|photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
In 1883 the entrance to Central Park at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street had neither statuary nor elaborate landscaping. But it spilled south along the avenue for two blocks, broad and open enough to earn the title “plaza.”
The plaza marked the northern end of the Millionaires’ Mile which culminated in Cornelius Vanderbilt’s French Renaissance chateau at the corner of 57th Street (later to be extended the full block to 58th). On October 13, 1883 New Yorkers got the first hint that different type of structure was about to appear in the neighborhood of brownstone mansions and private carriages.
The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that developers Phyfe & Campbell had purchased 12 plots “on the Fifth avenue plaza, extending from Fifty-eight to Fifth-ninth streets.” The land was acquired from the estate of John Charles Anderson, who had recently died leaving an estate of over $7 million.
Now, reported the Record & Guide, “We understand that George W. Da Cunha is the architect, and that the building will be nine-stories high, and strictly fire proof.” At the time, Da Cunha’s latest project (also for Pyfe & Campbell), The Gramercy, a Queen Anne cooperative apartment house on Gramercy Park, was just being completed.
The Guide said that the new building would “be an adaption, though on a much larger scale, of the Gramercy apartment house” and would cost an estimated $1.5 million.
Within a week the first of the dominoes to fall in what would be a long string of problems for the proposed building was casually mentioned by the Record & Guide. In talking to the manager of The Gramercy, the reporter asked if he thought Phyfe & Campbell would “adopt the same plan [in the plaza property] as in the ‘Gramercy’?”
Charles A. Gerlach responded that, no doubt, they would, and the public would know “as soon as the plans of the architect, Mr. Carl. Pfeiffer, are completed.” It was the first mention of a change in architects.
Within weeks George W. Da Cunha sued the developers for breach of contract, asking $10,000 in damages. A panel of architects, including Richard Upjohn, was assembled as jurors. They all agreed there was a broken contract.
Apparently Phyfe & Campbell learned nothing from the episode. On February 27, 1886 The Record & Guide published a letter to the editor from Carl Pfeiffer who wanted to correct the misconception that he was the architect for the rising building. In part it read “I was engaged by Phyfe & Campbell to prepare plans and specifications for an apartment house on that site, and which I did prepare, but my plans were followed only until the foundation walls were up on a level with the sidewalk. I am in no way responsible for the architectural merits or demerits of the building as erected.”
Phyfe & Campbell had gone with a third choice—the firm of McKim, Mead & White. This time they stuck with their decision. It was a wise move; for the series of misfortunes would continue.
In changing architects the developers had changed plans. No longer would the building be an apartment house, but a high-class hotel. By the time Pfeiffer’s letter was published, construction was well underway and a month later the roof was already completed.
On the morning of March 22, 1886 two masons, Dominick Badaracco and John Lyons, were on the seventh floor, working on scaffolding. At 9:45 one of the men rang for more mortar to be hoisted up. As the 500-pound box of mortar reached the seventh floor, it struck the scaffold, tilting it. Lyons jumped from his perch, grabbing onto the suspended mortar box. Badaracco went crashing seven floors into the basement along with the heavy spruce timbers of the scaffold.
As the debris crashed through the floors, it took builders Charles McCauley and Thomas Lenihan with it. Workers found the men buried beneath the wreck of timbers. Dominick Badaracco was dead and the other two severely bruised and cut.
In 1887 construction was delayed when John Charles Anderson’s niece claimed she was owed one-fifth of the property purchased by Phyfe & Campbell. The issue became more complicated when a daughter, Mrs. Laura Appleton, filed suit for her one-fifth of the estate.
In the first weeks of 1888 Phyfe & Campbell hoped that construction would soon resume. The New York Times, on February 28, recapped the problems. Messrs. Phyffe and Campbell have had a costly and vexatious experience with this property. After they had borrowed $800,000 on it from the New-York Life Insurance Company and had got credit on the purchase…by means of a second mortgage…litigation began over the property through the attack on the will of John Anderson, the tobacconist, who owned the land.” The newspaper said “The investment, as it stands, represents close to $2,000,000.”
The newspaper was less than complimentary of McKim, Mead & White’s design. “The structure is strongly built, though far from attractive architecturally. The dining room and some of the parlors and suites have been elaborately decorated and require no further work, but generally throughout the house last touches are needed. At a low estimate $50,000 will have to be spent to put the building in fit condition for a lessee to take it. It will cost the lessee about $150,000 to furnish it.”
Sadly for Phyfe & Campbell, the costs and vexations were too much. In August 1888 they lost the unfinished Plaza Hotel with nearly $1 million due on the mortgages. The Times remarked in November that year, “The undertaking finally caused their ruin.” The new owner, the New-York Life Insurance Company brought in 1,400 workmen to hurry the construction along.
On January 18, 1890, nearly seven years after plans had been announced; the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide promised “The Plaza Hotel will be opened in the spring.” It was an optimistic promise. On May 22 The Times reported “There is more trouble over the Plaza Hotel property at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street. This land has been in almost constant litigation for many years.” Laura B. Appleton had reared her litigious head once again, now suing the New-York Life Insurance Company for $100,000 in damages.
|New-York Tribune, Sunday, Sept. 21 1890 (copyright expired)
“The great dining hall is finished in gold and white with stained glass windows and an arched roof fretted with gold. There are wainscotings of oak and beautifully painted panels in this room.” The windows of the dining room looked out onto Central Park “and all the panorama of beauty spreads out below.”
|The reserved facade was broken by the two-story portico, balconies and terra cotta ornamentation. photo by N. H. Tiemann & Co, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Most of the woodwork throughout the building was mahogany. In the smoking room was one piece of particular interest—a round table, six feet in diameter. The base of the table was formed from the root of a mahogany tree and, according to the Tribune, “Thirty trees were sawed up before one was found which would produce the beautiful piece of mahogany which forms the top of this table.”
There were more than 400 rooms in the new Plaza Hotel, capable of accommodating 550 persons, and it claimed to have more private bathrooms than in any other hotel in existence. “Heavy carved mahogany, with brass trimmings in the Colonial style, is everywhere,” reported the Tribune. “In fact, there is a strong Colonial flavor in the decoration and furnishings of the hotel throughout. In some of the parlors the chairs cost $100 each.”
By the time the Plaza opened on October 1, 1890 the cost had risen to $3 million according to the Tribune—more in the neighborhood of $80.5 million today. Part of the expense was in the lavish decoration. The mosaic lobby floor featured a lion in the center—the logo of the hotel—executed in colored glass marbles. The lace shades and curtains incorporated the lion as well. The New York Times wrote “the stalwart beast adorns each piece of silver and each piece of china on the table.”
“In the café the electric light is filtered through squares and ovals of jeweled glass and gleams from the brilliant petals of glass flowers pendant from the ceiling,” said the Tribune.
The Sun added “The ladies’parlors—one in pale blue, the other in a delicate salmon—were especially admired. The care in the execution of detail extends even to the tables and chairs, all of which are new designs in the most expensive woods.”
The first grand entertainment in the Plaza was a dinner hosted by 100 veterans of the Army of the Potomac for the visiting Comte de Paris. The Plaza dining room was filled with some of the most illustrious names of the war that evening. During one toast, General Daniel Butterfield reminded the gathering of the part the prince and other French nobles had played in the Civil War.
“When the War of the Rebellion broke out the services of Captain Louis Philippe d’Orleans, Comte de Paris, and Captain Robert d’Orleans, Duc de Chartres, his brother, were offered to our Government in any capacity.” The men became captains assigned as aides to General McClellan. “In the discharge of that duty there was no battlefield or service of the campaign in which they participated where they were not known for promptness and efficiency in all details of such duty.”
The Plaza Hotel quickly became a favorite for visiting dignitaries. On December 14, 1890 The Times mentioned that Secretary of the Treasury William Windom was staying here; and on October 4, 1891 The Sun reported “Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, wife of the President, arrived in the city at 6:50 o’clock last evening, and went to the Plaza Hotel.” Accompanied only by a maid, she had traveled alone on the train.
About seven months before Mrs. Harrison’s arrival a disagreement between two employees ended tragically. When the hotel opened, two of the newly hired porters were Seth W. Thomas and 32-year old R. H. Rodgers. Rodgers had just arrived from Wheeling, West Virginia.
Wages for low-level black employees were low and housing was relatively expensive. So the recently-married Thomas took on Rodgers as a boarder. Trouble started early in February 1891 when Rodgers was let go for incompetency and he began drinking.
The Sun reported on Tuesday, February 17 “Rodgers boarded with Thomas and the latter’s wife, a mulatto, to whom he has not been married long. Rodgers was much attracted by her, and she says, while drunk on Sunday night, he made improper proposals to her. She drove him from her rooms and told her husband when he came home.”
Rodgers did not return until the next day and Thomas was waiting for him. He ordered Rodgers to leave the apartment. Angry, Rodgers began packing his belongings, all the while cursing at Thomas and his wife, and according to The Sun, “they were not slow in talking back.”
Finally around 9:00 Rodgers had all his things packed. As he prepared to leave, he drew a pistol from his coat and shot three times. One bullet missed Thomas, the other passed through his hand, and the third entered his head through the left temple. “The last, the doctors at Roosevelt Hospital think, will cause his death,” advised the newspaper. “Rodgers escaped.”
The caliber of guests at the Plaza Hotel was not only reflected in the names on the guest register—including in 1892 Colonel and Mrs. William Jay; Mr. and Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt; and O.H.P. Belmont; all of whom arrived from Newport and stayed here while their mansions were prepared—but in the cost of the rooms. Railroad man Charles G. Patterson lived here during the winter of 1892, paying $75 a week for his rooms; more than $2,000 in 2015 dollars.
|Carriage wait in the snow outside the hotel as an omnibus passes along 59th Street -- photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Other celebrated guests at the time included Samuel E. Morse in June 1893; Germans Baron Munchausen, Major von Meckow, and Captain von Blottnitz who had been to Chicago to visit the Columbian Exposition; and in 1894 Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson and his wife.
A month before the wedding of Consuela Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough, the bridegroom checked into the Plaza Hotel with his cousin and best man, Ivor Guest. The Duke, almost immediately, began drawing press attention, not all of it favorable.
He was arrested on October 18 while bicycling in Central Park. “He violated a Park ordinance by ‘coasting’ down the hill near McGown’s Pass,” reported The Times. The Duke “pleaded ignorance of the Park regulation and on promising not to repeat the offense, was permitted by the Roundsman in charge to depart.”
Female New Yorkers were probably less apt to forgive the Duke when he refused to attend the wedding rehearsal at St. Thomas Church on November 5, 1895. Instead, he and his cousin went to the Racquet Club for a morning game of tennis. When asked why he effectively snubbed his future wife and mother-in-law, he replied “That sort of thing is good enough for women.”
The Plaza was briefly the center of a socially-scandalous incident in April 1897. Elliott F. Shepard was the son of deceased millionaire Elliott Fitch Shepard and Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt Shepard, the eldest daughter of William Henry Vanderbilt.
Margaret Louisa Shepard was shocked to hear that her only son (to whom, The Times said, she had heretofore “shown great generosity”) had secretly married Esther Wiggins—the divorced daughter of a storekeeper in Greenport, Long Island who was about five years older than Elliott.
When his mother found out about the civil service marriage, she insisted on a church wedding, which took place the first week of April 1897; “although she was too much prostrated by the news to attend it,” said The Times. The newspaper suggested that the newlyweds’ financial future hinged on Margaret Louisa Shepard’s disposition.
“Though Mr. Shepard will have to depend on his mother’s generosity to live in anything approaching affluence, he already has sufficient income under the terms of his father’s will to support him in comfort.” The newspaper explained “Of the young Elliott F.’s one-fourth share of this $5,000,000 he cannot be deprived, nor can he obtain any of it, except what his mother chooses to give him, until her death.”
Elliott and his new wife moved into the Plaza Hotel after the church wedding; but it would not be for long. On April 13 The Times reported “To avoid callers and escape the penalty of the notoriety that their secret marriage has caused, Mr. and Mrs. Elliott F. Shepard left the Plaza Hotel early yesterday, and did not return until late at night. It is their intention to sail for Europe this week.” Margaret Louisa Shepard suggested they take an extended trip. “By the time the young couple return gossip about the affair will have blown over,” it was thought.
The following day they took their carriage to the White Star Line pier and boarded the Germanic. The New York Times reported that they “went at once to their staterooms, where they remained until the steamer left her berth. No one could be found who possessed any knowledge of their destination abroad.”
(Incidentally, the story did not have a happy ending. Shepard went into business in Paris, but failed. The couple returned to the United States; but their marriage ended in divorce in 1902.)
On January 17, 1902 fire broke out in the suite occupied by the family of Ernest Staples on the seventh floor. Guests were frightened as firemen rushed up the staircase, dragging fire hoses. “There was no panic, however, for the elevators kept running continuously, and the persons upstairs, of whom there were about 300, mostly women, were all carried down without difficulty, and when they reached the office they were assured that there was little danger”
The room where the fire started was soon engulfed and the fire spread into the hallway. Flames “poured from it into the hall, licked up the woodwork and doors and jambs for a distance of 50 feet along the corridor, and the deluge of water at first seemed only to increase their fury.”
Finally the blaze was extinguished and “then it was realized how well the construction of the hotel had stood the test.” Even though the Staples suite was in ruins, the structure of the hotel was unscathed. Nevertheless the building suffered $20,000 in water and fire damage.
The sturdy construction of the hotel would make little difference in only five months. The building was sold for $3 million to Fred Sterry of Hot Springs, Virginia—deemed by the Record & Guide as “the most important cash sale of real estate in the history of this city." He laid plans for a new 17-story Plaza Hotel from plans by architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh.
|photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
In June 1905 the contents of the old Plaza Hotel were auctioned. The Record & Guide reported that “The wreckers will begin their work July 1st; and it is expected to have the new hotel ready for occupancy by Sept. 1st, 1906.”
|from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York