Monday, November 19, 2012

The Lost Windsor Hotel -- 5th Avenue and 46th Street

Baggage entered the 46th Street side (right) and guests entered on Fifth Avenue.  The arrangement avoided "cluttering."  -- photo Library of Congress

Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street had just begun seeing the arrival of grand mansions in 1869.   The former mayor, George Opdyke completed his sumptuous brownstone residence on the corner of 47th Street that year—later to be home to Jay Gould and his family.  The block to the south of the Opdyke mansion contained a small skating pond.  It would be another decade before the white marble St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed at the corner of 50th Street and the great Egyptian Revival-style Croton Reservoir at 42nd Street was still a Sunday afternoon’s carriage drive uptown for most.

But the completion of the new Grand Central Depot that year, just two blocks from Fifth Avenue, meant that scores of travelers would be arriving on 42nd Street with the need for accommodations.   In 1871 construction began on the Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue where the little skating pond had been.  Stretching the entire block from 46th to 47th Street it opened its doors two years later.  Owner John T. Daly took advantage of the now-exclusive neighborhood to market his seven-story hotel to wealthy guests—both transient and permanent.   Nay-sayers warned Daly that his new hotel was too far uptown to succeed; not to mention that it sat squarely within a residential neighborhood making it inconvenient to traveling businessmen or female visitors with shopping on their agendas.

Daly needed a veteran hotelier to run his new endeavor and he found one in Gardner Wetherbee.  Wetherbee had helped manage the grand Fifth Avenue Hotel from 1859 to 1867, and had most recently run the Revere and Tremont Houses in Boston.   In accepting Daly’s offer to manage the Windsor Hotel, Wetherbee went into partnership with Samuel Hawk, creating the business of Hawk & Wetherbee.  Years later America’s Successful Men of Affairs would remember “This was a new and exceedingly handsome hotel, situated in the heart of the fashionable residence section of the city, requiring skillful management, but promising good returns to a firm, competent to conduct one of the finest public houses in the metropolis in a proper manner.”

Gardner Wetherbee, along with Samuel Hawk, would make The Windsor Hotel a smashing success -- "America's Successful Men of Affairs" 1895 (copyright expired)

The book added that the Windsor was “at that time, the most luxurious and aristocratic hostelry in New York.”   The New York Times remarked on the lavish appointments on opening day.  It found the main hall, 52 feet wide and 140 feet deep “with a high ceiling, tastefully decorated.”   Nothing was left out: “The barber’s shop, which is to be fitted up at a cost of some $10,000; the bathrooms attached, the grocery and general storerooms, the vegetable kitchen, and pantries innumerable with linenrooms and bootrooms, are also situated in the basement.”

The main dining room was on the second floor and deemed by the newspaper to be “splendid” with its frescoed ceiling.   So that guests would not be annoyed by interruptions to their meals, there were other, smaller, dining rooms “for the accommodation of late diners.”  Children, of course, dined separately in the children’s dining rooms—“one for those attended by white servants, and the other for such as have colored servants waiting on them.”

An early stereoscope view of the Main Dining Room shows the frescoed ceiling and sumptuous chandelier.

Servants’ accommodations and restrooms were in the basement.

The management was pleased with the precautions against fire.  Throughout the mile and a quarter of hallways there were seven miles of water pipes.  “On every floor are four water plugs in connection with the telegraph alarm, from which a floor could be flooded in case of fire in a few minutes.  There are fire-escapes in the rear at both ends of the building,” reported The New York Times.  The precautions, eventually, would not be enough.

The new Windsor Hotel was a marvel in modern conveniences.  There were 139 bathrooms and every suite had a private bath—a rare luxury in 1873.  The suites also boasted “clothes presses and closets, and every room has a fireplace in it,” according to The New York Times.

It was all reflected in the rent that Hawk & Wetherbee agreed to pay to Daly.  The lease for the first ten years demanded payment of $75,000 per year—around $1.3 million today.   Hawk & Wetherbee proved their expertise and the hotel that was too far uptown was a nearly-immediate success.

Three years later The New York Times still raved.  On December 12, 1876 it wrote  “This hotel is fortunate in having a very large patronage of ladies.  This is due to the elegance and refinement which pervade all the departments of this magnificent establishment.  The grand entrance and rotunda are of such magnitude as to afford abundance of room for many hundreds to assemble.  The same may be said of the large drawing-room, the two adjoining parlors, and the elegant octagon room.”

James D. McCabe, in his New York by Gaslight, called the appointments “palatial.”  The New York Times spoke of its 500 rooms and “the tallest and roomiest corridors and entrance hallways of any hotel in the city.”

A payment envelope reminded guests "All Bills Payable Weekly" -- NYPL Collection

That same year the Spanish pretender to the throne, Don Carlos, stayed at the Windsor for several weeks.  The New York Evening Mail reported on August 1, 1876 “He is so well pleased with all he sees, and particularly with the comforts of the Windsor, that he has prolonged his stay much beyond the time intended.  He expresses wonder that the cuisine and service of the Windsor should be even better than at any hotel in Europe, and often compliments the management upon the quiet and order of that large and magnificent establishment.”

Despite the financial success of the hotel, the original outlay was too much for John T. Daly.  The land was owned by Goelet estate and he owed the family a $200,000 mortgage.  By 1877 his debts, including numerous builders’ liens, amounted to about $400,000.  When he failed to make interest payments on the mortgage, the Goelet estate began foreclosure proceedings.  “His trouble unbalanced his mind,” reported The New York Times, “and he took his life by hanging himself in a barn on Long Island.”

A stereoscope view of the hotel shows the Gould Mansion on 47th Street (far left)

For years New York’s financial wheelers and dealers had made the Fifth Avenue Hotel their unofficial headquarters.   But little-by-little the Windsor became home to the late night meetings and plots.  In 1880 Jay Gould had moved into the Opdyke mansion across 47th Street from the hotel and William H. Vanderbilt was living at the corner of 40th Street.

In 1881 Andrew Carnegie shared a plush suite with his mother here.  Carnegie was then around 35 years old and it was during a meeting in the hotel that year that he became partners with Henry Frick in the coke trade.  

There was another person haunting the public rooms of the Windsor Hotel that year.  For about six weeks in late Spring a man whom The New York Times described as “shabby in dress and erratic in manner” came and went.  Although he never took a room, he invariably asked the clerk “Any letters for me today?”  There were never any letters for the man whose calling card read “Charles Guiteau, Illinois.”

The New York Times reported later that “He became well known to the clerks, who came to look upon him as a sort of nuisance, and ridiculed him not a little.  They described him as a man of slight build, whose actions were of a most peculiar character and conveyed the impression that he was mentally unsound.”

On July 2, 1881 the man who skulked around in the hallways of the Windsor Hotel fired two bullets into the body of President James A. Garfield who died of his wounds eleven weeks later.

Windsor employees felt that the man haunting its hallways in 1881 was unsound.  Weeks later he would assassinate the President.

In 1884 a rumor was spread by Democrats that Jay Gould had used the Western Union telegraph to falsify the returns in the Cleveland-Blaine Presidential election.   Gould got word that an angry mob was on its way uptown singing “We’ll hang Jay Gould to a sour apple tree.”  He rushed across the street and hid out in rooms on the top floor of the Windsor for several days until things cooled down.

By now Samuel Hawk had died and his nephew, also named Samuel Hawk, had taken his place alongside Wetherbee in running the hotel.   It became the choice of the world’s most important and most celebrated names.  Opera diva Nelly Melba always stayed at the Windsor during her New York stays, as did soprano Adelina Patti.  The New York Times noted in 1899 that Patti “always stopped there when in this city and occupied the same suite of rooms on the third floor looking out upon Forty-seventh Street.  She had a private billiard table and was very fond of knocking the ivories about, as also was her second husband, Nicolini."

Heads of state stayed in the Windsor.  The Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro; President Diaz of Mexico; and Presidents McKinley and Arthur were guests here. 

On the afternoon of March 17, 1899 thousands of people crowded Fifth Avenue as the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade filed past the Windsor Hotel.  Around 3:00 a guest lit a cigar in an upstairs hallway and tossed the still-lit match which accidentally caught a curtain ablaze.  Panicking, the man rushed out of the hotel without summoning help.

The fire intensified with unbelievable speed, roaring up stairways and trapping guests in their rooms.  The New-York Tribune the following day said “But the fact remains that the fire could scarcely have burned with more rapidity had the building been constructed with an eye to making one grand bonfire out of it.”  The street below, moments before the scene of carefree celebration, was suddenly one of terror and horror.

In the first minutes of the fire a painting is handed down from the second floor.  Before long the pavement would be littered with bodies. -- photo Museum of the City of New York

Dora Gray Duncan was conducting her dance class of forty boys and girls, aged 5 to 7, including her daughter Isadora Duncan.  The maids of the children sat patiently by watching the class.  Just past 3:00 Mrs. Duncan went to a window to raise the shade.  According to The Sun “As she did so the body of a man flashed past the window.  Then the bodies of two women went dashing down.”

A maid who had just arrived to pick up one of the children, quietly whispered to Mrs. Duncan that the hotel was on fire.  By maintaining calm, Mrs. Duncan managed to safely lead all of the children out onto the street.  Others were not so lucky.

The first of the firefighters arrived around 3:20 and by now guests were throwing themselves from their windows to their deaths on the concrete, amid the horrified St. Patrick’s Day revelers.   The firemen got as many guests and employees as possible out before the heat made it impossible to be inside.  The New York Times reported that “the heads of panic-stricken people protruded from the hotel windows, turning now toward the flames and now toward the sidewalk, and calling for help in tones that made the hearers sick.”

photo Museum of the City of New York

Two more alarms were sounded.  Firefighters, many of them still wearing their parade dress uniforms, hosed down the surrounding mansions to keep the fire from spreading.  Included was the house of Helen Gould, who opened her parlor as a triage center.  The Fellowes mansion at No. 570 Fifth Avenue had already begun burning.

Within an hour and a half, the grand hotel was gone -- photo Museum of the City of New York

Around 4:00, just one hour after the insignificant match was lighted, the central section of the hotel fell in and twenty minutes later the 46th Street wall collapsed.   It would be days before the ruins were cool enough to dig for human remains.  In the end at least 90 people were dead and for over a year the block-long plot of scarred ground—called by The New York Times “the dreary void”—was a reminder to the surrounding wealthy residents of the horrific catastrophe of St. Patrick’s Day 1899.
Workmen sift through the smoking rubble on March 18, 1899 -- photo Museum of the City of New York

On the site in 1901 rose the ebullient Windsor Arcade—a high-class, early 20th century version of the shopping mall named with respect to the grand and tragic hotel.

Many thanks to reader Allen Kaufman for suggesting this post


  1. Wow. A chunk of NYC history I knew nothing about. Thanks.

  2. I remember reading about the Windsor fire and about how someone from the hotel attempted to cross the street to the fire alarm box, only to be rebuffed by a police officer, who, thinking the man was another drunken reveler, told him he couldn't cross until the parade had passed, supposedly delaying any response to the fire.

  3. Thank you so much for publishing this, I am reading it ironically exactly 119 years after it's fact.