Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The 1891 Holland House -- 5th Ave. at 30th Street

At the turn of the century, handsome carriages wait outside the fashionable Holland House Hotel -- NYPL Collection

Swiss-born restaurateur Gustav Baumann managed Kinsley’s Restaurant in Chicago, touted by The Evening World as “the best eating place in that city,” until 1890.  But, the newspaper noted, “Seeking a larger field, Mr. Baumann looked over New York.” 

Gustav Baumann indeed found a larger field.

By now most of the owners of the grand mansion on Fifth Avenue below 34th Street had moved northward.  The thoroughfare remained exclusive, however, with the elegant Delmonico’s Restaurant at the corner of 26th Street and the grand Fifth Avenue Hotel at 23rd Street. 

Baumann partnered with another Chicago restaurateur, H. M. Kinsley to build the most majestic hotel in New York City.   Brownstone mansions were demolished at the southwest corner of 30th Street, just south of the Astors’ twin mansions, where architects Harding & Gooch would design a stunning new structure. 

The 11-story hotel maintained the reserved dignity of Fifth Avenue with restrained ornamentation.  A grand portico at street level would welcome the well-heeled guests.  Shallow bay windows at the third through fifth floors allowed increased airflow to otherwise stuffy rooms.  But the interiors of the new Holland House Hotel would steal the show.

Two years before the opening of John Astor’s magnificent Waldorf Hotel on the site of his father’s mansion, the Holland House was the last word in luxury and elegance.  When the 2,000 invited guests walked through the door for the grand opening on December 5, 1891 they were dazzled.  Baumann and Kinsley had based the décor on the original Holland House Hotel in the Kensington section of London.

The New York Tribune praised, “The magnificence of the hallway at the Fifth-ave. entrance is a good illustration of the furnishings in other parts of the building.  The walls are of Sienna marble.  The main staircase, which ascends from the centre of the main hallway to the parlors above, is also of richly carved Sienna marble.  The ceiling near the staircase is decorated in silver.”

A large tapestry provides the background for the marble Grand Staircase -- NYPL Collection

The café was decorated, according to The New York Times, “in Louis Quinze style.”  The salmon-and-gold painted ceiling was supported by a long row of columns and “In spite of its size--25 by 50 feet—the dining hall seems delightfully cozy.”  The Tribune noted that “Electric lights in crystal globes hang from oxidized silver chandeliers above every table in the room.”

On the same floor were drawing rooms in white and gold, and the “gilt room”—an Elizabethan-style banquet room--towards the rear which was an exact reproduction of the Gilt Room in the London hotel.  A buffet room on this level was done in Italian Renaissance style.

The Gilt Room was an exact copy of the room of the same name in London's Holland House hotel -- NYPL Collection

The main dining room was on the third floor, fitted with mirrors around the room.  Over each was a reproduction Wattean tapestry. 

W. & J. Sloane had provided the custom carpeting for the 350 guest rooms which The New York Times said “are all beautifully furnished and decorated.”    There was a staff of 180 “below stairs” where, among the marvels of the hotel, was a cellar stocked with $350,000 worth of wine.

The show-stopping hotel cost around $2.5 million and its furnishings another $450,000.  It was owned solely by Mrs. J. Van Doren, a wealthy widow who had inherited her fortune from her father.  She leased the operation to Kinsley and Baumann for a handsome $145,000 for the first five years of the 15-year lease.  “After that time the rental is to be increased,” noted the New York Tribune.

The ivy-covered Marble Collegiate Church shares the block with the Holland House -- postcard Library of Congress

Most of those employees who worked “above stairs” wore simple dark blue uniforms, while the footmen wore full livery and the hallboys and elevator operators wore bright blue with red and white cord.   For the privilege to work at the Holland House a new employee paid for his own uniform—just about three weeks worth of wages.

Baumann and Kinsley did not hold back when they published an advertisement in King’s Photographic Views of New York City.  “A marvelously beautiful house in the swellest quarter of New York,” it gushed.  The ad noted “An exquisite Italian Renaissance building…Elaborate elevator service.  Every modern appliance in all the details of construction and equipment…The most perfect restaurant in the world.”

To enjoy the luxuries of the hotel, guests would pay $2.00 and up per night for a room—about $46.50 today.  The hotel would see the comings and goings of the most important guests in the world—presidents, politicians, and royalty.  One of the most celebrated visits was that of the Duchess of Devonshire on the night of March 29, 1901—at least her portrait visited.  

Years earlier—in 1876—the American thief Adam Worth had stolen Thomas Gainsborough’s masterpiece The Duchess of Devonshire—perhaps the most famous painting of its time--in London.  The criminal mastermind would become the inspiration for Professor Moriarty of the Sherlock Holmes novels.  Unfortunately for Worth, his ransom negotiations never went far and he retained the painting for a quarter of a century, often carrying it rolled up in an umbrella or in his suitcase.   When the priceless portrait was retrieved in 1901, it spent the night in the Holland House before starting its voyage back to England.

The hotel was the starting point for an eagerly-awaited annual event.  Each Spring, four-horse coaching outings, called Tally-ho parties, would leave the hotel and head northward up Fifth Avenue to Central Park in what the New York Tribune deemed “grand style.”    Wealthy New Yorkers, dressed in their finest, crowded into large coaches for the outings as less fortunate residents and tourists watched from the sidewalks.

Well-dressed participants in front of the Holland House prepare for a Tally-Ho party -- NYPL Collection

In February 1902 a famous French artist staying at the Holland House incited a stir.  Because of his high regard in the international art world The New York Tribune chose not to reveal his name.   After dining alone, the artist was “lingering over a cordial” and “decided to show his approval of the meal and service by drawing an elaborate sketch on the immaculate linen cloth which covered the table.”

In France, the artist was accustomed to having his sketches recognized as a valuable token of appreciation.   The drawings were cut from the table cloths, framed, and hung in a prominent place in the café.   And so, after the waiter asked him to please not mark up the table cloth, the artist continued sketching his Parisian scene.

The New York Tribune reported that the artist explained “I make you a very fine sketch, to which I attach presently my own name.”  The waiter was not moved.  As the famous artist continued his work, the waiter informed the head waiter who had the artist “deposited on the sidewalk.”

The enraged artist made his way across Fifth Avenue through the traffic.  The New York Tribune said “His rage hardly permitted him to speak, but at last he succeeded.  ‘Pigs!’ he cried, and he spat at the hotel through his teeth.”

The wealthy clientele of the Holland House attracted a less savory sort—thieves.   In the Spring of 1902 a brooch valued at $10,000 was stolen from the room of Mrs. R. H. McCormick, of Chicago, the wife of the United States Minister to Austria. 

Although the hotel had superb security personnel, sometimes the crooks appeared in Holland House uniforms.  Patrick Bolan was a porter here that same year and he supplemented his salary with jewelry taken from guest rooms.  His criminal career was cut short after Mr. and Mrs. Matheson of Huntington, Long Island, stayed overnight on April 4 after attending the theater.

The following morning Mrs. Matheson discovered that her pigskin jewelry case was missing, along with the $12,000 worth of jewels.   Later Patrick Bolan entered a Bowery pawnshop and asked for $35 for a necklace that the pawnbroker recognized as being worth about $2,500.    The broker called police and Bolan was taken to the Jefferson Market Court.    When he was searched police found two gold rings—one set with a large opal and surrounded by diamonds, the other set with three large rubies.  

Police then searched Bolan’s room on Houston Street.  The porter had been a busy boy.    Among the jewelry found there were four gold watches, rings, and jeweled chains.

Pliny Fisk, a wealthy banker, was not just a guest at the hotel, he lived here.  On New Year’s Day morning in 1903, around 6:40, Fisk was awakened by a noise in his parlor.  Because his valet customarily entered the suite around 7:00 each morning to prepare the banker’s clothes, he thought little of it.  But when he heard the rustling of papers around 15 minutes later, he grew suspicious.

Fisk burst into the front room to find a well-dressed man rifling through his desk.  On the floor was a bundle containing jewelry and clothing.   Although Fisk sprang at the thief, he was overpowered.    The Evening World reported “Being a small man, Mr. Fisk was getting the worst of it when he broke loose from the thief and ran down the hall in his pajamas, shouting that there was a thief in the house.”

After much commotion and the somewhat shocking appearance of Pliny Fisk on the first floor of the Holland House in his torn pajamas, the thief was apprehended descending the grand staircase.   He was Charles Dean, otherwise known as Nick Moran, who had already served eight prison terms.  The World was astonished that the near-crime could have happened at all.  “The most interesting feature of Dean’s attempt to rob Mr. Fisk is that it was made in the Holland House.  If there is a well-guarded hotel in the city, it is the Holland House.”

The World provided a sketch of Fisk and the crook -- January 3, 1902 (copyright expired)

Thefts, however, were relatively rare.   But one somewhat sordid activity was not so rare; a hotel accommodation that was definitely not advertised.  Years later Howard Moore would recall his employment in the hotel as switchboard operator in 1905.  "My most frequent customer was  the house detective, a handsome man whose chief function, I soon learned, was that of pimp, providing high-class ladies of the evening for gentlemen who could afford to pay one hundred dollars a night.  This involved much telephoning.”

A postcard view up Fifth Avenue in 1905 shows the rival Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (with the conical tower).

In October 1912 the hotel was a hive of security as President Taft stayed here, shortly after the assassination attempt on Roosevelt in Milwaukee.   On the morning of October 16 the President’s party—his wife, brother Charles, his daughter and Mrs. Taft’s sister—had breakfast in the Holland House dining room then headed for Grand Central Terminal.

“The President and his wife, on their way from the door of the hotel to the automobile passed through a guard of half a dozen policemen.  Secret Service men and detectives watchfully weaved among the persons standing near.  Two Secret Service men got into the car with the President and his wife.  Seven other members of the Secret Service and Detective Bureau boarded another car.  Ten motorcycle policemen were on hand to act as an escort,” reported The Evening World.

In a scenario that foreshadowed today’s Presidential security, Fifth Avenue was shut down as the motorcade passed up Fifth Avenue.  The Evening World noted that “the police officials heaved sighs of relief when he was gone.”

In 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act, prohibiting the sale of liquor.  The new law appeased the temperance movement, but had other unexpected ramifications.  Thousands lost their jobs in New York City alone—bartenders, tavern owners, brewery workers, and others.   Restaurants and hotels, unable to survive were forced to close.  And so it was with the Holland House.

The 30th Street area was no longer the center of wealth and newer, more modern hotels in more convenient locations uptown lured well-to-do guests away from the aging hotel.  Prohibition was the last straw for the Holland House.

Other than a brutal roof addition and the loss of the portico, little has changed in the former hotel's outward appearance -- photo by Alice Lum

On July 4, 1920 The New York Tribune noted that three of New York’s resident hotels, including the Holland House, had given way to business.   The article remembered that “The Holland House claimed Marshall Field as one of its regular patrons.  Ambassador Jusserand was among the European notables who had a preference for this hotel.  Probably because of its name, visiting Dutchmen to this country patronized the Holland House more than any other hotel.”   The newspaper added “its last days brought forth much of sentimental reminiscence.”

Some of the hotel’s elaborate interior decorations were incorporated into a renovation of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut that was taking place at the same time.   The magnificent Gilt Room, the café, the grand staircase, everything was gutted from the Holland House as the building was renovated into office space.

A close look reveals the intricate geometric carvings along the 9th floor -- photo by Alice Lum

The exterior was restored in 2003.  Yet with its grand portico shorn off and storefronts installed at street level, the once-splendid hotel is easy to pass by.   But astoundingly, very little has changed to the Harding & Gootch’s limestone upper façade—even the carved panel over the entranceway survives.    Once ranked among the most luxurious hotels in the world, the Holland House now serves a much humbler purpose.


  1. Replies
    1. ha ha. you're right. A "hansom cab" is a vehicle. I was complimenting the carriages on being "handsome." Perhaps I should change that to "elegant" or another less confusing adjective! Thanks!

  2. Hello! This is a strange question, but family tradition has it that my g-grandfather worked at the Holland House, possibly as manager, in the early 1890's. He's also said to have worked at the Biltmore, but that's not possible, as it didn't open until 1913 and the family was in Philly by 1900. Anyway, is there any way to find the records of staf for the Holland House? I'm so curious about the time spent in NY.