” The glorious Main Lounge was painted white and used as a basketball court. Graffiti covered the hallways.
Finally, in 1990, the savaged hotel was emptied of its residents, closed down and abandoned.
After it sat empty for seven years, the Prince George was purchased in 1996 by Common Ground Community, a ground-breaking not-for-profit organization bent on restoring dignity and livelihoods to the homeless, mentally ill, and people with AIDS. The hotel had severely suffered.
The on-site project manager, Brian Keenan, compared the former showplace to “a haunted house.” Aside from the cosmetic damage of graffiti misuse, there was substantial water damage. Restoration experts Beyer Blinder Belle were brought in to oversee the restoration of the public rooms and renovation of the hotel to residential units.
At a cost of $39 million in State, Federal, City and private money, and with help from organizations like the Preservation League of New York State and New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Prince George became home to 416 efficiency apartments for low-income workers, earning between $13 and $30 thousand a year, as well as special needs residents. When opened in 2000, it included a computer room, art studio, offices for social workers, a clinic, and common lounges. Job training counselors, health services, psychologists and therapists were provided to “make it easy for people to succeed.”
The restored Ballroom, formerly the Main Lounge - photo courtesy princegeorgeballroom.org
In 2004 restoration of the nearly 5000-square foot Main Lounge -- now called the Ballroom -- began. Staff from the Alpha Workshops employed and trained people with HIV/AIDS to help in the restoration of the severely water-damaged plaster and paint. Students from the Brooklyn High School for the Arts also assisted in return for training.
Meanwhile, students from the Parsons School tackled the former Hunt Room. Here the devastation to Greenley’s robust English-style interior was so complete that restoration was impossible. They group designed and constructed an entry foyer and gallery space, now the World Monuments Fund Gallery for special exhibitions.
The restored Tea Room - photo courtesy princegeorge.org
Howard Greenley’s beautifully-restored public spaces are leased for private and corporate functions, generating revenue for the Common Ground Community’s efforts -- $800,000 in annual rents from the Ballroom, alone. Completed in 2005, the renovation is one of the most remarkable examples of recycling historic properties in the city.