Monday, July 1, 2013

The Lost Metropolitan Hotel -- 578 Broadway

Well dressed New Yorkers hurry along Broadway in front of the new hotel in 1852--Sarony & Major, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By 1828 the pleasure garden was a long-standing tradition in New York.  The most famous of these had been the Vauxhall Gardens opened in 1767 by Samuel Fraunces (who is best remembered by his Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan where Washington famously said farewell to his troops).  The gardens featured open air entertainment like plays and concerts, as well as restaurant facilities and other attractions.  Most were located north of the city where the refreshing summer breezes relieved their patrons, and included closed buildings for less temperate seasons.

That year William Niblo, proprietor of the Bank Coffee House on Pine Street, climbed on the pleasure garden bandwagon.  In the undeveloped area of Broadway between Crosby and Prince Streets was a tract of land owned by Stephen Van Rensselaer.  On it was a circus arena known as the Stadium which was being used by the New York State Militia for horse training.  Niblo leased the land and converted the arena to a three-story, 3000-seat theater.
Niblo's Garden as it appeared in 1828.  James Fenimore Cooper lived in one of the brick homes next door for awhile.  Valentine's Manual 1828 (copyright expired)

Niblo’s Garden and Theatre was among the grandest of the pleasure gardens.  A private stage brought patrons to the venue.   Here they enjoyed light refreshments while being entertained by pantomime, circuses, plays and opera, tightrope dancers, and other spectacles.  In 1835 P. T. Barnum started off in show business when he exhibited George Washington’s 161-year old nurse here.

On September 18, 1846 Nibol’s Concert Garden was destroyed by fire.  William Niblo struck a deal with a group of investors—including wealthy merchant A. T. Stewart and Stephen Van Rensselaer.    The sumptuous hotel the men planned would include Niblo’s Theatre; a ground-breaking and innovative idea.

Architects John Butler Snook and Joseph Trench were given the commission to design the hotel—a choice possibly suggested by Stewart  considering that the firm had designed his imposing emporium.   The structure would not be completed until 1852 and would stretch the entire block front along Broadway (360 feet) and back along the side streets 210 feet.   Two months before it opened, on June 19, 1852, The New York Times described the structure with Victorian hyperbole.   Saying that although New York hotels had already reached the highest development and that “Luxury and comfort would now appear to be crowned,” the newspaper predicted the Metropolitan Hotel would trump all the others.

Simon Leland and his brother operated the hotel -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

“Nevertheless, the proprietors of the Metropolitan Hotel have undertaken to transcend everything that is in existence.  Sums that stagger credulity have been spent in its erection and furniture.  The building itself is capacious enough to hold the population of a town.  There are some five hundred rooms, one-fourth of which are designed for families, and are fitted up with every luxury of baths, dressing rooms, and parlor.”

The sums that “stagger credulity,” included between $800,000 and $1 million for the building (“the mere glass for the windows cost $35,000,” said The New York Times), $40,000 in carpeting, furniture that cost $50,000, $14,000 in silverware, and some of the largest mirrors ever imported which cost the developers $18,000.  The $200,000 spent on interior decoration and furniture would equate to about $4.5 million today.

The Times said that the “architectural designs are extremely elaborate, and meet the eye at all points.”  The architects produced a six-story brownstone-clad structure of restrained Italian Renaissance influence.  Miller’s Stranger’s Guide for the City of New York said “It is furnished throughout in the most splendid and costly style, having all the accommodations and conveniences that the most luxurious taste could devise.”  Those conveniences included steam heat throughout, a “ventilating process,” and indoor plumbing.  “It is stated that the water and gas pipes, which are carried throughout all the apartments of this mammoth hotel, measure 12 miles; and there are 18,000 yards of carpeting spread over its 400 or 500 rooms,” said Miller's Guide.

The New York Times called the dining room “a triumph of taste.  Its size surprises the eye, and its lavish ornament gratifies it.  The room is not broken up by intrusive columns.”  Over each of the windows was a symbol of the various states.  Food was brought up from the kitchens below street level on dumb waters to a carving “apartment” at the end of the dining room.  The newspaper was impressed with the attention to feeding the guests.  “The inner man is as thoughtfully and generously care for in the kitchen, wine-vault and dining-hall, as above stairs in boudoir and chamber,” it said.

The Metropolitan set the bar for other hotels.  “Up to this era napkins, as a rule, were only placed upon the dinner table; they were now in superabundance at every meal.  Certain tables in the dining-room were, by common consent, occupied by parties in full dress.  Music was introduced at dinner,” reported The New York Times.

The hotel was operated by the Leland Brothers—who would later establish the idea of hotel chains.  Among the clever innovations they devised were “sky parlors” from which well-heeled female guests could gaze down on Broadway and observe the daily promenade of fashionable citizens or watch parades unmolested by crowds.  Large dumbwaiters negated the need for bellboys to lug trunks and suitcases.

The New-York Daily Tribune noted “We enter by the main door, and perceive at the further end of the apartment a number of guests registering their names, the gentlemanly clerks of the house immediately thereafter assigning each his room, while a small army of porters are attacking a huge pile of trunks, carpet-bags and hat-boxes, which in the course of a few minutes they clear away, and stand in readiness for a fresh onslaught.”

The Tribune noted in 1855 that in one week the dining room served 3,221 pounds of beef, 232 pounds of corned beef, 162 pairs of turkeys, 515 pairs of chickens, 56 pairs of ducks, 504 pairs of pigeons, 2,632 pounds of mutton and lamb, 34 calves’ heads and feet, and 56 beef tongues, along with other meats.  The endless list of seafood included 250 pounds of lobster, 394 pounds of codfish, 37 pounds of eels, 78 pounds of salt mackerel, 21,517 stewing oysters, 3,806 frying oysters, 860 pickled oysters, 300 clams, 168 pounds of green turtle, and on and on.

The newspaper listed the staff necessary to keep the hotel operating smoothly.  “Four landlords, four clerks, two book-keepers, one steward, one baggage master, who looks after all baggage and sees after guests departing and arriving; twenty-two bell-boys (colored) to answer the bells and show people rooms, two servants at ladies’ door, one head engineer with two assistants and firemen, one carpenter, one plumber, one painter, one upholsterer,”

The list did not include the wait staff, the kitchen staff, watchmen, porters, chambermaids, janitors, and other such employees.  The 36 waiters in each dining room were drilled daily to ensure that guests were met with the strictest of professionalism.  The entire staff was governed by tight rules “conceived in the right spirit and couched in respectful language, and not in insolent and commanding terms as not unfrequently [sic] are the regulations in large establishments,” said the New-York Tribune.  “Unless for theft or gross immorality no man is liable to be discharged the first time he breaks a rule.  The first degree of punishment is a reprimand; second, a fine of one dollar; third, dismissal from service.  For intoxication while on duty a fine of three dollars is imposed, and a discharged for the second offense.”

The Metropolitan Hotel opened on September 1, 1852 with a “splendid banquet, at which were Senator Stephen A. Douglas and many other distinguished men,” said The Sun.  Another newspaper said “It makes one think of the palaces of the Arabian Nights.”  One reporter said, having seen the marble mantels, rosewood furniture, frescoed ceilings and silk damask draperies, “Suffice it to say it is quite dazzling and confusing.”

A family careful about extra spending could live at the Metropolitan for about $100 a week; a bachelor taking the lowest priced rooms, would spend about $15 a week including board.
The entrance to Niblo's Garden was next to the main entrance to the hotel -- NYPL Collection

While patrons of the 3,200 seat theater entered through No. 578 Broadway, the main entrance to the hotel was at No. 580.   Often the opulent events in the hotel outshone the theatrical productions of Niblo’s.  On December 7, 1855 more than 100 guests filed into the ballroom for a wedding that The New York Times deemed one of “the most fashionable and distinguished parties of the season.”  The bride was the daughter of former Mayor Mickle and the groom the son of Honorable Cornelius W. Lawrence.  Mickle was staying at the hotel for the winter.

“Broadway was fairly blockaded by carriages to a late hour,” reported The New York Times.  Among the guests were senators, judges, another former mayor, generals, “and a very large number of distinguished City families.”

The same year A. T. Stewart acquired the entire interest in the hotel.   He was at the time, according to the New York Herald, worth about $40 million and The New York Times said his income was the largest in New York. 
The grandeur of Niblo's was equal to the interiors of the Metropolitan -- NYPL Collection

In June 1860 New York was captivated by the visit of the Japanese princes and their entourage who were staying “within their princely quarters at the Metropolitan.”   When the party was seen on Broadway in Western attire, the crowds were let down.  “There seemed to be a general disappointment in their personal appearance,” said The New York Times, “and the absence of rich and gorgeous dresses, with which most of the Eastern nations are usually associated.”

The Hotel was appropriately decorated for the arrival of the Japanese dignitaries.  It “was brilliantly illuminated with upwards of 2,000 Venetian lamps, and from early candlelight Broadway, for two streets north and south of the hotel, was filled with men, women and children, to witness the dazzling spectacle.  Over the main entrance to the hotel, the word ‘Welcome’ shone forth in large letters formed by jets of gas, while on either side were pyramids of lanterns extending from the balcony to the eaves of the building, and surmounted by Japanese and American flags.”

The Japanese contingent, worn out after a day of receptions, retired to their rooms.  “A number of the under-officials roamed in the gardens or Niblo’s Saloon, and enjoyed the delicious shade and cool fountain,” said The New York Times.

The Japanese princes were guests of honor at a magnificent ball at the Metropolitan Hotel -- Harper's Weekly, June 1860 (copyright expired)

To honor the esteemed guests as they prepared to depart a week later an elaborate ball was hosted in the hotel by the City on June 25.

A few months later, on October 23, 1860,  the hotel was the terminus of a political procession in support of Senator Stephen Douglas.  The New York Times noted that the hotel “is crowded with guests, among whom are a large number of Southerners.  Of these, some of the more enthusiastic had decorated their windows with Chinese variegated lanterns, while the balconies were thronged with gentlemen, and the windows, everywhere fronting Broadway, were radiant with the eyes and jewels, that sparkled in the light of fireworks and torches, of fair ladies.”  The newspaper said that when the procession reached the Metropolitan, scores of Roman candles were fired off, “and sentiments of Samsonian strength in reference to the perpetuity of the Union, the defeat of Lincoln, the utter crushing out and perfectly overwhelming annihilation of the Black Republicans, were freely, but not obtrusively of offensively indulged in.”

The Spartan Artillery halted in front of the hotel and fired a cannon “which startled the ladies and the gas in the neighboring street lamps, causing the former to scream out, and the latter to go out.”

Even with the outbreak of the Civil War the hotel maintained its routine of “hops,” regularly-scheduled dances.  On January 9, 1863 The New York Times noted that “While we are all supposed to be more or less in a state of anxiety in relation to the cause of the Union at the present time, there may possibly be some confidence derived from the fact that on the occasion of the first ‘hop’ of the season given by the Lelands of the Metropolitan, there was a larger and more richly dressed assemblage than on any former occasion.”  The newspaper reported that at least 700 persons participated, including officers of the army and navy, judges, and other prominent men.  “While observing with glee and general enthusiasm for the dance, it was very difficult to realize that we are progressing in a terrible civil war.  There was nothing in the music to remind us of the call to arms, (in the military acceptation of the term;) neither was there anything in the movements of those ‘who occupied the floor’ to remind us of the tramp of armed men.”

A month later worries of war were again displaced when the wedding reception of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren was held in the ballroom on February 10.  To greet their 10,000 guests, the newlyweds stood on a grand piano.  The New-York Tribune later reported that “The street in front of this hotel was so densely crowded with people that stages and other vehicles were brought to a standstill or obliged to turn off through other streets in order to pursue their way.”
The newly-wed General Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and Lavinia Warren recreate their vows in a studio setting --photo by Matthew Brady,

In the meantime Niblo’s Theatre continued drawing crowds.  On September 12, 1866 “The Black Crook” opened, now considered the first musical play.  It ran for a record-breaking 474 performances.  The play would lay the foundation of musical Broadway theater to come.

In April 1871 the Leland brothers declared involuntary bankruptcy and the furnishings were ordered auctioned off as partial payment to creditors. 

The Metropolitan was quickly reopened with Richard Tweed, the son of William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, as proprietor.   Tweed had spent $450,000 in alterations, furniture “and the most costly frescoes ever seen in this country, “according to The New York Times.  Tweed’s management of the hotel would not last long.  On January 20, 1872 newspapers reported that the Leland brothers, along with “Mr. Garfield of the Metropolitan Hotel,” purchased his interest for $60,000.

Tweed's new dining room, seen here in 1878, would be destroyed by fire -- Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (copyright expired)

One of Tweed’s renovations was a new dining room in an annex.  The old dining room was transformed into a tea room.  In June 1879 the new hall was devastated by a fire.   The hotel placed a notice in the New-York Tribune on June 20 cautioning that “The public is informed that the late fire in the large dining-hall of this hotel will not interfere with the comfort of guests.  The hall was in a separate building, connected by special entrances, and within a few weeks will be restored more splendid than before.”

The notice advised guests that the original dining room “will offer ample accommodation.”

Less than two years later, on January 23, 1881, the dining room was again destroyed by fire.  This time the blaze threatened the entire hotel and theater complex.  “The fire is a repetition of the one which destroyed the same dining-room on June 19, 1879, and caused a loss of $80,000,” said The New York Times.  It spread through the pantry and destroyed five unoccupied bedrooms as well.  The billiard room, Niblo’s Garden and the lunch room beneath the dining room were damaged by water.

Lost in the dining room were $30,000 worth of mirrors, four 16th century Japanese vases, $5,000 worth of furniture and $12,000 in glassware, china and silver.

An unidentified artist captured the hotel in watercolor around 1875 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the end of 1894 the hotel and theater districts had passed the old Metropolitan Hotel and Niblo’s Theatre.  On December 28 The New York Times noted that “While the hotel pays, a series of business structures would, it is believed, pay much better.  The theatre, known as Niblo’s Garden, which is a part of the structure, does not pay as it should.”

The executors of the A. T. Stewart estate contemplated two offers for the property—one of $1.4 million and the other of $100,000 more.   By April 1895 demolition of the venerable structure had commenced.  The Sun and the New York Herald sighed the “hotel and theatre alike giving way before the incursion of business,” and The New York Times remembered its 1852 opening.  “It challenged comparison with any [hotel] in the city, and its magnificent dining room was subsequently the scene of notable banquets, among them being the one in honor of the laying of the Atlantic Cable, which was given in 1857…The theatre has been the place of many notable performances, the large stage making it especially available for spectacular productions, such as the original ‘Black Crook, ‘White Fawn,’ and the Kiralfy pieces.”

On the site of the Metropolitan Hotel rose massive business buildings which resulted in higher profits, but less colorful stories.
photo by Alice Lum

 Thanks to reader William Logan for requesting this post.


  1. George Washington's 161 year old nurse? That seems like a story in and of itself. Do you know anymore about it?

    Great post.

    1. When Barnum was 25 years old he paid $1000 for the services of Joice Heth, an elderly black woman. He printed handbills calling her "unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world." He marketed her as 161 years old and the nurse of George Washington. He made approximately $1,500 per week in ticket sales.

  2. Now that's a stroke of marketing genius. Thanks

  3. My biography of William Niblo, "East, In Eden: William Niblo and His Pleasure Garden of Yore" will be published by the Green-Wood Cemetery Historic Fund on July 4, 2014. On July 12th (Saturday) at 7 pm we will hold the second annual "Night at Niblo's Garen" on the banks of Crescent Water at the Cemetery with circus acts, opera, and a surprise guest entertaining picnickers BYOB. Further information will be available on the Green-Wood website in a few weeks. Meanwhile, anyone interested can contact me at

  4. I have a letter that was written by my gg grandfather in 1889, and it’s on metropolitan hotel NY stationery. You should be able to see it here:

    1. Hi Anne, can you change your settings on your link to "anyone with the link"?