|photograph from "Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue" 1910 (copyright expired)
By the turn of the last century, Manhattan’s millionaires were panicked by the threat of hotels and other businesses interloping into the Fifth Avenue mansion district. The silent invasion had begun decades earlier, however.
When wealthy New Yorkers returned from their summer homes following the summer season of 1876, they found that the new Grosvenor Hotel had opened. Sitting in the most fashionable section of the city, on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, the hotel consumed two building lots—Nos. 35 and 37 Fifth Avenue. The lack of protest from neighbors was no doubt due to its restrained architecture and high-class clientele.
The six-story brownstone cube was reserved and unassuming. Its main decorative elements were found in its balconies; the sixth floor balcony wrapping the building like a cornice. It was one of the first examples of a residential hotel in the city and upon its opening The New York Times was vocal in wondering what took so long.
“Notwithstanding the vast hotel accommodation of this City it is curious that so little provision is made to insure to guests of the wealthier class the quiet of family life,” the newspaper opined on September 17, 1876. In order to ensure that the hotel would be run along the most cultured lines, the steward of the exclusive Union League Club was brought in to manage it. Known only as "Mr. Ames" he resigned his position to take the job.
“Thirteen years’ connection with the Union League Club has admirably qualified him for the duties which he has lately undertaken, and, accordingly, his house is a model of good management,” said The Times. The moneyed residents were given the flexibility of furnishing and decorating their large suites.
“The plan is to let the rooms in suites to guests of the wealthier and more cultured classes, who furnish them according to their own taste and judgment. These suites of rooms are provided with all the requisites of a modern home, and the privacy of each one is perfect.”
The newspaper noted that the concept of living in what was essentially a luxury apartment building with a common dining area relieved the trouble of maintaining a mansion. “The cuisine, restaurant, and all those little details which sometimes make housekeeping an anxious burden are attended to by Mr. Ames, so that the responsibilities of the guests do not travel outside their apartments.”
By the time of the article, every suite had been taken except one. “The plan has been found to work admirably, and is alike commended by those seeking for the comforts of family life and by men of thoughtful and studious habits who are in quest of perfect quiet and retirement,” The Times concluded.
Even the most upscale hotels in the most refined neighborhoods were not immune to trouble. Life for black Americans in the post-Civil War North was little better than in the South in terms of the jobs available to them. Two such men, Richard Branch and Alfred Dillard had found employment as waiters in the Clarendon Hotel in the fashionable resort of Saratoga. Shocking to well-heeled Victorian readers, The Times reported on October 15, 1877 that “Branch and Dillard, unknown to each other, had been keeping company with the same white girl.”
The girl’s deception would come to a tragic end on the evening of October 4. When 27-year old Richard Branch arrived unexpectedly at her home, he found Dillard there. “This aroused Branch’s fury to such a degree that he rushed at his rival, pulled out a knife, and inflicted upon him a fatal stroke.”
Branch fled to New York City and found a job in the Grosvenor Hotel. But detectives were close on his heels. A description had been telegraphed to New York police and ten days after he murdered Dillard, they tracked him to the elegant hotel. As well-dressed, horrified residents looked on, he was arrested and taken to the police Central Office, to await transfer to Saratoga for trial.
By the 1890s the Grosvenor was accepting high-class transient guests as well. One was a 25-year old Englishman who arrived on the steamship Aurania on January 7, 1895. Upon disembarking, he hailed a cab and asked to be taken to the Grosvenor Hotel “at Ninth street and Fifth avenue.”
It was probably the incorrect address that led the cabbie to assume he could easily dupe the foreigner. He drove the man to a different location. The Englishman changed his clothes to visit friends on Staten Island and the cabbie assured him he would take care of his luggage.
When he returned to the city around midnight, he realized that the Grosvenor Hotel was not the place he had been originally taken. “The young man took a cab and drove about the city until 10 o’clock this morning, trying to find the place,” reported The Times the following day. “He thinks he has been buncoed.”
By now the hotel was being managed by Paul W. Orvis, who came from a family of hoteliers. Although his father had been in the dry goods business, his brothers Edward and William were co-managers of the Equinox House in Manchester, Vermont; and George managed the upscale Osborne apartment house.
In October of 1897 Orvis added one more item to the hotel's list of advantages. An advertisement in The Sun listed “beautifully furnished apartments, superior cuisine and service” and added “Fifth avenue asphalt pavement completed.”
A false alarm of fire on West 9th Street on July 31, 1900 resulted in an expected injury to a hotel employee. A gust of wind entered the window of R. L. Fowler’s house at No. 29 West 9th Street and blew a curtain against a lighted gas jet. The tiny fire was put out within a few seconds. But a pedestrian saw the flames and sent in an alarm.
“It was reported that the fire was at the Chinese Consul’s house, at No. 26, but there was no fire there. The firemen then thought the blaze was in Dr. Hubbard’s, at No. 27, and without waiting to ask they smashed off the knob of the front door and rushed into the house. They found no fire, and were told it had been in Mr. Fowler’s,” reported the New-York Tribune.
Unfortunately for Grosvenor Hotel clerk William Sears, this all happened as he was heading to work. Just as he stepped off the curb, Chief Edward F. Croker’s vehicle was speeding to the non-existent conflagration.
“In going to the fire Chief Crocker’s locomobile knocked down Williams Sears…at Tenth-st. and Fifth-ave. He was crossing the street there, when the locomobile sent him spinning to the gutter. He was picked up by bystanders, and Chief Crocker sent his driver back to see if the man had been badly hurt.”
The hotel clerk refused medical attention and, with the aid of a friend, walked into the hotel.
While Manhattan’s millionaires moved northward along Fifth Avenue, the Grosvenor Hotel continued to be home to well-known and respected citizens. One was Justice Martin Thomas McMahon of the Court of Special Sessions.
McMahon had been Chief of Staff of the 6th Army Corps during the Civil War in which, according to New-York Tribune, he served “with honor and fame.” He was awarded a medal for bravery for his action in the battle of White Oak Swamp. Afterward, his varied career included his position as United States Minister to Paraguay in 1869, United States Marshall from 1885 to 1889, and later as a U.S. Senator.
On April 19, 1906 the 68-year old McMahon contracted pneumonia and died in his apartment just two days later. St. Francis Xavier Church was filled with military luminaries on Tuesday April 24, including McMahon’s brother-in-law, Rear Admiral Ramsey. The honorary pallbearers included three Major-Generals, six Brigadier Generals, a Colonel and a Major. Also included were former New York Governor Franklin Murphy, Mayor of New York George B. McClellan and several Justices. Following the requiem high mass the body was taken by special train to Arlington Cemetery.
Later that year the New-York Tribune commented on the Grosvenor, calling it “one of the high class family hotels of this city.” The newspaper noted that its residents were “among many of the leading families of New York, who prefer the comforts to be had in such a house to living in an expensive dwelling place.”
“There are apartments from two rooms and bath to eight rooms and two baths…On the fifth floor are special rooms for servants. The hotel dining room is spacious. The prompt and courteous dining room service is one of the features of the house.”
The Grosvenor Hotel continued its reputation as a venerable domicile for the best of families. It described itself in an advertisement in September 1908 as “catering exclusively to patronage of the highest class, affords a permanent resident for select families.”
Paul Orvis had moved on by now to manage the Lorraine Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 45th Street. In his place William H. Purdy took over the management of the Grosvenor. He was handsomely compensated. He and his wife lived in a sixth floor suite that would normally cost $2,500; he received a $10,000 a year salary (equal to about $250,000 today); and a $35 a week dining room account. It was apparently not enough for Purdy.
Brothers Arthur and Leonard Baldwin were the owners of the hotel and in October 1909 they began an audit of the books. Puzzled over a discrepancy, they asked Purdy to come to Arthur Baldwin’s office at No. 27 Pine Street on Monday October 25. The men poured over the books until 1:00 in the morning on Tuesday. Still the books did not balance.
On Tuesday evening Purdy met with Arthur Baldwin again, and the scene was repeated. Finally at 1 a.m. Purdy broke down, admitting he had falsified the books. He left his employer, agreeing to meet the following afternoon at 2:00 in the office of the Baldwins’ lawyer.
That day, instead, the 39-year old manager went into a vacant room purportedly to take a nap. When he did not appear later, a bell boy knocked on the door. The following day the New-York Tribune reported “William H. Purdy, manager of the Grosvenor Hotel, at Fifth avenue and 10th street, was found dead in a room of the building yesterday afternoon by the proprietor and the day clerk.”
Purdy was fully clothed, lying on the bed. He had poisoned himself. The owner of the Washington Square Garage where Purdy kept his automobile told investigators later that he had dropped in that afternoon to say good-bye. Ambrose Cleric had asked him “Why, where are you going?” to which Purdy replied “I am going away. I have had trouble at the hotel, and I am going to take another place.”
The noble Grosvenor Hotel would survive another 17 years. On May 30, 1926 The New York Times noted “On the northeast corner of Tenth Street, the new fifteen-story Grosvenor hotel apartment is nearing completion. It replaces the dignified Grosvenor, which had been a landmark there for practically half a century.”