Friday, April 6, 2012

The 1903 Art Nouveau Hotel Belleclaire -- Broadway at 77th Street

Recessed, Art Nouveau windows and a sinuous metal railing graced the street level in 1903

In turn-of-the-century New York City the shops of silversmiths like Gorham and decorators like Louis Comfort Tiffany glistened with Art Nouveau accessories for the home.  Sinuous vines and spilling wisteria blossoms formed vases and tableware and stained glass lamps.  The fashionable home without an Art Nouveau hand mirror or hairbrush was rare. 

But the style never really caught on in New York architecture.  For their staid American clients, architects tended to rely on the safer Beaux Arts or neo-Georgian styles, for instance.  But Emery Roth was apparently unafraid.  In 1902 his exuberant little two-story Art Nouveau hotel at 557 8th Avenue was completed.  And then, a year later, came the grand Hotel Belleclaire—something like New York had never quite seen. 

Located at Broadway and 77th Street, it was a residence hotel; designed for upper class families who preferred to avoid the bother of maintaining a private house.  By 1903 the Upper West Side was nearly fully-developed with eccentric turreted and gargoyled mansions lining the avenues and streets.  Already the elaborate Ansonia residence hotel had risen on Broadway (then called The Boulevard) between 73rd and 74th Streets.  The Belleclaire would provide one more reason for moneyed New Yorkers to move west. 

Construction had begun on the hotel in 1901.  Owner Albert Saxe was familiar with Roth’s work, having hired him to design the Saxony Apartments a few years earlier.  The commission for the Belleclaire was the architect’s first really substantial project and would be career-changing one. 

Although he splashed the building with some Beaux Arts details, Roth heavily relied on Art Nouveau and the related Viennese Succession styles.   The windows of the first floor were recessed, with curved and flowing Art Nouveau mullions and twisting metal railings along the sidewalk that might have been more at home in Paris.  

Although Roth admitted some Beaux Arts details into his design, such as the carved faces and leafy garlands; curving Art Nouveau mullions, part of which survive here, formed the windows. -- photo by Alice Lum

Long Viennese Succession pendants, three stories tall, dangled from the 8th floor cornice.  Here Roth incorporated an American motif – an Indian head – along with the very European detail.  Stone arches, a corner tower and a deep courtyard on 77th Street added to the visual appeal. 

Close inspection reveals the large carved Indian heads above the Viennese Seccession pendants -- photo by Alice Lum

Saxe intended to offer his tenants the latest in conveniences.  On April 25, 1903 The Electrical World and Engineer noted that “contracts have been taken covering a complete long-distance telephone service for every room and working department in the hotel.” 

Earlier, in January, Architect’s and Builder’s Magazine listed the amenities available to the Belleclaire’s residents.  “The ground floor is devoted entirely to the hotel business, and has large and commodious offices, and a beautiful promenade hall extending the entire length, off from which you may enter the Louis XV ladies' dining room, the Italian Renaissance palm room, the Flemish cafĂ©, the Mission library and the Moorish private dining room. 

“Other space is devoted to flowers, cigars, news, telephone and telegraph offices, etc., two passenger elevators, freight elevator for baggage and servants, mail chutes , and in fact every modern up-to-date convenience.” 

Although mainly a resident hotel, the Belleclaire also accepted some transient guests.  Manager Milton Roblee, in an inventive marketing scheme, published a sleek magazine Hotel Belleclaire World for which Broadcast Weekly said he was “entitled to considerable credit for the attractive appearance of the publication.”  Roblee gave no regular schedule for publication, explaining that “The Belleclaire World…will be issued just as often as the activities of civilization demand.” 

The New-York Tribune recommended the hotel, calling it in 1905, “one of the finest hotels in the city, offering exceptional advantages and comforts.  The roof garden is one of its most attractive features during the warm summer evenings.” 

Indeed, Roblee hoped that very feature would deter his transient guests as well as residents from abandoning the hotel during the hot New York summers when the upper class traditionally fled to fashionable resorts.  In a 1905 he argued, “Why go to the country, put up with small narrow rooms, flies, mosquitoes, and a thousand and one little annoyances, when you can enjoy a metropolitan vacation at The Belleclaire and avoid them all…Many of the families now living in the hotel have signified their intention to remain, and a number of people from the South have apartments arranged for.  

“The Belleclaire will be no ‘Lonesomehurst’ during the heated term.  Lieut. Kessler and his exquisite orchestra will be retained.  The roof garden will be so arranged that you may enjoy the cool breezes and delightful view, together with other forms of refreshment.” 

photo by Alice Lum

That same year noted artists were living here like the opera soprano Bessie Abott and well-known actor E. J. Morgan.   The English-born Morgan was most known for his work in epic Biblical plays such as Ben-Hur, The Christian, Quo Vadis, and “The Eternal City.  When his wife found his body in their apartment on March 10, 1906 his death was assumed to be a result of his bad heart. 

It was, rather, a freak accident no one could have imagined.  Two days later The New York Times reported that “in the opinion of Coroner Shraby and Coroner’s Physician Weston, his death was caused by asphyxiation following a fall which pinioned his head between a steam radiator and the carpet.” 

A month later, an incident would focus international attention on the Hotel Belleclaire.  When Russian author and Socialist activist Maxim Gorky arrived in Hoboken on the ship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse on April 10, he was received with overwhelming warmth.  The New York Times reported that “the reception given to Gorky rivaled with that of Kossuth and Garibaldi.” 

Gorky related that now his long-cherished dream to visit the free land of America had come true.  It was a love affair that would be short-lived. 

Wealthy tenant H. Gaylord Wilshire had arranged rooms for Gorky and Madame Gorky in the Belleclaire.  On April 13 more than a hundred reporters and members of various organizations attended a reception his Gorky’s suite where the stylish Madame Gorky was also present. 

The following day, however, The World printed a photograph of the woman with the caption “[the] so-called Mme. Gorky who is not Mme. Gorky at all, but a Russian actress Andreeve, with whom he has been living since his separation from his wife a few years ago.” 

It was a scandal Milton Roblee was not willing to abide.  He forced the couple to leave The Belleclaire.   

“My hotel,” he told The New York Times, “is a family hotel, and in justice to my other guests I cannot possibly tolerate the presence of any persons whose characters are questioned in the slightest manner.” 

The newspaper added, “Mr. Wilshire then hastened to the hotel and pleaded with Mr. Roblee to relent, but to no purpose.  He told Mr. Wilshire that he had not been anxious to have the Russian author in his hotel in the first place, and certainly would never have admitted him had the slightest hint of the circumstances since printed reached him before they arrived.” 

Gorky and his mistress left, but he told reporters, “The publication of such a libel is a dishonor to the American press.  I am surprised that in a country framed for its love of fair play and reverence for women such a slander as this should have gained credence.” 

The incident did not deter upper-class New Yorkers from settling in the Hotel Belleclaire.  Dentist James Goodwillie, who had, according to The Dental Cosmos magazine, “an extensive and high-class clientele,” lived here until his death in 1907.  Goodwillie was responsible for the invention of “a number of useful improvements in dental appliances,” said the magazine. 

Tragedy struck the hotel that same year.  John Whitley was the senior member of J. Whitley & Co, a large steam fitting firm.   In 1900 Whitley’s wife died and the 53-year old shocked his children when he almost immediately married his beautiful and much younger nurse. 

The New York Times later reported “His young wife desired to live well, and he granted her everything she asked.  She had an abundance of jewels and dresses.”  That came to an end on Thanksgiving morning 1907 when Whitley got out of bed around 2:30 in the morning, placed a pistol to the head of his sleeping wife and fired twice.  The millionaire then flung himself from his ninth-floor apartment window to the sidewalk. 

In 1908 the hotel was the first in New York City to have its own fleet of taxicabs.  In the ensuing years it would be home to business executives like Stephan A. McMahon, an officer of The Stepucy Spare Wheel Agency that manufactured “motor wheels;” Alfred and Helen Bishop, owners of Bishops Manufacturing company; Dr. Frank L. Pia, and Louis Stern, president of the Broadway wholesale dry goods firm of Stern Trading Company. 

When Captain S. C. Fean resigned from active sea duty, The Oil Trade Journal remarked in 1918 that he “is luxuriating at the Belleclaire hotel in New York.” 

In 1920 the guests at the hotel were victims of an outlandish marketing scheme by press agent Harry Reichenbach.  In an bizarre attempt to promote the motion picture The Return of Tarzan, he secretly released a full-grown lion in the halls of the hotel and left, leaving the management to figure out how to capture the animal and dispose of it.   

Numa Pictures Corporation’s vice-president, Louis Weiss, released a press statement shortly afterwards, nonchalantly noting that “I wish to emphasize the fact that Jimmie, the principal lion in the S & E state rights offering, 'It Might Happen to You,' is the same lion who was recently registered at the Belleclaire Hotel in New York.” 

In 1925 architect Louis Allen Abramson was commissioned to do a $100,000 renovation of the ground floor.  Roth’s wonderful Art Nouveau windows and outside railing were removed, replaced with storefronts along Broadway.  The entrance to the hotel was moved to the 77th Street courtyard.

That same year the hotel’s president Walter Guzzardi put his foot down.  He announced, said The New York Times on March 4 that “there would be no more high school fraternity dances at the hotel.  This decision had been reached, he said, because there had been more drinking than dancing at many of the student organization ‘hops.’” 

When management found 25 empty liquor bottles on the ballroom floor at the last party, police were called in to end it.  Then, “windows were opened to freeze out the celebrators when they refused to leave.” 

By the late 1940s, the corner dome was still intact; but shops replaced the original first floor windows and the entrance had been moved to the 77th Street courtyard.

By mid-century the hotel was in major decline.  It was around then that the dome to its corner tower was lost. 

As the 1980s arrived the grandeur and elegance of the early decades were gone.  In 1981 a rookie policeman and his partner entered the derelict hotel to find three people shot to death.  One was a twelve-year-old girl shot three times in the head.   Paul Stoller in his Money has No Smell described the hotel as it was in 1991.  “It has ten floors of gloomy hallways, all of which smell of mildew and stale sweat.” 

By the time struggling musician James Morrison lived here in 2000, it was a welfare hotel.  Guests were allowed to stay no more than one month at a time.  So Morrison and his musician would sleep in a movie theater for a night before re-registering. 

photo by Alice Lum

In his Blowing My Own Trumpet, Morrison wrote “On the second floor it looked like there was an informal brothel operating; on the third floor there were a few guys who looked like they were handling a major drug distribution centre or running guns (or both)."

Then, in 2008, the hotel was renovated and upgraded into an affordable neighborhood hotel.  The 240 rooms continued to be, one-by-one, refurbished in 2011 with modern amenities like WiFi, and an exercise room was installed. 

Despite half a century of misuse, Emery Roth’s turn-of-the-century hotel survives as one of the rare examples of Art Nouveau architecture in New York.


  1. As a lifetime New Yorker, I remain puzzled by the sharp decline of the West Side as a fashionable neighborhood and by what caused it and when it began, as evidenced by the changing fortune of the Belleclaire. Even during my youth (1960's-1970's), the West Side was considered decidedly second rate as a residential address and when you met a new school chum who lived there, you immediately assumesd that his family were "funky". Or teachers.

  2. I just discovered your blog and I love it! Been looking through many of your posts and they're awesome, specially Manhattan-homes related. I'm your new follower! =)

  3. Found this website when I was looking up a street musician named Omer Travers. According to a 1986 New York Times story, he lived in this hotel in 1986 when he was arrested for breaking into Yoko Ono's apartment by lowering "himself by rope from the roof to a fire escape of the Castle-like apartment house at 72d Street and Central Park West. He climbed through a window, Sergeant O'Donnell said, into a closet in Miss Ono's seventh-floor apartment." I was just curious as to what type of establishment a nut case like would live in... case closed... wow.

  4. Evidently, Jason Mraz lived there in ~1995 while attending the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. He sings of staying in Room 806 and playing guitar on the street outside of Big Nick's (a downstairs storefront that has since relocated). Here is a link to a 2004 performance at the nearby Beacon Theater:

  5. Do you know when the dome was removed and why?

  6. It's been the site of several fires--one in October or November of 1985, when alas I was staying there. A lot of people jumped from the 4th floor. I nearly did from one of the upper floors. Should have known something was up when I saw the bullet holes in the elevator; I thought it was some avant-garde design. I was later told by the residents that the brothers who owned it then had hired thugs to rough up the old ladies who wouldn't leave; when the thugs came for payment one of the brother delayed it, and walked into the elevator with his family, all I believe they all died in a spray of bullets. I was also told by residents that they believed the other brother had caused the fire in 85, again trying to scare out the residents. There was an article about this in the time, I think in the Post or the Daily News, but I can't locate it now. Strange history that place...

    1. Wow! What memories. I was there that night, I just moved from the third floor wing where the fire broke out to a place upstairs on the seventh floor. I’ll never forget being trapped and having to wait to be escorted out by fireman and standing with a Street in my underwear in a T-shirt. Wow.