Friday, May 24, 2013

The 1894 Hotel St. Cloud Annex -- No. 143 West 41st Street

photo by Alice Lum
Along with its extensive real estate dealings, the Astor family was familiar with the business of running hotels.    The first John Jacob Astor started the tradition in 1836 with his Astor House—at the time the most opulent hotel in New York at the time.

In 1892 the fashionable St. Cloud Hotel sat at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway.  When it was built in 1868 it was far uptown and considered a risky proposition.   But the owners gambled on potential business from Cornelius Vanderbilt’s ambitious Grand Central Depot which was about to be constructed.  The New York Times later reported that “proved to be the case.”

For over two decades the Rand brothers had operated the St. Cloud.  Now, on October 19, 1892, John Jacob Astor IV purchased the hotel for $850,000—a staggering $19.5 million today.   In reporting the deal, The New York Times noted “In addition to the hotel proper, the property includes two four-story brownstone houses adjoining on Forty-second Street and a narrow vacant plot in the rear on Forty-first Street.”

Astor kept the Rand brothers on as proprietors and the press announced “no intention at present of rebuilding or in any wise altering the property.  It was bought merely as a real-estate investment for surplus funds, in accordance with the well-known policy of the Astors.”

Nevertheless, the pesky 16-foot wide lot behind the hotel was soon improved.  A year later Astor commissioned architect Philip C. Brown to design an annex to the hotel here.   If Brown designed any other buildings in his career, they are undocumented. 

photo by the author
Completed in 1894 the eight-story Romanesque Revival style structure was connected internally to the main hotel.  Brown faced the structure in buff-colored brick and stepped away from the Romanesque style long enough to lavish it with Beaux Arts decorations.  The architect treated the skinny addition with dignity, adding a dramatic three-story arched opening above the second floor.  Decorated with terra cotta, it foreshadows the self-confident theater architecture that would soon flood the Times Square area.

The annex offered additional rooms and rentable semi-public rooms.  As it was being constructed the Knickerbocker Whist Club was incorporated in the fall of 1893.  Organized by Edward A. Smith, Harry S. Williams, John Hopper and J. C. Wilson it started in the Broadway Central Hotel.   The card game had fallen out of fashion for a period, but was suddenly regaining popularity.

On March 8, 1894 The New York Times noticed that “The game of whist has been having a quiet but unmistakable revival not only in this city, but in other parts of the country, this Winter.  The youngest organization in New-York which devotes itself entirely to the game is the Knickerbocker Whist Club, whose rooms are in the Hotel Wellington Annex, at Madison Avenue and Forty-second Street.”

Although the Knickerbocker was the youngest of the clubs, it was among the best.  “The Knickerbockers do not say much, but they go right on winning matches with a regularity which is exasperating to their rivals,” said The Times.

In 1897 the club moved its headquarters to the St. Cloud annex; what The Sun called “larger and better quarters.”  The club managed to have its own private entrance to the building on 41st Street.   The strait-laced Victorian players were quick to point out that there was nothing illicit in their games.

“The fundamental idea of this club is the encouragement of playing whist strictly as an intellectual amusement, no betting of any kind being permitted.”

The Sun commented on the affordable cost of joining the club.  “The annual dues have been fixed at the very moderate sum of $10, no initiation fee, and the rooms will be open to members from 2 to 12 daily.”

A year after moving in, the Knickerbocker Whist Club initiated a startling concept—they invited women.   On February 2, 1898 The Sun reported that “To-night will be the second guest night at the Knickerbocker Whist Club, 143 West Forty-first street, and a large number of women are expected.  The game will be conducted on the Mitchell compass system, and valuable prizes will be given to the women making the best scores.”

The experiment worked.  On February 13 The Sun announced “The Knickerbocker Whist Club has determined to place its quarters at 143 West Forty-first street at the disposal of women players, for their exclusive use every Monday from 2 to 6 o’clock, beginning to-morrow.  Several New York women have arranged to be on hand to organize a club of some kind.  The only expense for the use of the rooms will be the card money, 10 cents for each player.”

The newspaper approved of the forward thinking move that included the feminine sex in the games.  “This is certainly a move in the right direction, and it is an opportunity that should not be neglected by the many women players who have been wishing for suitable quarters in a convenient neighborhood.”

Other rooms were leased as the committee headquarters of the Republican County Committee and the Republican Party in the City of New-York.

In 1902 Astor ordered the demolition of the aging Hotel St. Cloud.  In its place he stipulated a grand hotel that would cost no less than $2 million.  The 16-foot wide annex on 41st Street was allowed to stay; possibly because of its problematic dimensions.

It is tempting to think that the Knickerbocker Whist Club had something to do with the naming of the grand new hotel.  Whether or not, the 16-story Knickerbocker Hotel opened on October 23, 1906, after a full four years of construction.

The first floor of the annex was converted to the service entrance to the new hotel—removing the unglamorous deliveries from the sight of patrons and passersby.    At the same time an attic addition was constructed.  Two handsome copper-clad dormers crowned by peaked pediments were guarded by menacing griffins on pedestals.
photo by Alice Lum
John Jacob Astor died when the R.M.S. Titanic sank on April 15, 1912.  His 20-year old son, Vincent, immediately became one of the wealthiest young men in America, and new owner of the Knickerbocker.  In 1920 he converted the massive hotel to retail space on the ground floor and offices above.  The New-York Tribune mentioned that the property included “a 16.8 foot outlet at 143 West forty-first Street,” but gave no details on any related conversion.

However the annex, too, was transformed into office space.  In 1930 the new publishing firm, Walton Book Co., established it offices here.  One of the first books It published from No. 143 was a new edition of John Marshall’s “Life of Washington.”

The block of West 41st Street suffered indignation throughout most of the 20th century as industrial buildings, many connected with the garment industry, replaced older structures.   By October 1988 when the Landmarks Preservation Commission met to discuss landmark designation for the Knickerbocker, the 41st Street block was decidedly gritty.

During the hearings the owner of the old hotel building objected “to including a small annex on 41st Street,” according to the then-building manager Holly Hunter.
The stone griffins and marvelous copper dormers steal the spotlight from the building's other decorative elements -- photo by Alice Lum
Philip C. Brown’s only known work, the skinny St. Cloud Hotel Annex, survives today probably because of its abnormally narrow footprint.   Despite its arcane location and less-than-gentle use for nearly a century, it retains its dignified posture and its scary griffins on the roof.

 Many thanks to reader Rich Stueber for requesting this post

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