Monday, June 15, 2015

The Lost Continental Hotel -- Broadway and 20th Street

In 1910 the tower of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building can be seen in the background.  photo from Both Sides of Broadway, (copyright expired)

In the first years after the end of the Civil War Peter Gilsey operated the successful, if small, Barnum House hotel at the northeast corner of Broadway and 20th Street.  The building and land were owned by the Hess family and Gilsey held a 21-year lease on the hotel.  But he had his eyes on larger things.  In 1868 he purchased property nine blocks north on Broadway and began construction of his lavish French Second Empire style Gilsey House hotel.  It would be the last word in mid-Victorian architectural fashion.

The Gilsey House opened in 1872 and four years later Peter Gilsey sublet the Barnum House to hotelier Edward L. Merrifield.  Merrifield quickly made changes.  He changed the name to the Continental Hotel, the name of a hotel he had earlier managed at No. 422 Broadway.  The New York Times would later mention “He made such a success of that house that his old patrons followed him to his uptown quarters.”

He set to work enlarging and remodeling the old hotel.   The completed structure stretched from No. 902 to 910 Broadway, and eastward to include No. 19 East 20th Street.  A cast iron base supported four floors of yellow brick with stone trim. An Italianate cast iron balcony wrapped the second floor.  Above the bracketed cornice a rather ungainly two-story mansard featured a corner tower and story-high clock.

Merrifield ran the Continental Hotel on the European Plan.  Included in the room rate were “attendance, ice-water, gas, and towels,” according to Appleton’s Dictionary of New York in 1879.  But, the guide cautioned, guests would be charged extra for “fires, meals served in rooms, and baths.”

The year that Appleton’s list was published Merrifield hired Albert Williams as a waiter.  Over the course of the next year items disappeared and on April 2, 1880 The New York Times said that Merrifield “and his guests have been alike sufferers.”

The mystery of the thefts was solved when Williams was noticed carrying a bag of sugar out of the hotel.  Detectives followed him to his home at No. 104 Sixth Avenue.  “In his apartments were found a number of table-cloths and other articles belonging to the hotel.”  Merrifield estimated the value at $1,000.

In 19th century New York, attempted suicide was a felony.  But the punishment was far from the mind of a 17-year old girl who tried to kill herself in a room in the Continental Hotel on Saturday November 30, 1889.  When she was found, Edward Merrifield sent for Doctors Robertson and Tavis who practiced nearby at No. 28 East 20th Street.

When the girl was stabilized, the three men considered their next actions.  Rather than turn the teen over to police, they sneaked her out of the hotel and out of town.  They, too, were now guilty of a felony for aiding an attempted suicide victim.

The Evening World, on April 3, 1889, reported “Proprietor Merrifield, of the Continental Hotel, and Drs. Robertson and Tavis…who brought her back from the brink of the grave and aided her to escape when sufficiently recovered after he attempted suicide, say they will take the full term of imprisonment which their action laid them liable to rather than make known her name or present whereabouts.”

The Evening World described Dr. Robertson “a specialist and a man of wealth and repute in his profession.  He is just of that character that he would go to jail rather than withdraw his support from the girl now.”

Edward Merrifield explained their actions to a reporter.  “I will go to jail, but I will never give up the girl to disgrace.  Why, if she is arrested it will either drive her to the river or the brothels, and I don’t propose to allow that.  She is good and innocent now.”  

The three men had obtained employment for the desperate girl.   “’We have secured a good situation for her, which is open as soon as she is well enough to go to work, and I will never tell where she is,’ concluded the kindly-faced, gruff-voiced Boniface.”

Like all upscale hotels, the Continental was the permanent home of some residents.  Among them was the colorful George Francis Train--the entrepreneur who organized the clipper ship line around Cape Horn to San Francisco, organized the Union Pacific Railroad and ran for President in 1872.

In his later years, George Francis Train spent much of his time in Madison Square, speaking to children and feeding animals, but refusing to address adults -- photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress
Another full-time resident was Juliet Corson, who founded the New York School of Cookery in 1876.  Corson devoted her lift to healthful and economic cooking and diet. 

And on November 10, 1889 Dave Wambold died in his rooms where he had lived for six years.  The 54-year old was among the best known of the “negro minstrels” in the country.  He began his career as a boy doing “burnt-cork” dancing with the George Christy troupe.  Eventually Wambold would appear internationally as a black-face minstrel.  The Sun remembered “He had a singularly sweet voice, and his singing was one of the popular features of the old Birch and Backus show.  His greatest song was the ballad, ‘Robin, Tell Kitty I’m Coming,’ which he made famous in this country and England.”  Wambold’s other hit was “My Grandfather’s Clock.”

Years earlier Wambold’s wife voiced her desire to go on stage as well.  When he refused to allow it, she asked for a divorce.  A compromise was reached when Wambold agreed to give her an allowance and live apart.

While the former minstrel player lived “in comfort on his income,” he had become partly disabled and had difficulty moving around at the time of his death.

A shocking incident involving a policeman occurred in the hotel bar on March 2, 1894.  Office McPartland’s post covered Broadway from 18th to 22nd Street.   That night he reported for duty at 5:00, and then began patrol at 6:00.  Two hours later he appeared in the bar and asked for a drink.

The New York Times reported “The bartender would not give him one.  Then he took from his pocket a large roll of bills, and said he had money enough to pay for all he wanted to drink and then have some left to burn.”

When the bartender still refused to serve the already-inebriated policeman, McPartland became abusive.  He pounded his nightstick on the bar, and then staggered across the café and fell own three steps into the ladies’ dining room.

“Many women were at dinner.  The policeman’s sudden appearance in an ungraceful heap thoroughly frightened them.  Several of them ran from the room,” recounted The Times.

By the time an officer arrived to remove McPartland, he had already gone.  Supervisors were waiting for him when he returned to the station house, where he was pronounced “intoxicated and unfit for duty.”  A New York Times headline deemed it the “Downfall of Policeman M’Partland.”

An even more shocking event occurred a year later when, on August 5, 1895, a man checked in around 10:00 at night with a five-year old boy.  He paid for a room, took the boy up in the elevator, and then was seen leaving the hotel around 1:00 in the morning.  He never returned.

A chambermaid, Mary Collins, found the little boy alone in the room the next day.  She dressed him and took him downstairs for breakfast.  Later he was given lunch; but when the man still had not returned that evening, Merrifield notified the Gerry Society—the forerunner of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The little boy, who identified himself as James Milton Rogers, was timid at first, but eventually began enjoying what The New York Times called his “enforced stay” at the hotel.  Wearing “a little blue sailor suit and a broad sailor hat,” he sat in the hotel office with the porters and bellboys and “thoroughly enjoyed himself.”

Little James told about living with his Grandma Shephard and his Aunt Fannie in Vermont.  “He did not know the man who took him to the hotel,” said The Times.  He was taken to the Gerry Society while a search for his relatives was initiated.

“There is no danger of our not finding where he belongs,” said an official.  “We have not failed in a case of this kind in twenty years.”

Indeed, George R. Rogers was found.  On August 28 he appeared in court and attempted to explain his actions.  James was his son by his first wife.  A year and a half earlier George remarried; but he neglected to tell his bride about the boy.

When keeping James hidden on the Vermont farm was no longer workable, he decided to abandon him in the Continental Hotel with $2 tied in a handkerchief, rather than explain the boy to his wife.  His attorney pleaded for clemency, pointing out that Rogers had never been arrested and bore a good character.

The judge, Recorder Goff, did not see it things that way.  “This is one of the few crimes where the law of the land and the law of human nature are in perfect accord.  Generally, those charged with this crime are poor, unfortunate outcasts, betrayed and deserted women.”

Rogers’ attorney interrupted saying “Rogers tells me the boy was only his foster child.”

“His statement aggravates the offence,” fired back the judge.  “That claim shows that he is a coward as well as a lawbreaker…The man’s statement is a cowardly shift to relieve himself of the consequences of his cowardly act. His former character does not relieve him in the least.”

Rogers was sentenced to two years and two months in the State prison.

photograph, around 1906, taken by Rotograph, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

In 1901 the Continental Hotel received a modern upgrade when an “attended telephone pay station” was installed.  The Manhattan Guide described the stations as providing “for Local or Long Distance telephoning; sound-proof booths in charge of courteous attendants, who will call the station wanted by the customer.”

An astonishing female thief was discovered by Merrifield in May 1902.  He charged 32-year old Kate Quinlan with stealing silver from the hotel.  The Times reported on May 30 that “When the detectives went to her room, at 241 East Twenty-second Street, they found two trunk loads of silverware and other articles.”

Within the month, on June 24, Edward L. Merrifield died after running the Continental Hotel for nearly three decades.  His will instructed his son, Mark E. Merrifield, “to continue the hotel during the remaining term of the lease.”

The younger man’s proprietorship would start off with a number of hurdles to jump.   On September 17, 1903 his twelve bellboys presented him with a list of grievances.   They demanded “six and twelve hour tours of duty in alternating days, instead of ten and twelve hours.”  They also wanted to be able to use the elevator “in ascending the six flights of stairs of the hotel when carrying ice water to guests.”  At the time they were allowed inside the elevator only when taking a guest to his room.

Mark E. Merrifield read the list of demands carefully.  He then paid each of the boys and fired them as a group.

A tragedy occurred on the afternoon of February 19, 1904.  William Love was a “houseman” in the hotel and somehow the 22-year old became caught between the elevator cab and the platform.  He was crushed to death.

Mark Merrifield faced serious legal problems at the same time.  That month he was sued by Lucy A. Case for breach of promise.   The case dragged on until 1906 due to several postponements “because of Mr. Merrifield’s physical condition,” according to a newspaper

It was based on Lucy’s allegation “that Merrifield promised to marry her as soon as his father should die.”   The Sun, on May 1, 1906 reported “That promise was given, as she alleges, some years ago, and he elder Merrifield, who was president of the Hotel Men’s Association, died about two years and a half ago.”

The 40-year old Merrifield was said to be suffering from nervous exhaustion.  It was a claim that left Lucy A. Case unmoved.  The Sun said she “wants $50,000 damages for the alleged broken troth.”

In December 1907 Mr. and Mrs. Frederick French stayed at the Continental.  Residents of Watertown, New York, French accompanied his wife Grand Central Terminal on Saturday December 7.  After finishing business he would follow her on a later train.

Suddenly, according to The Evening World on December 26, “when the train was speeding through Yonkers she remembered she had left $1,400 under the pillow of her recently vacated room in the Continental Hotel.”  She telegraphed her husband from Poughkeepsie, “Get money left under pillow.”

When she reached Watertown she sent another telegram “mentioning the size of the roll and asking if it had been recovered.”  When French checked the pillowcase, the money was gone.

It took weeks of undercover detective work, role-playing, and infiltration, but a young chambermaid, May Platt, and her boyfriend cab driver named Finley were finally arrested.   Of the $1,400 Mrs. French had neglectfully left behind, $1,260 was recovered.

On December 3, 1911 The New York Times announced “The old Continental Hotel, which for years has been a landmark at the northeast corner of Broadway and Twentieth Street, has been sold.  The New-York Tribune added “This old landmark, which has been held at $1,250,000, is to make way for a modern skyscraper within the next year.”

The Times explained “The Continental was long one of the best known hotels in the city, but in late years it has been eclipsed by the new type of hostelries in the upper part of the city.  It has always been patronized, however, by those who appreciated the old-fashioned comforts established by the late E. L. Merrifield.”

On January 15, 1912 Mark E. Merrifield closed the doors of the Continental Hotel and said good-bye to long-term residents.  “My oldest guest has been living here thirty-three years and several have been here over twenty years,” he told reporters.

The following Monday the furniture, paintings and other items were sold at auction.  On the site of the venerable building Bing & Bing erected a 20-story store and loft building designed by Robert T. Lyons which survives today.

photograph by the author

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