In 1901 John Jacob Astor, Jr. did what, to many socially prominent New Yorkers, was unforgivable. While three previous Astors had demolished their grand homes to erect exclusive hotels, they did so when the upper-class neighborhoods where they stood were becoming less fashionable.
This time John Jacob Astor, Jr. went too far. He purchased the mansions at the southeast corner of 5th Avenue and 55th Street, demolished them, and began construction of the 19-story St. Regis Hotel across the avenue from “Vanderbilt Row” – the blocks of Vanderbilt family palaces. He betrayed his peers by contributing to the social crime of which New York’s elite bitterly complained: encroachment of commerce into the exclusive Fifth Avenue mansion district.
Astor intended his hotel to be “as convenient and as luxurious as the most expensive private house in the city.” That did not, however, appease the neighboring mansion owners.
The firm of Trowbridge & Livingston was hired to design the structure. The relatively-young firm would go on to design important buildings such as the B. Altman Department Store on Fifth Avenue and J. P. Morgan’s Wall Street headquarters, however the St. Regis would be one of their most important early commissions. The architects opted for the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style that was sweeping the city and country.
The limestone-clad hotel would be festooned with garlands, balconies, French windows and decorative wrought iron railings. An elegant mansard roof, monumental console brackets, and snaking copper cresting added to the Parisian air of the design of a building intended to hold court over “the Queen of Avenues.”
|print from the NYPL Collection|
In 1903 blasting of the solid rock for the 40-foot deep foundation rattled the windowpanes of houses for blocks. Millionaires filed an injunction based on the depth of excavations. They were subsequently disappointed when Justice Clarke ruled in the hotel’s favor.
By the spring of 1904, however, as construction was nearing completion, the neighbors devised another tactic. As The New York Times reported on May 13, “The new hotel is conceived and executed on a scale of sumptuousity quite without precedent. Naturally one of the first requisites of such a hotel is a license to sell liquor. It is evidently incapable of being sustained at that pitch of splendor upon a Crotonian basis.”
The New York State liquor law clearly stated that the consent of the owners of two-thirds of the private property within 200 hundred feet of the establishment was required. It also stipulated that no license could be awarded to a business within 200 feet of a house of worship – and the rising St. Regis sat directly across from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
|The St. Regis, soaring above its brownstone neighbors, across from 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church - NYPL Collection|
Measurements were taken. The lawyers of the neighbors found that property-line-to-property-line the hotel fell within the 200 foot limit, constituting a violation of the State liquor law restrictions. The hotel, however, measured the distance from the main entrance of the hotel to the main entrance to the church, establishing a distance a few feet within the allowance. Judgment was in favor of the hotel and the license was awarded.
While the battle raged on, the hotel opened on September 4, 1904. The Times, intentionally or not, added fuel to the conflict saying “The patronage which the management expects to attract is indicated by the locality in which it stands, the most exclusive residential section of the city.”
The completed hotel cost an astonishing $5.5 million including furnishings. The Palm Room was illuminated by a skylight supported by marble arches and hung with antique tapestries. Seven crescent-shaped paintings were executed by artist Robert Van Vorst Sewell. Critic Helen Henderson split "decorative" and "illustrative" hairs. She complained that while the paintings were “carefully finished” and “exquisitely drawn,” they “defeat the purpose of decoration. They ‘illustrate’ the story of Cupid and Psyche.”
A library contained 3,000 books. Two reception rooms, one paneled in white mahogany and the other in Circassian oak, were decorated with rare European antiques collected by the manager, R. M. Haan. The air throughout the hotel was filtered to remove dust and an electric plant and ice plant were housed in the basement.
“An idea of the decorative scheme of the St. Regis may be had from a description of the banquet hall. Here the walls are of paneled marble of a dull white color. The doors are painted to harmonize with the general scheme, while the spaces between the doors and windows are covered with rich tapestries, the hangings being of yellow and white Venetian velvets,” wrote The Times.
Not one to accept defeat, William Rockefeller stood his ground by purchasing a new mansion nearby at 7 East 54th Street on October 17. “The purchase by Mr. Rockefeller is taken to mean that he and his neighbors have not given up their fight against the Hotel St. Regis liquor license, and it is intimated that effort may soon be made to have the license revoked on the ground that the necessary number of consents from adjoining property owners has not been obtained,” said The Times.
John Jacob Astor responded by purchasing the home of James Everard at 697 5th Avenue adjoining the hotel to the south for $300,000.
In the meantime a smear campaign was started against the hotel. A month after opening stories were sent to newspapers about a bomb exploding in the hotel’s dining room, that guests were required to pay “per foot for filtered air,” that a chocolate eclaire cost “$500 per half portion,” and “it is possible to live on oysters at $126 a day at the Hotel St. Regis.” R. M. Haan complained that “this sort of thing is a positive injury to my business.”
The bad press was reversed on December 1 when Prince Sananaru Fashimi, the head of one of four royal families of Japan, arrived at the St. Regis for a two-week stay. The press covered the prince’s every move and New York society, always impressed by titles, took notice. Four days after the prince’s departure a dinner dance at the hotel in honor of Miss Corinne Robinson was announced by her parents. The debutante was a niece of President Roosevelt and The Times society page remarked that “it will be the first large fashionable affair given at the new hotel which may now compete with the Waldorf-Astoria, Sherry’s and Delmonico’s for patronage of this kind. Miss Alice Roosevelt, who has been in town for a week, will be present.”
Within the month it was announced that “Mr. and Mrs. I. Townsend Burden and Miss Gwendolyn Burden, who returned from abroad recently, are at the St. Regis. Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., wll also make that hotel their Winter headquarters, and Mr. and Mrs. Oliver H. P. Belmont may be there also.”
The St. Regis had arrived.
In April of the next year William Rockefeller realized that while he had money, John Jacob Astor had friends. Senator Saxe, acting on behalf of Senator Elsberg, introduced a bill “for the protection of the respectable hotels.” The bill provided that the section of the liquor law restricting an establishment to be more than 200 feet from a house of worship and to require two-thirds assent of neighbors within the same area “shall not apply to hotels that have 200 rooms above the basement used for the accommodation of guests.” Lawmakers were blunt that the new law applied specifically to the St. Regis.
John Jacob Astor had won his war.
On April 15, 1912, Astor died aboard the Titanic and his son, Vincent Astor, took over ownership of the St. Regis and its sister hotel The Knickerbocker on 42nd Street. Eight years later Prohibition swept the country, dealing a serious blow to the hotel industry. Astor closed the King Cole Bar in the Knickerbocker, removing to storage the famous 30-foot long 1906 mural by Maxfield Parrish, “King Cole and his Fiddlers Three.”
As hard times continued, Astor sold the St. Regis to the Durham Realty Corporation in February of 1927. The company, owned by the Duke family, remodeled the rooms, had architects Sloan & Robertson create an addition on East 55th Street, and relied on the hotel’s reputation as a marketing tool calling it “fundamentally part of Fifth Avenue.” In 1935, after having been on loan to the New York Racquet Club on Park Avenue, the Maxfield Parrish mural was installed in the St. Regis. Helen Henderson again chimed in. “That quaintly humorous panel,” she instructed, “delightful as it is, is illustration rather than decoration.”
|The now-famous 1906 Maxfield Parrish "King Cole and his Fiddlers Three" mural|
By the mid 1960s the hotel was in genuine danger of demolition. The owners leased it in February 1966 to the Sheraton Corporation of America, raising the eyebrows of New Yorkers who considered a chain managing the beloved hotel a sort of sacrilege.
Sheraton reacted with reassuring marketing release a year later. “While maintaining all the fine traditions for which The St. Regis has always been renowned, Sheraton has lavished a king’s ransom renewing its gilt-edged elegance. Expensive furnishings have been brought from France, in the fashion that found favor with two of France’s greatest monarchs. Rich carpets from the Middle East. Multi-faceted crystal chandeliers from Sweden. Ah, yes, the kinds would be a home here. They would not approval at the courtly service ad the magician-like resourcefulness of the concierge. They would dine royaly in a choice of restaurants respected for their grande cuisine and loved for their light-hearted sophistication.”
|Diners in a Sheraton 1967 ad with Maxfield Parrish's 1896 "The Child Harvester" in the Old King Cole Room|
Despite the changes to the grand hotel, it remains an important and cherished fixture on midtown 5th Avenue, what the New York City Landmarks Commission called “one of the most elegant and sophisticated Beaux-Arts style buildings in New York.”