Thursday, April 12, 2012

The 1903 Hotel Mansfield -- No. 14 West 44th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By the turn of the century the concept of bachelor hotels had firmly been established.  In 1902, when the Hotel Mansfield was completed at No. 12 West 44th Street, New York City had numerous such establishments where respectable albeit unmarried young men found upscale housing.
The location for the Mansfield was ideal for a bachelor hotel.  West 44th Street was becoming the center of the club district and the Royalton Hotel, built four years earlier at No. 44, had proved the attractiveness and convenience of the neighborhood to well-heeled men.
Designed by the architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Owen, construction began in 1901 and would not be completed until two years later.  Replacing two carriage houses at Nos. 12 and 14, it would rise 12 stories and contain 126 rooms.   Working in the ragingly-popular Beaux Arts style, the architects used restraint in its ornamentation.  The central seven stories, of red brick with limestone quoins along the sides, were undecorated other than the rows of angled bay windows.
A rather elegant three-story carriage house stands next to the newly-completed Hotel Mansfield in 1903; a remnant of when the block was familiarly called "Stable Street."
The street level, however, gushed forth with Beaux Arts embellishment.  The two-story rusticated limestone base featured scrolled French ironwork at the windows.  A carved balcony over the arched entrance was supported by two lusty scrolled and wreathed brackets on either side of a cartouche dripping with floral garlands and carved ribbons.  Elaborately carved supports with snarling lions’ heads graced the third floor cornice.  Above it all was a gently curved two-story mansard.

Supporting a long column of bay windows (and an unfortunate window air conditioner) is a robustly-carved lion head bracket -- photo by Alice Lum
Even before construction was totally completed the Mansfield was drawing attention.  On November 11, 1902 the Seawanhaka-Corinthian Yacht Club held its meeting here in what it called its “city house.”
An early brochure noted that “The site—West 44th Street—was not selected haphazardly.  It was realized that the well-to-do city bachelor free to choose his habitation unhampered by family ties, naturally preferred to live ’in the heart of things,’ yet sufficiently removed therefrom to be assured of comfort and privacy.”  The pamphlet noted that within a block of the hotel were the Bar Association, City Club, Harvard Club, Lambs’ Club, New York Yacht Club, St. Nicholas Club, Yale Club, Army & Navy Club, Century Club, Friars’ Club, Racquet & Tennis Club “and others.”
Each apartment was equipped with an ice box, each was connected to the office by telephone, and for an extra charge the “service of excellent valets” was available.

The upper stories explode in Beaux Arts ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
Admiral William Knickerbocker Van Reypen was appointed Surgeon General of the Navy by presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1906 he was also the head of the Red Cross Society, having succeeded Clara Barton.  Earlier, in September 1905 he arranged a two-room apartment in the Hotel Mansfield for his son, also named William Knickerbocker Van Reypen.  The Yale University graduate was entering his first year at Columbia Law School and shared the apartment with a roommate, E. E. Spalding, who worked in a downtown office building.
The 23-year old admiral’s son was preparing for his mid-winter exams in January.  Despite having been “one of the most prominent men in his class at Yale and at Columbia,” according to The Times, he increasingly he grew nervous and distracted as the test neared.  A cousin, Assemblyman F. D. Wells, said “He told me a few days ago that many of his classmates were extremely clever and that it would humiliate him very much if they should distance him.”
Fearing that he was losing his mind, young Van Reypen visited two “leading brain specialists” on Friday January 26.  But the consultations did not help.  On Saturday morning he left the Mansfield, then returned and lingered around the office area for a while.  When he took the elevator to his second floor apartment he was whistling a tune.
A little while later he had fired a bullet into his right temple.  A note to the family explained that he “believed his death would bring less distress to the family than if he should go mad,” reported The Times.
The wealthy young Vivian H. Egleston lived here in 1915.  A member of the New York Yacht Club just down the street, he no doubt found the location of the Mansfield most convenient.  A year earlier he had been smitten with debutante Frances Peck who was living in the St. Regis with her grandmother Mrs. Thomas Bloodgood Peck.  The two announced their engagement in February.
Egleston’s love for Frances Peck was, perhaps, exceeded by William G. Street’s love for his liquor.  Five years later, in January, the railroad director became alarmed by the passage of the Volstead Act, which would usher in Prohibition.  Street gathered up his alcohol from his apartment in the Hotel Mansfield and locked it safely away in the vaults of the Lincoln Safe Deposit Company at 60 East 42nd Street.
Then he sued to restrain Colonel Daniel L. Porter of the Internal Revenue Bureau “from seizing his private stock of liquors,” as reported in the New York Tribune on January 13. 
The application for a restraining order was dismissed since the 18th Amendment had not yet gone into effect.  United States Attorney Francis G. Caffey explained to Street that he “could avoid trouble with Internal Revenue collectors by removing his private stock to…a government warehouse.”
That the liquor remained in the vaults on 42nd Street can safely be assumed.
At the same time multimillionaire John William O’Bannon was living here.  O’Bannon had run away from home in St. Louis on his 14th birthday and found a job in New York City.   Over time the frugal boy managed to save $30,000 and went into business for himself.  By now his estate was valued at around $15 million and he was president of the Maxim Munitions Corporation and other firms and was adept at the stock market.  On May 26, 1920 the New York Tribune reported that his wealth “has increased $2,000,000 through stock dividends of corporations he had organized and promoted in the last fifty-five days.”
Then, astonishingly, O’Bannon’s mother appeared from St. Louis and began “lunacy proceedings” against her son.   He was removed from the Hotel Mansfield and placed in the Riverdale Sanatorium for forty-five days awaiting his hearing.
Finally, on May 25 a jury heard his case.  During the hearing O’Bannon cried out, “It isn’t right.  I think this whole thing is a farce.  I don’t know who is at the bottom of this.”   The New York Tribune reported that he “was pronounced incurably insane by three mental experts during the hearing.  The physicians at the same time agreed that the incompetent is a remarkable businessman and possessed of unusual memory.”
Five years later the Hotel Mansfield would initiate a major change in operations.  In April 1925 S. R. Real purchased the hotel, promising the National Hotel Review that he would continue operating it as a high-class bachelor hotel.  He soon changed his mind.
By September he had hired Wilson J. Hodges to manage the hotel.  A veteran of the hotel industry, Hodges made an immediate change.  The Hotel Gazette noted on September 24 that “The Mansfield, 12 West 44th Street, New York City, formerly a bachelor hotel, now caters to both ladies and gentlemen.”
Yet the hotel continued to lure wealthy businessmen.  84-year old James B. Ford, Vice President of the United States Rubber Company, whom The Times called a “prominent sportsman and philanthropist” was still living here in 1928 as was Dr. J. S. Swartz, the treasurer of the International Mercantile Marine Company.
That would all change as newer, modern hotels and apartment houses replaced the aging residence hotels throughout the city.  By mid-century the once-proud Mansfield Hotel had become dingy and careworn.  Yet one original tenant lived on until 1962.
On April 25 of that year The New York Times reported on the death of Francis Skiddy Marden.  The former investment banker died in his rooms at the age of 94; the oldest member of the St. Nicholas Society and a member of the Harvard Club for 73 years. 
With Francis Marden’s passing, the last vestige of the old moneyed history of the Hotel Mansfield passed as well.
In the 1960s all traces of the original 1903 lobby had long disappeared.
By 1981 the hotel was, at best, shoddy.  New York magazine said of it on January 19 of that year “It lacks services, it lacks charm, and there’s a generally downside air of pinchpenny circumstances brought on by cigarette-scarred furniture and 40-watt bulbs.”
But with the turn of the new century old, dated buildings were being resurrected as trendy upscale boutique hotels.  In 2004 Brad M. Reiss and John Yoon purchased the time-worn Mansfield and began a two-year renovation.  Stephen B. Jacobs and Andi Pepper were hired to bring the vintage hotel into the 21st century while retaining its historical elements.
Architectural details like the cast iron staircases with mahogany banisters were restored while modern amenities were added.  In stark contrast to the earlier critique by New York magazine, the 2004 edition of the city guide “New York City Directions” remarked “A makeover has transformed a rather mangy midtown flophouse into one of the loveliest hotels in the city.  The Mansfield manages, somehow, to be both grand and intimate.”
Over a century after it opened its doors, the revamped Hotel Mansfield is a fine example of thoughtful recycling of vintage structures in an urban environment.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if this was named for the actor Richard Mansfield?