General Ulysses S. Grant took rooms at the St. Denis Hotel after the Civil War so he could quietly work on his memoirs. The general, however, quickly developed writer’s block and his work came to a standstill.
Mark Twain, whose company had contracted to publish the book, immediately traveled to New York and took a room at the hotel for more than three months. The project was saved.
The comfortable hotel on the corner of Broadway and East 11th Street where Twain and Grant worked on the manuscript was already famous. Opened in June of 1853 it was designed by architect James Renwick whose family owned the property. Renwick was responsible for the magnificent Grace Church directly across the street.
“Miller’s Stranger’s Guide to the City of New York,” published in 1866, recommended the six-story hotel. “It is architecturally one of the handsomest buildings on Broadway, occupying seventy-six feet on that thoroughfare, and one hundred and twenty on Eleventh street. Besides parlors, reception-rooms, and reading-rooms, the St. Denis contains over one hundred and fifty well lighted and ventilated apartments. The hotel is…the frequent resort of wealthy and distinguished foreigners. The ‘up town’ location of the St. Denis is on the most fashionable part of Broadway.”
When Sarah Bernhardt visited New York on her first American tour, she stayed here, as did P.T. Barnum, Colonel William “Buffalo Bill “Cody and Chester A. Arthur. Here Alexander Graham Bell gave his first New York demonstration of the new telephone in 1877.
The hotel got its name from the original proprietor, Denis Julian, who had for years run a famous restaurant on Washington Place known as Julian’s. The land on which it was built had been part of the Brevoort estate for two centuries and became Renwick property as the families merged through marriage. The first-class accommodations included $52,000 in furnishings.
|11th Street Entrance - NYPD collection|
“Quiet gentlemen with their families naturally seek such,” said The Times. The hotel united “the convenience and elegance of the hotel with the retirement of the private boarding-house.”
Unhappily for the St. Denis, the waiters went on strike on April 21 of that year; the worst possible timing. According to The New York Times, the hotel “retained barely enough [staff] for the emergency, and is determined to employ girls rather than accede to the strike.”
James. D. McCabe, Jr., in his 1882 New York by Gaslight, said of the first-class hotels, “They are furnished in magnificent style, and provide every comfort and luxury for their guests at moderate charges.” Yet McCabe warned the potential tourist, “All the New York hotels suffer more or less from impostors or dead-beats. The best houses seek in every way to exclude improper characters, but, in spite of the vigilance of the proprietors, such persons will find their way into them.”
And so it was with the St. Denis. Well-dressed and seemingly reputable guests would sometimes check in with the express purpose of larceny.
In 1878 Sarah E. Biggs and Edward Fuller were arrested on charges of stealing jewelry and wearing apparel from guests at the hotel, as well as forgery. The New York Times said that “Mrs. Biggs, alias Fuller, alias Clark, alias Mrs. Drake, is about 35 years old, of medium stature, dark complexion and hair, and ordinary features. She was attired in deep mourning yesterday, but wore a light veil over her face.”
Her accomplice was 21 years old and, according to the newspaper, had “smooth features and a hang-dog expression.”
Similarly, in 1905 police arrested Alice Lansen who went under the name of the Baroness de Vorte Salmo for grand larceny. Lansen had in her possession two jeweled fans and “considerable clothing” worth $800 which was the property of Mrs. William Slater of Washington, D.C.
Lansen’s husband was humiliated and told a New York Times reporter he was considering suicide over the publicity.
“The disgrace would be unbearable,” he said, “I am noble. My wife is of noble birth. Why do they not leave us along in our sad misery and poverty?”
Police officials were, apparently, unmoved.
In 1891 the hotel was enlarged "by a new and handsome addition which more than doubles it former capacity," and the "latest improvements" were installed. Among the upgrades was a system of fire gongs that were rung to alert sleeping guests of danger.
While still owned by the Renwick family, the hotel was managed by William Taylor and his son from 1875 to 1912. Then, on March 16, 1912 the St. Denis Hotel Company was organized to take it over. The new group spent $52,000 in improvements and new furniture, bringing the hotel in line with the latest Edwardian styles. The syndicate signed a ten-year lease at $4,000 a month.
It would be the beginning of the end of the historic hotel.
Within a year the company filed for bankruptcy, owing $4,000 in back rent. Counsel for the creditors explained that, although there were many resident guests, the northward movement of the entertainment and shopping districts was hurting business.
The redecorated foyer in 1914
The remodeled "Colonial' Dining Room in 1914
|Shortly after this photo was taken, the St. Denis would be stripped of anything attractive. -- photo NYPL Collection|
On November 4, 1927 the owners painted it with orange lacquer as a “jazz touch.”
Today no passerby could imagine the history or importance of the once-magnificent structure on the corner of East 11th Street and Broadway. A purely featureless structure, its colorful history is largely forgotten.
|No hint of the former hotel's glory days remains.|