|Irving Underhill photographed the newly-completed building in 1924 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On midnight, January 16, 1920 the selling and manufacture of intoxicants became illegal in the United States. The arrival of Prohibition, which some thought would reduce crime and domestic violence, and enhance living conditions for all proved just the opposite. The enormous increase in illegal activities would not be noticeable for some time; but the effect on millions who were suddenly without jobs was immediate.
In Manhattan bartenders, brewery and distillery workers, waitresses, liquor store employees and sommeliers were suddenly out of work. And Prohibition dealt a heavy and unexpected blow to the cash flow of the city’s grand hotels whose wine cellars were stocked with expensive and rare vintages.
Within months hotels failed. On July 4, 1920 the New-York Tribune noted that three of New York’s resident hotels, including the Holland House and 20-year old Manhattan House, had shut their doors. One year after Prohibition went into effect John Jacob Astor closed his elegant Knickerbocker Hotel.
|The Tiffany Studios Building stood at Madison Avenue and 45th Street -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
And so it was perhaps startling to some when on September 2, 1922 the New-York Tribune announced that a $6 million hotel, 18 stories tall, was being designed by the well-known architectural firm of George B. Post & Sons.
Two months later, on November 25, 1922 both the height and the cost had risen. The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that demolition had started on the massive brick and stone Tiffany Studios Building on Madison Avenue at 45th Street where a “palatial hostelry, to be known as the Roosevelt Hotel” was to be built. The structure had sprouted two more floors and the cost was now estimated at $10 million.
|George B. Post & Sons released its rendering in November 1922 (copyright expired)
The project was spearheaded by a syndicate known as the United Hotels Company of America. The Record & Guide reported on the projected 1,107 rooms and baths, “several spacious restaurants and private dining rooms.”
Engulfing the entire block from Madison to Vanderbilt Avenue and from 45th to 46th Streets, it took advantage of the site directly over the Grand Central tracks. The Guide noted it “will have an entrance from the Grand Central Terminal, which will be a great advantage to incoming and outgoing railroad passengers.” In addition, the New-York Tribune noted on November 19 that the hotel was to have “a series of rooms which will be reserved for persons who wish to remain overnight only or for a few hours while waiting for train connections.”
The planners included stores and leased office space along the sidewalk level. It was an unusual move and according to the 1987 New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Two World Wars, was intended to compensate for the lost revenues caused by Prohibition.
Less than five months into construction, the hotel’s leasing agent, Douglas L. Elliman & Co. reported that already more than half of the store space was rented. Among the “important” leases was signed by the Knox Hat Company, whose upscale store traditionally provided headwear for United States Presidents.
|The hotel's massive size was captured in a postcard (copyright expired)
Just under two years after construction began, the Roosevelt Hotel neared completion. On September 14, 1924 The New York Times noted that, once again, the height and the cost had changed—now 22 stories tall and costing $12 million. The exterior of the massive brick and stone structure melded with the Adamesque architecture of the other buildings of what was then called “the Grand Central Group;” and later known as “Terminal City.”
But inside, George B. Post & Sons drew from colonial America. The 42nd Street vestibule contained a replica of the doorway into St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, built in 1764. It opened into a lobby dripping with American references. The architects used Homewood, an 1809 Baltimore mansion, and the New York City Hall for inspiration here. Iron panels flanking the stairs were copies of those in City Hall. The iron balcony railings were taken from an old mansion on Irving Place, and the iron rails in the arcades were copied from leaded glass sidelights of various colonial American doorways.
|Reproduction Chippendale chairs and colonial details added to the historical motif.
For the 20-foot wide paneled lounge facing Madison Avenue, inspiration was taken from a room of the colonial house in Coventry, Connecticut installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The New York Times added “A handsome and ornamental office desk screen is based on the original in the Hamilton House (1812), Philadelphia. ‘Homewood’ provided the designs for the cornice in the ‘working lobby’ and also in the mezzanine balcony.”
Other colonial homes used for inspiration were the 18th century Octagon House in Washington D. C., Kenmore, a 1753 Virginia mansion, the 1800 Gordon House in Savannah, and the Charleston, South Carolina Gibbs House built in 1752.
|A postcard presented an elegant lobby.
The Roosevelt Hotel, named for the late President Theodore Roosevelt, was formally opened on September 22, 1924. Although The New York Times remarked the following day that “It is equipped with the latest devices for service;” its planners cleverly did not target the millionaires who came and went at the Waldorf-Astoria or Plaza Hotels; but businessmen and visiting families.
When Theodore Roosevelt died, political cartoonist J. N. “Ding” Darling published a cartoon entitled the “Long, Long Trail.” It depicted the former President in his Rough Rider outfit, waving good-bye as he rode off into the clouds. On December 8, 1925 a bronze reproduction of the cartoon, four and one-half by six feet, was unveiled in the main lobby of the hotel in the presence of several hundred people, including many of the Roosevelt family.
Earlier that year the Roosevelt Hotel had added an innovative concept—a radio station atop the hotel. The first transmission from station WRNY was broadcast on the evening of June 12, 1925. And while the schedule included the expected musical programs “in which operatic singers and Broadway stars” took part, there was also a weekly educational program for high school students interested in science and technology.
On that first night, the venerable politician and attorney Chauncey M. Depew spoke to the children. He began saying that many of the youthful audience “have made their own radio machines in whole or in part.” He echoed the feelings of many 21st century seniors who feel overwhelmed by the whirl of new technology. “The boys and girls of today have so many opportunities for their mental and spiritual advancement, which never existed before, that we older people wonder how we got on at all.”
He then went on to proclaim that technological advances just might make life worse than in the good old day. He pointed out that the greatest thinkers of history—Plato, Socrates and Aristotle—“had none of these modern wonders.” And the greatest orators and artists “are still unapproachable by our times.”
The youngsters listening may have had more hope when Dr. Lee De Forest took the mic. He was the inventor of the modern vacuum tube and the “phonofilm,” the new motion picture film that included sound. Instead, he tossed cold water on their anticipation of television.
“Mr. De Forest said that the intricate difficulties which must be overcome before moving pictures in the home by radio are an every-night occurrence, are such that ‘most of us will not live to see this miracle,’” reported The New York Times. “He also declared that he knew of no practical method of eliminating static disturbance.”
Although Queen Marie of Rumania stopped over at the Roosevelt Hotel in October 1926; she was the exception among royalty and heads of state. Instead the hotel played host to politicians (many of whom ran their election campaigns from offices here), entertainment celebrities, and athletes. It was also, interestingly, the favorite of the class of new American heroes—aviators.
Typical of the events held in the Roosevelt in the 1920s was the star-studded 1926 gala benefit given by the Authors’ League of America. The ballroom was filled with luminaries from the stage and society, as well as “well-known persons of letters.” Authors like Edna Ferber rubbed shoulders with Lulu Belle who was currently playing Lorelei Lee on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And cartoonist Rube Goldberg did a skit with Harry Herschfield and Milt Gross.
Another was the February 1927 dinner for Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne hosted by alumni. During the dinner he announced he was considering a game between Notre Dame and the University of Hawaii during the 1927 Christmas season.
What would be not only a hotel tradition, but a national one, began when Guy Lombardo and his orchestra first performed at the Roosevelt Grill on October 3, 1929. The Royal Canadians would continue playing “the sweetest music this side of Heaven” here for three decades. The music was transmitted live into the guest rooms via radio.
The annual New Year’s Eve broadcast from the ballroom which featured the orchestra playing Auld Lang Syne became synonymous with New Year’s Eve for families across the nation. An up-and-coming bandleader, Lawrence Welk, got his start by filling in for Lombardo and the Royal Canadians when they took their summer breaks to play on Long Island each year.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, it would not be unusual to see celebrated aviators like Charles A. Lindberg, Richard E. Byrd or Amelia Earhart Putnam at a dinner in the Roosevelt Hotel. But on the night of April 9, 1931 they were here not as guests of honor; but to pay tribute to a weatherman.
The next day The New York Times reported “Aviators who have crossed the Atlantic in heavier-than-air machines gathered last night for dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel to pay tribute to Dr. James H. Kimball of the New York office of the United States Weather Bureau as the man who, more than any other, had been responsible for the success of their flights.”
Nationally-famous journalist and newscaster Lowell Thomas was toastmaster and the room was filled with a who’s-who of the aeronautical field. In addition to Lindberg, Byrd and Earhart were Clarence Chamberlin, Bernt Balchen, Frank E. Courtney, Armand Lotti and James Fitzmaurice, among others. A message from President Herbert Hoover was read.
The system of underground tunnels linking the hotel to the train station and to other locations proved to be a convenience not only to guests, but to a criminal on July 31, 1931. Mary Gilmartin had been the hotel’s cashier for several years. Employees received their pay in cash and every afternoon at around 2:30 she would carry a tin box containing the day’s payroll for the afternoon and evening shifts from the paymaster’s office on the second floor to the cashier’s office on the main floor. In the Depression years, the $5,000 payroll, in the neighborhood of $78,000 in 2015, was a tempting target.
The 27-year old woman picked up the box that afternoon, as always, and headed for the elevator. Sitting in the corridor was a young man who twirled his brown felt hat on his finger. Mary paid little attention to him as she pressed the elevator button. She was suddenly attacked and the man fled with the box into the fire stairs eight feet away.
Mary ran back to the paymaster’s office and signaled all the watchmen at the hotel entrances. The fire entrance led to a passageway under Vanderbilt Avenue, another under the main entrance to the hotel, and also to a corridor leading to an employee’s exit on 46th Street.
The crook, who apparently had scouted Mary’s routine for several days and had his escape route well planned, slipped past all the watchmen. Detectives surmised he had been an employee at one time. The robber, about 25 years old, successfully made off with the unmarked bills.
Happy days were anticipated by the hotel industry when the end of Prohibition became imminent. The Roosevelt Hotel planned a festive “Funeral of Old Man Prohibition” at “a repeal ball in costume.” The New York Times reported on December 5, 1933 that already more than 1,200 reservations had been booked.
“At the stroke of midnight, twelve models will trumpet reveille, a burial ceremony will conclude with the opening of the casket supposed to contain the remains of Prohibition, which will let out, according to the announcement, ‘a beautiful female figure symbolic of the returning spirit of Bacchus.’”
But the repeal of Prohibition came a few months too late for the Roosevelt Hotel. The Depression had taken its toll and for some time its management had denied rumors that the hotel was in trouble. But in 1934 the rumored became fact when the Roosevelt was put into receivership and the courts approved a $25,000 bid on the hotel that had cost $12 million.
|At mid-century, the Rough Rider Cocktail lounge featured palomino-printed upholstery and frescoes of Roosevelt's Rough Riders.
Conrad Hilton purchased the Roosevelt Hotel in 1943, calling it “a fine hotel.” The Hilton chain was forced to sell it 13 years later, in April 1956, as part of an Anti-trust suit filed by the Government.
Although the Roosevelt Hotel continued to be a favorite spot for campaign headquarters—Thomas E Dewey not only lived here but ran his Presidential headquarters in the building, and Nelson A. Rockefeller had his Gubernatorial headquarters here in 1958, as did Kenneth B. Keating who was campaigning for Senate—changing times and an aging structure posed problems in the 1960s.
The famous Grill Room was closed the weekend before Christmas in 1963 “with no plans for reopening,” according to The New York Times; and in September 1962 newspapers announced “An Era Ends” when Guy Lombardo’s 33-year stretch came to an end.
Trouble continued in 1980 when, on July 19, the Colonial Room nightclub was destroyed by a flash fire and a month later the hotel received bad press when a Pennsylvania delegate to the Democratic National Convention, Cynthia Friedman, was robbed at knife point in the hotel corridor.
A year earlier the Pakistan International Airlines, heavily backed by Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, signed a long-term lease on the Roosevelt, with an option to purchase after 20 years. Nevertheless, the hotel, growing ever more dated, would not receive a face lift until that lease was up.
When the Pakistan International Airlines exercised its option to buy, it spent not only $36.5 million for the property, but initiated a $65 million renovation which prompted the ABA Journal on August 5, 1998 to proclaim it “once again reflects the simple splendor of its glittering past.”
Another updating was announced on January 1, 2011. It resulted in the amenities expected by 21st century travelers, including a rooftop lounge, fitness facility and Wi-Fi—none of which Chauncey Depew would have found necessary. George B. Post & Sons’ handsome façade and historic-inspired interiors were little changed.
|photo by Billy Hathorn
The hotel has appeared in about a dozen motion pictures and in popular television shows like Mad Men. Today the Roosevelt Hotel is the last unaltered hotel of Terminal City—built at a time when the Grand Central area bustled with the comings and goings of thousands of business travelers who needed a place to stay.