Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The 1904 Hotel Lucerne -- No. 201 West 79th St.

The Upper West Side by the turn of the century was an established, bustling neighborhood of high-end homes, wide avenues, and up-to-date apartment houses.  In 1903 the Central Realty Company began construction on another upscale residential hotel at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 79th Street.

Called The Lucerne, it was designed by Harry B. Mulliken of Mulliken & Moeller.  Using the firm’s tried-and-true approach—a great block of masonry lavished with Beaux Arts froth and an elaborate entrance—Mulliken took a step out of the box for the Lucerne Hotel.  Rather than solely working in red brick, he mixed in bricks with a slightly purplish hue.  He then had the terra cotta, normally a muddish-red color, tinged with purple.  Completed in 1904, the massive apartment house changed color depending on the time of day and light—from pink or rose, to clay, to nearly violet.

An early postcard documented the intricate cornice ornamentation.
Central Realty Company planned for extra income by having Mulliken include retail shops along the Amsterdam Avenue side.  Like most family hotels of the day, it offered a mixture of permanent and transient accommodations.  Residence hotels offered families the convenience of hotel amenities and precluded the need to maintain a large household staff.  An advertisement for the Lucerne in 1907 noted “Cuisine and service of marked excellence.”

The Lucerne marketed itself as being home to “the best families”.  In January 1909 those families were rewarded with a song recital by renowned baritone Townsend H. Fellows.  The New York Times felt that “Mr. Fellows was in excellent voice, evoking hearty appreciation.”

Wurts Bros. photographed the elaborate entrance shortly after the building's completion -- From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWS2VUG1&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894

Among the residents that year were F. Paul Harrison and his wife, the former Elizabeth C. Burke.  Harrison was President of the F. P. Harrison Electric and Manufacturing Company at No. 169 South Street.  He was described by The New York Times as being “connected with one of the oldest merchant families of New York City.”

A month before the Fellows concert, Elizabeth had undergone an operation in the apartment—a normal practice among upper class patients.  Following the procedure she suffered from what her husband deemed “melancholy.”  Thinking a change of venue would do her good, Harrison took her to the Gramatan Inn in Bronxville.

On Friday, December 29 the couple returned to New York to visit Catherine Newman at No. 25 West 84th Street and the following day headed back to the Gramatan.  When the streetcar reached its northernmost point at 109th Street, Elizabeth and her husband got separated by the disembarking crowd.

As the throng thinned, she was nowhere to be found—neither inside the car nor on the platform.  Harrison rushed back to the Lucerne thinking she may have gone home; but she never appeared.   The following morning Harrison supplied a description to police.  It gave an idea of the 30-year old woman’s affluent status.  She wore “a black velvet hat, a long black broadcloth coat lined with fur, a Persian lamb collar, a white silk shirtwaist, a green silk skirt, button shoes.  She carried a black walrus handbag, with a silver top engraved with her initials, and containing no money and only some visiting cards.”

A week later, Elizabeth Harrison was still missing.  Harrison told reporters that “she had been depressed since her illness, but that there was no cause that he was aware of which would cause her either to escape from her home, much less commit suicide.”  It is unclear if Elizabeth was ever located.

The red-and-plum colored brick and the purple-tinged terra cotta resulted in a uniquely hued structure.

The hotel filled with financially-comfortable families.  In 1911 Henry H. Samek, called by The Evening World “a young merchant” was living here when he avoided jury duty in the trial of the murder of W. E. D. Stokes.   Charles A. Robinson and his wife were also in the building and, as was the case with all socialites, the newspapers followed Mrs. Robinson’s movements.  On November 3, 1912 The Sun noted “Mrs. Charles A. Robinson of 201 West Seventy-ninth street will soon go to Panama for a short trip. On her return she will give a series of dinner parties at her home.”

Robinson was a member of the Produce Exchange and earlier that year he had been surprised by his wife for his birthday.   Mrs. Robinson engaged the Art Nouveau Room, College Hall, and an adjoining suite of rooms in the Hotel Astor for a lavish reception, supper and dance.    Among the well-known New Yorkers present were a number of eminent foreigners, including the Italian Consul, Giuseppe Gentile; Brazilian Vice Consul George William Chester; Count and Countess H. A. Jourdan de Couvin; Count Graf; Baroness von Schombert Howlett and Count and Countess Fabri.

A 1912 advertisement made the Lucerne the focal point of the Upper West Side.  The Common Cause June 1912 (copyright expired)
With the outbreak of World War I, one mischievous teen-aged residence of the Lucerne drew press attention.   The New York Times reported on October 26, 1914 “Somebody has been trying to persuade the Standard Arms Manufacturing Company of Wilmington, Del., to give up the manufacture of motor buses, with which it is now chiefly occupied, and return to the making of machine guns which are presumably to be used in the war in Europe.”

The firm, which was controlled by the du Pont family, received a telegram several days earlier signed “G. A. Lewis, Hotel Lucerne, New York” which said the writer would purchased the factory’s entire output of rapid-fire military guns for the next two years.  “It was added that money was no object, as the cash was already in the bank,” said the newspaper.   The writer asked how many guns could be delivered immediately.

The firm’s president, Frederick C. Field, sent a return telegram, saying there were no guns on hand, to which he received a reply saying “high prices would be paid for guns of any kind.”   Field was wary and wanted to know more about the mysterious writer.

A Times reporter telephoned the Hotel Lucerne on October 25 and asked for G. A. Lewis.   He was told there was no “Mr. G. A. Lewis” in the building, but was connected with the apartment of Miss G. A. Lewis.  “A woman who said she was Miss Lewis’s mother answered, and said that Miss Lewis refused to be seen and did not care to discuss the story.”

When Mrs. Lewis was asked if her daughter was buying artillery, she responded that if it were true, it was “only a matter of business, and if she was not it was nobody’s business.”

Later the reporter got in touch with Mr. Lewis who said his daughter “was old enough to engage in business ventures, but said that as far as he knew she was not buying guns for anybody.”  When he was told that his wife refused to comment on the story he replied, “that’s just like a woman.”

A grisly story unfolded in June 1917 surrounding the hotel’s house physician, Dr. Louis Apgar Queen.   The doctor’s brother, William H. Queen, had made a fortune and purchased “the finest farm” in the Flemington, New Jersey area, according to The Sun.  The newspaper described the estate saying “The house was a fine old Colonial dwelling.  The farm is in the highest state of cultivation.”

In May family hired a Lithuanian-born farmhand, Caro Mayworen based on a recommendation by Dr. Queen.  Despite his recommending Mayworen to his brother, the doctor described him as a “sullen, glowering fellow, who resented people looking at him.”  The Sun added that he “is five feet five inches in height, stockily built, swarthy, long black hair and piercing black eyes.  He possessed almost superhuman strength, a fact upon which Mrs. Queen commented.”

That comment happened on June 8 when the woman took an axe to a nearby blacksmith to have a new handle made.  She said “Her new hired man was so strong he broke the old handle the first time he drove it into a log,” related The Sun.

Mrs. Queen returned to the farm with the mended axe.  Later that afternoon Caro Mayworen landed one blow of that axe on the heads of William Queen, his wife, and their daughter Eleanor.  He then set fire to the house and barns.

The following day Dr. Queen left the Hotel Lucerne to help in the mass search for the murderer.  The National Guard, sheriff’s deputies, police and local farmers all joined in the dragnet.

On June 12 Mayworen was spotted by fishermen as he emerged from the woods carrying an axe.  The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger said “soon the swamp was surrounded by hundreds of persons armed with pitchforks and guns.”   Mayworen tried to escape, but was stunned by a blast of birdshot.  Although he tried to defend himself with his axe, he was overpowered by the mob who threatened to lynch him.

It was only when the Sheriff and his deputies drew their handguns on the crowd that they were able to save the prisoner from being hanged in grassroots justice.  He was held in the Flemington jail under heavy security because, as the Ledger reported, “A mob of angry citizens remained nearby through the night waiting for a change to take the prisoner from custody.”

In 1918 the Robinsons were still living here.  With the U.S. now fighting in the war, an unlikely rummage sale was held by The Sun on May 21, 1918.  Animals, including “one Shetland pony, one pig, one drove of elephants (white)” were sold as part of the newspaper’s “Tobacco Fund.”  The proceeds of the white elephants—used clothing, knick-knacks, etc.—and the live animals provided cigarettes to soldiers overseas.

“Among the purchasers was Mrs. Charles Augustine Robinson of 201 West Seventy-ninth street,” said The Sun on May 22, 1918, “who is proud to own ten relatives at the front and says each one of them loves his cigarettes.”

More tragic attention came on the night of September 19, 1919 when resident Jed Prouty, his wife and mother, went for a drive.   Prouty was an actor.  His chauffeur, Charles Sileo, was driving along West 83rd Street when he had no maneuver between a moving van on the north side of the street and a parked car on the south side.  Suddenly three children darted out from behind the van into the path of Prouty’s automobile.

Six-year old George Black and seven-year old John Hauser were knocked to the pavement.  But ten-year old James Smith was killed.  Prouty took the Hauser boy to the hospital, and then drove to the West 68th Street Police Station where he reported the tragedy.

By now Prohibition was in full swing.  The only permitted manufacture of alcohol was for medicinal purposes and prescribed “at the discretion of physicians,” as noted in the New-York Tribune on March 11, 1921.   The lure of professionally-brewed beer was too much for three Hotel Lucerne residents.  On March 10 that year John Baldwin, Max jerkins and Robert Rockwood were held in $20,000 bail for stealing medicinal beer.  

The trio may have gotten away with it had they not been greedy.  The Tribune said “The complainants are William Brandt and Martin Fitzgerald.  They said that the three men sold them thirty barrels of water for $12,600.”

More law-abiding residents at the time were fashion writer Grace Margaret Gould, and Nathan Stern, Vice-president and Director of Stern and Saalberg Realty Company.  The American Elite and Sociologist Blue Book said of Stern “He is prominently identified with business and public affairs; and has filled several positions of trust and honor.”

Also in the building in 1922 was Adele Montfort, wife of banker Frank D. Montfort.  The couple had separated and Frank was living in the Waldorf in March that year when Adele sued him for an increased allowance.

The couple’s problems arose, in part, because of Adele’s lavish spending.  Frank complained that she had spent $3,500 on cosmetics within a year and a half (more in the neighborhood of $47,000 today).  When, a few months earlier, the Montforts traveled to Italy, they hired an Italian count to accompany them as a tutor for their son.

Mrs. Montfort complained in court that on the trip her husband had become enraged when she “listened” to the count and so he spanked her.   Frank, on the other hand, called his wife “a social jazzer” and an “extravagant.”

Adele demanded $10,000 a year in alimony—about $130,000 today.  The messy court case prompted headlines in The Evening World:  “Banker Spanked Wife Who Spent $3,500 On Makeup” and “Husband’s Rebuke Was Not for Paint and Powder, But a Count.”

Dr. Louis Apgar Queen was still house physician of the Hotel Lucerne in 1929.  The New York Times said on November 29 that he “had an extensive practice among wealthy patients and had been house physician at the Hotel Lucerne for fifteen years.”  The newspaper also mentioned that he “was subject to heart attacks.”

One attack would end horribly on October 28.  The unmarried doctor was reading the newspaper in an easy chair that morning.  Dressed in his bathrobe, he was smoking a pipe when, it appears, he suffered a stroke.  As he slumped unconscious, his pipe fell to his lap, igniting his robe and newspaper.

By the time smoke was noticed pouring from his window and the door was broken into, the room was ablaze.  Assistant Medical Examiner Robert C. Fisher later attributed the doctor’s death to severe burns, not to a stroke or heart attack.

Throughout the years the Lucerne would continue to attract white collar residents.  Abraham L. Richold, a manufacturer of straw hats was here through the 1920s, and Nathan Stern was still here in 1936. 

In the mid-1950s the Amateur Astronomers Association, Inc. had its headquarters on the 10th floor of the building.   On April 29, 1957 six members viewed the comet 1956 H from the Lucerne.  The following year the group hosted a free lecture series on astronomy.

That same year Teatro Experimental was in the building.  In September it presented a Spanish language staging of Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy.

Two years later Fidel Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba.  The Communist take-over of the island resulted in a flurry of refugees into America.  Two of them, former police lieutenants Ramon Alpizar and Lorenzo Cancio Crespo ended up living in the Lucerne Hotel.  On October 13, 1961 their hatred of Castro boiled over.

Despite their law enforcement background, Alpizar, 30 years old, and Crespo, 31, entered the Black Angus Restaurant at No. 148 East 15th Street around 10:30 in the morning with criminal intentions.  They forced assistant manager Seymour Singer to open a safe at gunpoint and stole $2,200.  They were quickly apprehended.

According to The New York Times “They admitted the hold-up, the police said, and said they wanted money to buy a boat to return to Cuba and fight the Castro Government.”

As the 21st century dawned, the Lucerne Hotel received a multi-million dollar renovation by the Empire Hotel Group.  According to the hotel’s website “The result is European-inspired architectural charm combined with sophisticated and modern accommodations.”

The conversion to a transient hotel did not alter Harry B. Mulliken’s striking pinkish fa├žade.  Although the exuberant cornice has been diminished, the Lucerne survives as a arresting remnant of the turn-of-the-century Upper West Side.

photographs taken by the author


  1. I'm researching The Lucerne for a book I'm writing and your article has helped me tremendously!

    1. Great. Glad it is of help. Good luck with the book.