Monday, October 7, 2013

The Lost United States Hotel -- Fulton and Pearl Streets

Louis Oram illustrated the hotel around 1890 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

In 1832 the only truly fashionable hotel in New York was the City Hotel on the corner of Broadway and Cedar Street.  That was about to change.

Cabinetmaker Stephen Holt had come to New York in 1808 from Salem, Massachusetts.  He believed he could make more money in the hotel business, however, and opened a small inn at the corner on Front Street between Fulton Street and Burling Slip.  His fortunes increased when his hotel became a “select boarding house” for army officers during the War of 1812.

When he moved his business to the corner of Water and Fulton Streets, “his cheap eating house was one of the popular resorts of the down-town merchants until about 1830,” according to The New York Times decades later.  With a great deal of money in his pockets, in 1831 Hold struck out to give the City Hotel competition.

After two years of construction, his magnificent Holt’s Hotel on Fulton Street from Pearl to Water Street, opened on January 3, 1833.  Amazingly tall for the day—six stories—it was reportedly constructed of white marble and set the bar for the large, elegant hotels to come.  Many believed it was Holt’s Hotel that inspired John Jacob Astor to erect his splendid Astor House Hotel three years later.

The artist did not disguise the commercial activity along Fulton Street; but the paved road and sidewalks, the gas street lamp and the well-dressed pedestrians reflect the highly developed area around Holt's Hotel in the 1830s -- NYPL Collection
A nearly square building, it stretched 100 feet along Fulton, Pearl and Water Streets.  Along the roofline was a grand promenade 125 feet above the street where well-dressed couples could enjoy the breezes and views of the city and harbor.  A tall cupola was not only a handsome architectural feature, it was used to receive signals from the watch tower on Governor’s Island announcing arriving vessels.

The hotel was opened with great fanfare; the mayor, city leaders and court judges being invited.  Lang’s New York Gazette reported the following day “The hotel is one of the largest and most splendid in the country, containing no less than 220 rooms, calculated to entertain 2,000 persons…The dining hall is 100 feet by 25 feet, and furnished with plain but beautiful and rich furniture.  All the suites of rooms are carpeted.”

Another account said “The common terms of splendid, spacious, elegant, and the like seem to be lost and unmeaning when applied to such a work.  The first story is occupied with stores, except the barroom, and above is the dining hall extending entirely across the building.”

The newspaper gave Holt’s wife a great deal of the credit.  “Mrs. Holt, wife of the proprietor, a lady over fifty years, within the last six years has made with her own hands 1,500 towels, 400 pairs of sheets, 400 pairs of pillow cases, all ruffled or pointed; 250 bedticks, and 300 patchwork bed quilts of ample dimensions, and several of them entirely composed of pieces not larger than a two-shilling bit.  Surely, a man with such a wife may well build his house of marble and fill it with luxuries.”

Holt indeed spared no expense on the luxuries.  His hotel cost him $350,000—over $8.5 million today.   At a time when pianos were expensive and scarce, a listing of the furnishings included three “grand pianofortes.”  Perhaps most amazing was the steam-driven elevator Holt installed to hoist luggage up the six floors; although a contemporary journal noted that it was used to carry “its owner, too, if he chose.”

A grand promenade ran along the roof, offering breathtaking views of the city and harbor -- NYPL Collection

Within the first week of operation the first grand entertainment was held here.  On January 10, 250 prominent citizens paid $5 each (a hefty $125 today) to dine in the sumptuous dining room.  Alderman Sharpe presided over the affair and the blessing of the hotel and the food was given by Bishop Henry U. Onderdonk.

A newspaper reported “The viands were of the choicest quality, and the wines of the richest flavor.  Both were abundant, and discontent and care were driven for the time into exile.  A band of music played many excellent national and appropriate airs.  Among the toasts given was ‘The Various Political Parties, All Union Men When a Grand Dinner is Before Them.’”

In the first years of operation, New Yorkers referred to the hotel as “Holt’s marble palace.”  They would change their tune before long.

The height of the hotel was a drawback for patrons who had to climb six floors; the minimum price for a room, $1.50 (over $35 now); and Holt’s lavish expenditures would be his downfall.  It was perhaps his last attempt at innovations that caused his failure.  Using the steam engine that powered his elevator, Holt bore a well under the hotel in an attempt to provide an in-house water source.  “A hole over 500 feet deep was sunk at large expense and with scant returns of water, and the expense incident upon this well-boring hastened the coming failure of the proprietor,” reported The New York Times.

The citizens who had called the hotel “Holt’s marble palace” now deemed it “Holt’s Folly.”

The Sun later said “The very extravagance which advertised the hotel wrecked it.  The manager failed, and his house was renamed the United States Hotel.”

Even without Holt the hotel continued with its innovations.  At just past 1:00 in the morning on Sunday, October 6, 1839 fire broke out in the fur store of Stephen A. Halsey on Water Street, opposite the hotel.   Before long the conflagration was out of control, terrifying citizens who well remembered the disastrous holocaust of four years earlier.  That fire had destroyed blocks of the city's business district.

Hazard’s United States Commercial and Statistical Register reported “It is much the greatest fire that has occurred here since the memorable conflagration of December 1835.  The entire square bounded by Water, Fulton, Front and Burling streets is a heap of ruins, except five or six stores on Fulton street.”

The publication made note of the hotel’s ingenious method of saving itself.  “The preservation of the Hotel (an immense building six stories high above the basement) is attributable chiefly to the use on the roof of a small fire engine belonging to the establishment, and the covering of the windows externally with blankets.”

The hotel vied with the Astor House as the chief venue for glittering gatherings.  On January 22, 1844 the New-York Daily Tribune reported on the upcoming “Unprecedented Entertainment”  on January 25.

“The Ladies of the Nassau street Congregation will commence their Annual Festival in the spacious Saloons of the United States Hotel,” it said.  “The windows on Pearl and Water-streets will be brilliantly illuminated.”

The newspaper reported that Professor Bronson would speak.  “At suitable intervals he will deliver several of his most entertaining and instructive Recitations.  He will also give an exposition and exemplification of Ventriloquism.”  There would also be musical entertainment.  “Professor Nash, whose vocal powers will bear comparison with any musical performer in the United States, has also consented to be present.  Several Duets, Solos, and other pieces may be expected during the evening.”  In describing another singer, the Tribune promised that “The sweet and unaffected vocal musical performances of Miss Dobson would alone enrich any entertainment.”

Not unlike today, the male audience paid more for its tickets.  Men paid 50 cents admission, women 25.

stereo view courtesy of Allen Kaufman

Two decades after the hotel’s opening, it still held its own among the newer establishments.  In 1853 “A New and Complete Gazetteer of the United States of America” called it “the first of the mammoth hotels.”  It prompted the writer to add “Hotel-keeping, as practiced in New York by the best houses, is brought nearer perfection than in any city in the world.”

Although at the time of its opening the hotel was touted as being constructed of white marble, a later advertisement mentioned it was "in imitation of Italian Marble."   The ad noted that "The Dining and Coffee Rooms are spacious and pleasantly situated; the Sleeping Rooms airy and comfortable."

An advertisement called the exterior stonework "in imitation of Italian Marble." -- NYPL Collection

In 1864 New York City was struck by war-time terrorism when a group of Confederate conspirators checked one-by-one into the best hotels of the city.  Their intention was to simultaneously set fires in the hotels then, while firefighters were scattered at the various blazes, set fire to the piers, theaters, hay barges, and other buildings. 

On Friday, November 25, a room on the fifth floor of the United States Hotel was given to a rather peculiar guest.  The Times said the “appearance of this young man excited somewhat the suspicions of the man in the office, but not sufficiently, it would seem, to put the proprietor on his guard.  It is believed that he was disguised with a wig and false whiskers, as well as otherwise, and that it will therefore be very difficult, if not impossible, to identify him.”

The man, “carpet-bag in hand” requested a lower room but “when told that the house was pretty full and he could have a room on the upper floor, he consented to occupy it, though apparently with great reluctance.”

The following night, as fires broke out in the St. Nicholas Hotel, Lafarge House, Astor House, Metropolitan Hotel, St. James Hotel, Belmont Hotel, Howard Hotel and others, flames were discovered coming from the room of the suspicious guest.

The New York Times said on November 27 that, had they been successful, “the best portion of the city would have been laid in ashes.”  But what the rebels failed to anticipate was the efficient fire-fighting capabilities of the hotels themselves.    The newspaper reported that in the case of the United States Hotel, “The fire was promptly extinguished.”  The Times commended the hotels and the Fire Department on their quick and efficient action, and called the terrorists “villains” and “cowardly wretches.”

All hotels had their share of larceny and crime; however the United States Hotel was nearly immune from this type of bad press.  The string of good luck was broken when John Murphy, “a porter or call-boy,” entered the room of John A. McGough in September 1868 after  McGough had called for a drink.  The following morning when the guest awoke, he noticed that he was missing $358 in jewelry including his gold watch, a pair of sleeve buttons, a “seal ring,” as well as $85 in cash.

When Detective Haggerty of the 2nd Precinct suggested that Murphy be sent on an errand to the Metropolitan Hotel, the call-boy was tailed.  Aware that he was under suspicion, he ran in the opposite direction.  According to The New York Times “He was a once overhauled and arrested, when all of the plunder was found on his person.”

Murphy’s crime paled in comparison to that of Winifred Price the following year.  Price was “an under servant” and not the easiest to work with.  The Times said she “has for some time been rather quarrelsome and antagonistic in her intercourse with the upper servants, whose table she tended and arranged.”

Winifred Price finally had enough of the haughty attitudes of her superiors and on July 6, 1869 she “developed an unusual degree of spleen, and sought to gratify it by administering a wholesale dose of poison to the other servants,” said The Times.

That night the servants’ menu ended with “an appetizing pudding;” but when Winifred brought it from the kitchen “she seized a convenient opportunity to pour over the pudding a quantity of laudanum.  The deadly sauce was duly partaken of by the servants, and the consequence was that they were nearly all made quite ill.”

Fortunately, none of the “upper servants” was killed.  Winifred, however, was quickly arrested and sent to the Tombs physician “for examination as to her sanity.”

The relative lack of theft in the hotel was obvious when The New York Times reported on its most frequent crime on February 25, 1887.  “The chief grievance of the proprietor of the United States Hotel, at Fulton and Pearl streets, has hitherto been blanket thieves.  These are the meanest sort of thieves known, because there appears to be so little profit in their business.  They pay a dollar in advance for their room and then wind the blankets and bed linen around their bodies, putting their clothes on over all, and thus leaving the hotel in the dead of night are made richer by a very trifling profit.”

Distasteful publicity came in 1891 with nearly back-to-back suicides here.   The first, on April 15, involved the former Republican Senator John Birdsall of Glen Cove, Long Island.   The popular politician had run into financial problems of late and was found on his bed when a chambermaid noticed a strong smell of gas coming from his room.

A messier suicide occurred three months later when Charles S. Thompson, “a member of a well-known family” in Connecticut put two bullets in his head on July 20.  The Times described him as “a handsome fellow, about six feet in height, and appeared to be a sea-faring man from the fact that his luggage consisted of a chest and a canvass bag, such as are commonly used by officers aboard a ship.”

Thompson had been in the hotel about a month, spending a great deal of time in the reading room.  “In manner he was reserved, but not enough so as to attract particular attention,” said the newspaper.

Then, after having breakfast early on Monday morning July 20 he returned to his room.  “A chambermaid went there at 10 o’clock.  She found the door locked and her pass key would not work, as the door was locked from the inside.  Between that hour and 3 o’clock in the afternoon she went to Room 11 several times, and was still unable to gain admittance.  Then, out of mere curiosity, she got a stepladder and looked in over the transom.  She saw Thompson on the bed, partially undressed.  The sheets about his head were deeply stained with blood.”

A letter from Thompson’s sister found in his coat ended by “appealing to him to come and see her at once, vaguely hinting that some mutual trouble they had experienced had now passed away, and assuring him that he would always find a home and a welcome at her house.”

A much less tragic incident occurred the following year when Dr. S. A. Brown, who lived in the hotel, was awaked about 3:00 in the morning on December 16 by a “tremendous pounding” on his door.  The Times relayed that “He got up, opened the door, and found, standing in the dimly-lighted hall, a man, dressed only in his night shirt, whose hands clutched his throat, whose eyes were a big as saucers, and whose face was purple and greatly puffed up.”

The doctor recognized the man as his old friend, another boarder named Captain William H. Humphrey.  The captain managed to get the words out that he believed he had swallowed his false teeth.  The doctor was unmoved.

“Nonsense, man, get back to your room.  You haven’t swallowed your teeth any more than I have.”

But Humphrey could not be swayed and insisted that his false teeth were down his throat.   To calm the man, Dr. Brown called for an ambulance.  In the meantime, the commotion had aroused other guests who were now rushing about in the hallways trying to help.  The bellboy informed the clerk of the tragedy playing out upstairs and he ran into the street, returning with six big policemen.

“When the ambulance surgeon arrived the Captain’s room was filled with guests, policemen, and hotel employes,” reported The Times.  “The Captain was still grasping his throat, and was sure he felt the teeth.  The surgeon was ready for any operation necessary, even to heroic treatment with a knife.”

After a great deal of persuasion, Humphrey swallowed some water, then a piece of apple.  Both went down with no trouble and the somewhat disappointed crowd slowly dissipated into the hallways.   Finally the patient was convinced that he had, indeed, not swallowed his false teeth and he was left alone in his room.

An hour after Dr. Brown had fallen back asleep he was awakened by another knocking on his door—this time less urgent-sounding.  “There stood the Captain again, but he was not clutching his throat, and his face wore a very meek air.  In his hand he held a glittering object, which he thrust in the doctor’s face.  ‘Here they are, doctor,’ he said.  ‘Found ‘em back of the trunk.  Hadn’t swallowed ‘em at all.’”

The Times article followed up on the incident saying “Capt. Humphrey is a salesman for Miles Brothers, 102 Fulton Street.  He was about yesterday, and was obliged to submit to a great deal of chaffing, which he took good-naturedly.”

By now the days  of the United States Hotel were numbered.   On March 15, 1902 The Sun reported “The United States Hotel in Fulton street is about to close, to be replaced by a big office building; so it was announced yesterday.”  It recalled that the hotel’s opening “was an event of importance to this town, because the scale of magnificence on which the hotel was planned made it easily the palace of its day.  Nothing like it in the hotel line had been constructed previously in New York.”

But progress had finally left the early Victorian hotel in the past.  “Fulton street was left far behind in the upward growth of the city,” explained The Sun, “and in recent years very few New Yorkers have even known that such a hotel existed in this city.”

The old hotel was purchased for $225,000 and The New-York Daily Tribune announced that the buyer “will build a twelve story commercial and office building on the premises.”  The Times lamented “It means the sacrifice of another landmark of fifty or more years ago in the lower east side of Manhattan Island” and reminisced “In the days of old its dining room and reading room were the meeting places of merchants, vessel owners, and skippers, who saw the world dimly, in comparison with those of these days of telephone, wireless telegraphy, and other wonderful things that have extended the horizon beyond the limits of human vision.  There stories of the sea, of struggles with wind and waves during long voyages, were told, and there the old-time merchants talked of ventures in trade with far-off lands—ventures that required nerve and foresight.”

On the site of the 1903 12-story building that replaced the hotel sits a soaring office structure -- photo by Alice Lum
 Many thanks to Allen Kaufman for suggesting this post