Monday, April 15, 2013

The Lost New England Hotel -- No. 30 Bowery

The wooden statue of Jimmy Reynolds stands on the roof --advertisement from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the 1830s New York had established itself as an international destination.  Ships from Europe discharged passengers who required safe, comfortable lodgings.  As the commercial district downtown grew and the city’s residential neighborhoods moved further north, hotels sprung up along the thoroughfares.

In 1830 John Jacob Astor began buying up properties on Broadway and Vesey Streets for his magnificent world-class Astor House hotel.  In the meantime, the substantial North American Hotel, a few blocks north, was  already well established.  Sitting on the Bowery at the northwest corner of Bayard Street, it was a handsome Federal-style structure four stories tall.  Deep pedimented dormers lined the  roof line and a cast iron balcony wrapped around the corner at the second floor where French doors provided ample ventilation on sultry evenings.  Its location, across from Chatham Square, provided breezes and a pleasant view.

The hotel was built in 1826 on the site of the 18th century Bulls Head tavern and, more recently, a small commercial building, possibly a grocery, that was destroyed by fire.  Decades later The New York Times would reminisce “The public still traveled in stage coaches and on horseback when the old North American Hotel was built over the ruins of the burned building.”

According to hotel lore, the proprietor noticed a young boy standing against the large tree outside on Bayard Street seemingly unhappy.  The man approached him and learned he had come to the city “to make his fortune,” but had not eaten all day and had no money to buy food.  He needed work.

The boy was named “Jimmy” Reynolds and he started work in the hotel that day.  Before many years he became the proprietor and had a wooden carving of himself leaning against the tree mounted on the top of the hotel. 

(On February 11, 1843 the Portland Transcript published a slightly varied version of the story.  It said that a boy named David Reynolds, around 12 or 14 years old, arrived "some fifty yars ago" and helped a man carry a trunk to the wharf.  From his earnings he bought fruit which he sold under that tree.  From those profits he set up a fruit stand, and eventually had enough money to built the hotel.  The tree meant so much to him and his success that he had the statue carved from it.)
Its success as a lodging house was quickly equaled by its popularity as a meeting place for New Yorkers.  A British tourist was taken aback by the democratic nature of the New York hotels and noted that Americans “of very different conditions and occupations were at ease with one another conversationally.”  Nowhere was that more evident than in the North American Hotel.

By 1834 the hotel was run by “Mr. Montague” and the supper club in the basement was a favorite for the crowds leaving the nearby Bowery theaters.   Not only theater-goers, but the actors and actresses themselves stopped in for after-theater supper—a concept quite shocking to some foreign visitors.

The meeting rooms of the North American Hotel were in near-constant use by workers’ and other political groups.  Throughout the 1830s and '40s newspapers routinely announced meetings of the Working Men’s Party, the General Executive Committee of the Mechanics and Working Men, and others.  The Whig Committee of the Sixth Ward held its meetings here for more than a decade.

Unlike the haughty Broadway neighborhood of John J. Astor’s hotel, the Bowery was by now the center of entertainment where the working class swarmed.   The term “Bowery B’hoy,” or Bowery Boy, was common by 1834 in describing a young blue-collar man who enjoyed a night of hard drinking and fun with his fellows.  During the day street vendors purveyed oysters, hot corn, baked pears and yams and peanuts.  At night Punch and Judy shows, street entertainers like singers, jugglers and sword swallowers, and organ grinders would appear.

The Bowery filled with beer halls, saloons and music halls.  Among the most celebrated was the Atlantic Garden on the opposite corner from the North American Hotel.  The hotel opened its own bar which, partially because of the large number of men attending the political meetings held here, was hugely popular.

Across from the hotel in 1843 was the Bowery Amphitheatre Circus.  It was a hard time for the entertainment industry.  The Financial Panic of 1837 had left the theaters virtually empty and on November 30, 1842 the New York Herald reported that “Scarcely a theatre in the Union is now paying its expenses.”  The newspaper suggested that “Musical entertainments, concerts, etc., are the only affairs of the kind that are patronized.”

Four out-of-work performers, Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Dick Pelham and Billy Whitlock, were sitting in the North American Hotel one summer afternoon in 1843.  The men had all worked in the city during the past season, sometimes alone, sometimes as pairs, but never together as a group.  Among their other performances, they had all apparently done blackface.  Emmett and Brower had appeared at the Bowery Amphitheatre Circus in a bit titled “Negro Holiday Sports, in Carolina and Virginia,” that year.

The group decided to cross the Bowery and audition a “charivari” for one of the Circus’s proprietors.  With no rehearsal and no real planning, they picked up their banjo, violin, tambourine and drum and, according to Emmett “with hardly the ghost of an idea as to what was to follow, [we] crossed the street to “browbeat” Uncle Nat Howes into giving [us] an engagement.”

Following the impromptu audition they returned to the North American and continued what Emmett described as our “horrible noise” in the reading room.  It quickly filled with spectators.   Manager  Jonas Bartlett was among those hearing the new sound and gave them the opportunity to entertain in the billiard room.  It was their foot in the door.

Calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, they were America’s first professional minstrel group.  Their start at the hotel landed them the headlining act at the Bowery Amphitheatre Circus and a place in American entertainment history.

A year later improvements were made to the hotel.  A marble floor was installed and the main entrance was enlarged and updated.  In April 1844, possibly due to the ill health of owner John Emmans, it was offered for lease.  The furnishings were available for sale to the new leaser.

By 1846 Emmans had died and the North American Hotel was offered for sale.  The advertisement in the New-York Tribune on April 7 described the hostelry.  “It is fitted up in the most elegant style, with two splendid bar-rooms in the first and second stories; with a large and elegant ball-room in the rear, with spring floor.  The whole is in complete order, and possession given immediately.   It is now doing the most profitable business ever done before.  To a person of character and acquaintance with the business, it is sure to yield a fortune in a few years.”

Early in 1851 the 200-room hotel suffered some adverse publicity when 23-year old George Robinet died in his room here.  A native of Indiana, he checked into the hotel in December 1850 and began suffering from what the New-York Daily Tribune called “excessive thirst.”  The newspaper said he was “in the habit of drinking six gallons of water daily.”  The Tribune noted on February 3, 1851 “The deceased was very fleshy, weighing nearly 400 lbs., and was publicly exhibited at the North American Hotel until a few days since.”

E. J. Latham promised the obese man that he could relieve his excessive thirst for five dollars.  Latham then gave him a mixture called lobelia, along with “blood root and other medicines, and also an emetic.”

Robinet immediately became very ill, vomiting and becoming delirious.  Other doctors were called to his room, but the patient died.  Latham was arrested and charged with manslaughter while Robinet suffered the posthumous embarrassment of the New-York Daily Tribune’s headline “Death of the Fat Young Man.”

Patrick Fay purchased the hotel in 1855 in a partition sale and rented it to Daniel Moss for a period of 10 years.  Moss redecorated the interiors and reopened it as the Moss Hotel   By now the once-benign title “Bowery Boys” had been taken over by a street gang.  New York’s violent gangs of the mid 19th century were fearless, dangerous and territorial.  Outside of the hotel in 1857 the first of three days of bloody conflicts between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits erupted.

Three months later, on July 2, disorder still reigned.  And when the immigrants of the neighborhood learned that the new chief of police took office without hiring a single Irish policeman, tensions spilled over.  A mob consisting of members of assorted gangs descended on Chatham Square a little after midnight on July 4.   Its intention was to get rid of any new policemen in their territory. 

Several officers were attacked, then the rioters focused their anger on the Branch Hotel nearby at No. 36 Bowery.  Terrorized guests held off the mob until the Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards came to their rescue.  The Rabbits were forced to retreat; although they regrouped and a major battle ensued later in the day that lasted several days and resulted in hundreds of victims, at least 22 of which were dead.

The New York Times would later recall the restaurant that Daniel Moss opened in the basement, saying it “ran all night and did its principal business after dark.  It was frequented by theatrical and circus people, and by the leading representatives of the gambling and pugilistic ‘professions.’”  Moss would say that he had spoken with nearly “every actor and actress of prominence on the American stage” from 1855 to 1865 in the restaurant.”

The hotel was sold and renamed the New England Hotel.  Among its guests in 1863 was song-writer Stephen Foster.  Although his songs like “Oh Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” gained national popularity, he was never highly paid.  His songwriting style was no longer fashionable and in 1863 when he moved into the hotel he was despondent and financially strapped.

Friends and family tried in vain to persuade Foster to leave New York.   A relative from Cleveland even made the trip to try to convince him to return to Ohio.  Henry Foster reported that he was relieved to find that the New England was “a very respectable Hotel.”

The songwriter remained.  Then on the Sunday morning of January 13, 1864 Foster, suffering from a fever, fell in his room.  He struck a crockery wash basin or chamber pot which gashed his neck.  A doctor arrived from four blocks away to find the naked Foster on the floor bleeding.

 Foster’s friend, George Cooper, was mortified when he noticed that the doctor was stitching the wound with black thread.  Years later he recalled:

“Haven’t you any white thread,” I asked, and he said no, he had picked up the first thing he could find.  I decided the doctor was not much good and I went down stairs and got Steve a big drink of rum…which seemed to help him a lot.”

Stephen Foster was rushed by carriage to Bellevue Hospital.  Three days later, before any family members could make it to New York to see him, he was propped up in his hospital bed being fed soup.  Without warning, he suddenly collapsed, dead.

In the pocket of his trousers in his room at the New England Hotel the “Father of American Music” left thirty-eight cents and a scrawled note that read merely “Dear friends and gentle hearts.”

As with hotels then and today, guests sometimes arrived with the intention of committing suicide away from their homes.   The New England Hotel took only male guests and on March 9, 1868 one who checked in only as “Janson” had been here for two weeks.  The 25-year old was found dead that afternoon on his bed, leaving a note for the proprietor on a table.  “To Mr. Johnson, down stairs:  When I am dead in my room, No. 9, please send my valise to Mr. Cummings, No. 256 Broadway.  Yours, Janson.  March 8.”  It appeared that Janson had poisoned himself.

Another self-poisoning was discovered two years later on April 13, when porter James Brady found the body of Dr. Henry Marshall.  Like Janson, the doctor left a note, this one addressed to the Coroner.  He diagnosed his own death apparently in hopes that the Coroner would not mutilate his body.  The New York Times reported that in the note he “stated that he had died of congestion of the brain, and asked that his body should not be dissected.”

On October 5, 1874 Paul Fremont, a sailor recently discharged from the United States Navy killed himself by taking laudanum in his room.  By now the Bowery neighborhood was becoming a bit seedier and the hotel guests a bit rougher.   In 1878 Peter Perez lived here and late in September that year he got in a quarrel with a friend, Jose Garagorta, about the payment of an old loan.  Perez resolved the dispute by stabbing a pocket knife into Garagorta’s neck.

A decade later, on October 9, 1884, C. W. Remington who had lived in the hotel for five years, hanged himself from a gas bracket.  The gas bracket was part of the hotel’s earlier upgrading and was the latest in modern lighting technology.  The innovation proved a problem, at times, however. 

A month to the day after Remington’s suicide, on November 9, A. Kalb from Albany, New York stumbled back to the hotel early in the morning, inebriated.  Around 11:00 the drunken 30-year old was “found insensible in the room, which was filled with gas escaping from the burner, turned full on,” said The Times.  The newspaper surmised “It is believed that in his drunken state he first put the light out and then turned the gas on again, and went to bed ignorant of his danger.”  He was taken to New-York Hospital where he was expected to recover.  The Times headlined its article “The Danger of Drunkenness.”

It was ignorance of gas lighting, not drunkenness, that caused problems for cowboys Alfred Spozatto and Frank Sappi in September 1890.  The two ranchmen, aged 19 and 21 respectively, had never seen gas lights before.  They arrived at the hotel “from the West yesterday,” said The Evening World on September 29, “Last night was the first time they ever stopped at a house with gas in it.”

The boys went out on the town, having blown out the gas light as though it were a candle.  A porter explained “matters to them” upon their return.  “Notwithstanding which they blew it out again,” said the newspaper.  “They are now in Chambers Street Hospital half dead.”

As the nearby neighborhood changed into New York’s Chinatown, related problems arose for police.  Among these was the establishment of opium dens.  One, located at No. 8 Pell Street was begun by Ah Foo and run in 1883 not only as an “opium joint,” according to The Times, but a “house of ill-fame.”  Police kept the house under surveillance for some time; but were unable to get detectives inside.  The newspaper explained that “The doors were kept bolted, and the greatest precautions were exercised in admitting persons not known to the proprietor.”  At last Police Captain Petty had an idea.

He convinced a bartender from the New England Hotel, Charles F. Richardson, to visit the establishment with a woman.  The ruse worked and the impromptu undercover informants reported back.  The captain was told that “the upper part of the premises, a three-story and basement dwelling, was fitted up as an opium ‘joint,’ while the lower floors were used for immoral purposes.”

Richardson’s complaint resulted in the arrest of Ah Foo, “his wife, Jennie, a good-looking white woman,” and prostitutes, drug users and others found in the place.

Sixty-five years after it opened its doors, the hotel at the corner of the Bowery and Bayard Streets shut them for the last time.  The New York Times reported on August 31 1891 “Many an old landmark in the lower part of the city familiar to the eyes of New-Yorkers of past generations has within the last few years been made to disappear.  The last to go until within a fortnight stood on the corner of the Bowery and Bayard Street.”  The newspaper called it a monument “of the time when New-York was renowned throughout the civilized world as the toughest centre of population known to exist.”

The Third Avenue Railroad Company had purchased up the site as the location for a power station to operate its new cable railroad system.  At the time of the writing, The Times lamented that “Now nothing remains of [the hotel] but an expanse of bricks and plaster and protruding foundation walls.

“It gives way now for a structure in which great strength and massiveness, rather than height or architectural beauty, will be reigning features.”

The 1891 replacement "of strength and massiveness" later gave way to a nondescript apartment building -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. The Bull's Head tavern was about 10 lots North at 50-52 Bowery, the building which later became the Atlantic Garden. The whole stock yard complex that the tavern sat on (and sometimes the general area around Chatham Square) was commonly referred to as the Bull's Head. This has often lead to erroneous reporting of various structures on the block being "built on the ruins of the old bull's head" tavern". When it was written in the 1820's that the Bowery Theatre was built on the old Bull's Head that almost certainly would have refered to the cattle market grounds and not specifically the tavern which was still standing. Great piece, Thanks for posting!

  2. The music of Stephen Foster was hardly "out of style" at the time of Foster's death. You imply that his failing popularity caused his financial and psychological poverty. The real story is far more complex. But Foster's songs continued to be popular long after his death, and any new songs would have been met with great acceptance.

    1. I don't necessarily see the implication that you did; but nevertheless thank you for the clarification and additional information. Very helpful.