Monday, August 19, 2013

The Lost Waldorf-Astoria Hotel -- 5th Avenue at 33rd Street

When this postcard was printed horse drawn vehicles still traveled along Fifth Avenue and the hyphen was not yet expected between "Waldorf" and "Astoria" (although it was between "New" and "York")

The heated family feud between William Astor and his aunt, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, came to a head in 1890.  Living next door to her was no longer possible for William.   The near-twin brownstone mansions his father, John Jacob Astor II, and his uncle, William Backhouse Astor, had built were separated by a wide common garden.  But that garden did not provide enough separation; indeed only an ocean seemed wide enough to distance Astor from his domineering aunt.

Caroline Astor reigned supreme over New York society in the 1890s.  Her mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street was the scene of annual balls for three hundred or more of society’s most elite.  The quiet of her refined home was interrupted only by the gentle clop of carriage horses on the paving stones of Fifth Avenue.  Before moving permanently to England her nephew would devise his final revenge.

William briefly toyed with the idea of erecting a stable on the site of his father’s house; then came up with a more lucrative idea.  He commissioned Henry J. Hardenberg to design a massive high-end hotel next door to his Aunt Caroline’s staid mansion.  Ground was broken in November 1890 and Carolina Astor’s life immediately changed.

Caroline Astor's venerable brownstone was dwarfed by her nephew's new hotel -- photo Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY
For three years Caroline Astor’s house was shaken as the nerve-racking construction continued.  After the grand opening on March 24, 1893 she was forced to share the block with carriages and hansoms and her sidewalk was crowded with the comings and goings of rushing travelers.

William Waldorf Astor’s project embodied more than mere reprisal.   The real estate-savvy millionaire came from a family of hotel owners and he recognized the profit-making potential of the site.   Business was already inching nearer and nearer to the 34th Street neighborhood and a luxury hotel north of the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 23rd Street would be welcomed—at least by businessmen and travelers if not by the neighbors.

The 13-story hotel dwarfed Caroline Astor’s venerable home and was recognized as the last word in opulence.  Hardenbergh’s creation had 530 rooms and 350 private bathrooms.  The sumptuous public spaces were immense and of the more than $3 million total cost, $800,000 was spent on interior fixtures and furnishings—about $18.5 million in today’s dollars.

The New York Times commented on the architecture, the upper stories of which were slightly reminiscent of the architect’s Dakota Apartments on Central Park.  “The building has thirteen stories, but its walls are so broken up with gables, balconies, and recessed construction, that its great height is imposing, and no monotony of tall, coffin-like outline wearies the eye."

Astor hired George C. Boldt, manager of the Bellevue and Stratford Hotels in Philadelphia, to run the Waldorf.   Boldt personally approved the furniture—most custom made by W. & D. Sloane; some of the designs of which were drawn up in Boldt’s own office.

“Duveen of London made much of the elaborate furniture for the most splendid apartments,” reported The Times on February 13, 1893, as the hotel was nearing completion.  “All the china was made in France.  All the glass to be used in the hotel, except for that for the servants, was made by Baccarat of Paris.”

Astor pulled out all the stops in decorating the interiors to guarantee that his was New York’s most elegant hotel.  The main entrance hall rose 21 feet and boasted Sienna marble pilasters with solid bronze capitals.  Off the entrance hall was the garden court filled with full-grown palms and flowering plants.  The German-inspired black oak-paneled café on this level, for men only, featured unusual lighting fixtures.  “The lights in this room will spring from stag-horn torches held by carved figures of the Tyrolerweibschen, or Tyrolean women,” said The Times.  The cost of the carvings in the café alone was $38,000.

The beamed ceiling of the main reception room was hand stenciled -- photo Library of Congress
Several of the public rooms drew on European models.  The main dining room was a reproduction of a great hall in the palace of King Ludwig of Bavaria.  Black marble pillars with green veining lined both sides of the room.   The ceiling was decorated with three painted panels by Crowninshield of Boston.

The Ladies' Reception Room was a reproduction of a Marie Antoinette apartment -- photo Library of Congress
The Ladies’ Drawing Room, off the dining room, was a “perfect reproduction of an apartment of Marie Antoniette,” said The Times.  “It is oval in shape, with recesses.  The woodwork is of white enamel and upon the walls are plate-glass mirrors.  The ceiling in this room is a canvas painted last year in Paris by Will H. Low.  Its subject is the birth of Venus.”  Low told The New York Times writer that he considered this painting his “magnum opus.”

A corridor fireplace features an inlaid clock.  Marble pilasters, mosaic floors and Empire furniture complete the luxurious setting -- The American Architect and Building News, September 17, 1895 (copyright expired)
The Turkish salon, decorated by Herter Brothers was also on this level.  The floors and walls were of marble mosaics and the woodwork was teak and satinwood.   “The woodwork is trimmed with copper, with passages from the Koran inlaid with silver,” reported the newspaper.

The ballroom was intended to dazzle.  Fowler of New York was commissioned to paint the ceiling which, in three panels, depicted figures of classical dancing girls.  The furniture was gilded by French artists.  At the end of the room was a conservatory.  The entire ballroom wing could be closed off from the common areas when leased for a private function.

On the second floor were the “state apartments” and thirteen private dining rooms, reception rooms and dressing rooms.   The sumptuous accommodations were designed “for the proper reception of very great personages” and Boldt insisted that they “are not to be rented for the permanent occupation of anybody upon any consideration.”

The state apartments included a drawing room, a “great dining room,” a breakfast room, secretary’s room, two music rooms and ten or more bedrooms and offices.  The drawing room was decorated in the style of Henry II with antique Flemish tapestries.  The music rooms were Louis XVI in style and the bedrooms “French.”  The breakfast and dining rooms were “in pure Adams.”  Boldt furnished the built-in china cabinets in the dining room with his personal collection of china, which he had insured for $35,000.

Interestingly, Astor had the original ceilings and mahogany woodwork and furnishings of his former mansion installed on this floor in what were called the “Astor dining rooms.”

The upper floors contained both transitory and permanent living apartments.  “Of all these rooms, no two have the same furnishings or decorations,” stressed The Times.  “Little gilded upright pianos, made expressly for this place, are found in many rooms.  Every room has a large closet.”

To enjoy the luxury of the new Waldorf Hotel guests would pay a minimum of $2.50 per day (about $60 today).  “From this minimum the rents for single rooms and suites will run up to substantial prices,” said the newspaper.

William Waldorf Astor was no fool.  The upper-floor corridors running south-to-north led into dead end brick walls.  The entrance on 33rd Street was several steps above the sidewalk level, seemingly higher than necessary.   The designs which seemed odd upon the hotel’s opening would make sense later.

If Astor was no fool, neither was his manager.  Before the doors were thrown open to business, Boldt arranged for a glittering charity event to be held in the ballroom on the evening of March 14.  A concert to benefit St. Mary’s Free Hospital and the Saturday and Sunday Hospital Fund was arranged.  The event was patronized by leading New York ladies.  Boldt realized it was a way of luring the cream of society into the new hotel built as an insult to Mrs. Astor.  One thousand tickets were printed and were available at the homes of some of Manhattan’s best-known socialites (Caroline Astor’s name was not on the list).  The Times noted “Besides these, nearly 400 other ladies prominent in local society have expressed their wish to be known as interested in the occasion.”

The Waldorf was open only a month before labor problems ensued.   On April 17 a group of waiters told reporters that they “had to work sixteen hours a day for $60 a month, and had to provide their own dress suits, costing $45 each.”  They also complained about the distribution of tips, complaining that forty men worked principally at answering bells “and had little chance to gather tips.”

Almost simultaneously, waiter William Prince got into a disagreement with George Boldt.  When the Duke of Veragua took a suite of apartments in the hotel, Prince saw the opportunity to garner large tips.  Instead, Boldt provided the Duke four waiters from the café as his personal staff.

Prince told The New York Times, “So I went to Mr. Boldt and said: ‘If I am not good enough to wait upon a Duke I will go.  I have waited on the Prince of Wales and the King of Naples.’  Then I told him that I and my men objected to sorting out ladies’ soiled clothes and to sending them to the wash.”

George Boldt took care of the problem immediately.  He fired William Prince.  Not immune to employee complaints, however, he also immediately discontinued the practice of male hotel staff sorting female guests’ soiled laundry.

Another labor-related problem came up during that first month of operation.   In 1893 men of all social strata prided themselves on their muttonchops, their moustaches and, in some cases, their beards.  George Boldt insisted that the hotel hackmen—the drivers of the horse-drawn taxis—be clean shaven.  The new rule did not go down well with the men.

On April 10, 1893 The New York Times ran a headline above the story of the hackmen’s meeting the night before.  “To Save Their Whiskers—Waldorf Hotel Hackmen Are All In Arms.”   The newspaper pointed out that all the men present wore facial hair.  “The genus whisker, like most of nature’s more beautiful works, has many species.  They were all on view last night.”

The drivers agreed, in the end, that they would not shave.  “What we want,” said the Chairman, “are shorter hours, larger pay, and whiskers as short or long as we like.”

Sunshine flowed into the Palm Garden through golden-tinted stained glass -- The American Architect and Building News, September 17, 1895 (copyright expired)
In the meantime, Caroline Astor attempted to ignore the massive hotel next door.  But by the fall of 1894 her pride gave way.  On November 4 The New York Times reported “the announcement that a huge hotel is projected for the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street has been received without surprise.

“The mansion which now ornaments the corner is the one occupied for so many years by Mr. and Mrs. William Astor and their children.  It has been the scene of numerous brilliant social functions.  A quarter of a century ago, the man who would have predicted its demolition within fifty years to make way for trade would have found no believers.”

Caroline’s son, John Jacob Astor, began construction of a gargantuan double mansion across from Central Park to house his mother on one side and him on the other.   And feud or not, the Astors valued income more than familial pride.   Negotiations between John and William resulted in a new hotel, the Astoria, with connecting corridors to the Waldorf.  William Waldorf Astor’s blind hallways now made sense, as did the elevated 33rd Street lobby.  Because 34th Street was slightly upgrade, the lobby of the Astoria would be level with that of the Waldorf.

Henry J. Hardenberg was back to design the harmonious new structure.   As it rose from the site of Caroline Astor’s former mansion and gardens, business continued as usual at the Waldorf Hotel.

In January 1896 the routine of society balls and dinners was interrupted when The Ladies Home Journal rented the ballroom as a picture gallery.  Nearly 200 drawings done for the publication by well-known artists such as Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur B. Frost and Eric Pape were to be exhibited for free for three days from the 14th through the 17th.   It was a novel idea; yet it posed specific problems for the exhibitors.

“The problem of utilizing the dainty gold and white dancing room of the Waldorf for a picture exhibition was one requiring no little invention and skill for its solution,” said a newspaper.  “The contract prohibited the driving of a nail, or the disfigurement in any way of the apartment.  As a result, a false wall of much strength, mortised and put together with screws, has been constructed, electric lights have been arranged, and by much forethought and careful preparation, every timber being fitted to its proper place, the whole structure was put up in short order, and subsequently decorated with attractive hangings.”

On April 28, 1897, as the Astoria Hotel was in its last months of construction, John Jacob Astor perhaps offered an olive branch to his cousin.   That night a magnificent ball was held at the Waldorf in honor of Ulysses S. Grant.    The Times reported that “The floor was a brilliant sight.  Again mere citizens were disregarded.”  The first couple the newspaper noted was “Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor.”   Jack Astor had finally stepped foot into his cousin’s hotel.

Despite that gesture, the new Astoria Hotel was a conspicuous attempt to outshine the Waldorf.  Two weeks before the opening, the newer building was still crowded with some of the nation’s most important mural artists.  “The artists have been at work upon these paintings, which are unusually important and interesting examples of mural decorative work, for some months past,” said The Times on October 3, 1897.  The two ceiling paintings for the ballroom, executed by Edwin Howland Blashfield, measured 65 by 44 feet.  The subjects were “Music” and “The Dance” and incorporated 28 and 12 life-sized figures respectively.

Charles Yardley Turner was given the commission to execute the frieze of the Astoria restaurant which would continue into combined restaurant of the Waldorf.  Turner lined the walls with “seated or kneeling female figures holding or playing musical instruments.  Those on the north end are boys carrying birds, peacocks, guinea hens, and roosters.  The female figures on the Fifth Avenue side, as well as those on the west wall, hold bunches of grapes and wild flowers.”

The two hotels were seamlessly designed to appear as one -- photograph Library of Congress

On November 1 the doors to the new 16-story Astoria Hotel were thrown open.   George C. Boldt would co-managed both hotels; however it would be some time before the hyphen was inserted, cementing  relations between the two hotels, if not the families.

Like the Waldorf, which The Times said was “now dwarfed by its big connecting sister hotel,” the Astoria drew on historical models.  The Ladies’ Reception Room was “Pompeian,” and the main dining room “Italian Renaissance.”  The ceiling of the dining room was 21 feet high upheld by Russian marble columns.   The garden court opened off the dining room, an extension of the Waldorf palm garden.   Two stories high it was ringed by marble balustrades.

photograph from the NYPL Collection
The Astor Gallery stretched 102 feet along 34th Street “and follows in decoration and furnishing the famous ballrooms of the Hotel Soubise of Paris,” reported The Times.  Twelve panels painted by Edward Simmons depicted the four seasons and twelve months.  Leading off the Gallery was the Louis Seize-style myrtle room for private functions like weddings.   There was also a “Colonial Room” on this level.

The ballroom was meant to impress.  Anticipation built as guests traveled through increasingly dramatic spaces.   Visitors climbed the ballroom staircase to the two-story ballroom foyer.  From the foyer ran the ballroom promenade, 95 feet long, at the end of which were the doors to the ballroom.

Once inside, the guests were engulfed by a staggering space.  The ceiling was three stories above the floor.  “There is not a pillar or column in the entire room,” reported The New York Times.  “The room is finished in old ivory, picked out with gold, while the curtains and furnishings of the two tiers of boxes are of crimson plush.  There is a movable stage on the south side of the room, with a proscenium which can seat an orchestra of 100 musicians.”

More than 1000 persons could be seated on the ballroom floor, while two tiers of boxes could handle 250 more.   
A vintage postcard depicts the Ballroom set up with chairs.
The collaboration of two feuding cousins was a phenomenal success.  The Waldorf-Astoria became synonymous with wealth and luxury in hotels.   The long marble corridor that connected the two buildings earned the nickname “Peacock Alley.”  Here men in silk hats and women in pearls and plumed millinery strutted among potted palms for the mere purpose of being seen.

The Waldorf-Astoria overtook Delmonico’s and Sherry’s as the place to entertain.  And Boldt kept up with the times.  He initiated Monday-morning musicales, a trend that caught on with society and he installed ping-pong tables for women when indoor tennis became the rage.   He brought in telephones, dumb waiters for room service, pneumatic tubes for rapid mail delivery, and instituted the “floor clerk.”

Society women took on two new routines: lunching out and high tea.  Both were best done if one was seen in the Palm Garden.  Tables here were booked sometimes weeks in advance.   Unescorted women meeting for lunch or tea was made possible only by the forward-thinking actions of George Boldt.

photograph NYPL Collection

In 1912 he told a reporter “I was the first man in New York to make it possible for a woman to come into a New York hotel alone.  The day the Waldorf opened, this fear of hotels ceased.  Look at any big hotel corridor now and you will find it jammed with women, more than half of whom have come alone to the hotels to keep appointments with friends, make visits, have tea or attend some social function.”

As World War I drew to a close, the Waldorf-Astoria hosted over 2,000 affairs a year from dinners for royalty to card parties.  Guests scored a social coup when the maitre d’hotel addressed them by name. The hotel, which was now taking in profits of $1 million per year, had 1,385 bedrooms and 500 bathrooms.

In 1928 the Waldorf-Astoria celebrated its 35th anniversary by decorating the lobby with baskets of flowers and flying flags from every flagpole.  But flowers and flags could not stave off the inevitable.  By now the Victorian trappings were severely out of date as modern hotels rose throughout the city.

By the end of the year the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation had purchased the “site” in a deal estimated at between $14 and $16 million.  On May 3, 1929 the last guest walked out of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, ending an era in belle époque history.  Within a few weeks demolition crews were ripping down the grand hotel.  The Palm Garden, Peacock Alley, and the mural-walled Dining Room fell under the wrecker’s ball.

The final indignation came when architectural residue--marble statuary and columns, bronze fittings and other elements—were illegally dumped into the Atlantic fifteen miles off the coast of New York.

In the place of the once magnificent Waldorf-Astoria Hotel rose the equally magnificent Art Deco Empire State Building.

Empire State Building photograph taken by the author


  1. I am having trouble orienting myself in the photograph taken of the hotel at its corner: the brownstones lining the street beyond the hotel on the left would seem to indicate that as the Fifth Avenue front. Yet the canopied entrance and what seems to be streetcar traffic are on the right side of the photograph. And it appears that there is a precipitous drop in the street on the right side of the photograph as if substantial excavation work was in progress. Do you know anything about that?

    1. The main lobby of the combined hotels stretched from 34th to 33rd Streets--so the canopy is indeed the 34th Street entrance to the Astoria. The photograph is almost the identical perspective as the one with the Astor mansion. The construction is, sadly, the demolition of the white marble Alexander T. Stewart mansion and the excavation of for the new business building foundation.

  2. Hi Tom - yet ANOTHER great posting of pictures and text - very informative! As I was reading through it, part of my brain started wondering: "such opulence, such grandeur....what happened to the material when it was eventually torn down?" And you being the great blogger you are, included the answer! Awesome!

    Let me know if you know what happened to the material from Stanford White's MSG (

    Continue the great work!


  3. Magnus -
    I think that you are right and the brownstones are on Fifth, south of 33rd. The canopied entrance on the right is the entrance to the Astoria on 34th Street. Looking at the picture with Caroline's house extant, the large opening in the upper part of the Waldorf corresponds to the left hand side of the later picture.

  4. Yep orientation of hotel is correct with main entrance running along 34th Street. What a magnificent interior that unfortunately didnt survive our changing tastes. Too bad. So few great hotels survive the ups and downs of business.

    More importantly is I need the coordinates to that architectural salvage yard off the coast. What an amazing diving site that would be.

  5. I do not live in NYC, but have visited. I had no idea the Empire State Building is on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Wow! To go back in time and see these brilliant places would be awesome!

  6. I've been trying to understand the layout of the original hotel for months for a writing project I'm working on. This article really helped clear up a lot of questions for me. It's also just so much more informative, history-wise, than a lot of other things I've read on the topic. Nice work!