|The opening announcement, on July 1, 1836, pictured the new building. The side lot would soon be landscaped as a garden. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
By the first years of the 1830s New York City was attracting visitors from England and Europe. John Jacob Astor realized that the sophisticated travelers would pay for first class accommodations, not easily found in the fledgling city. On June 1, 1836 he opened his lavish Astor House, deemed by a London newspaper as a "model of architectural beauty and of massive grandeur, luxurious and elegant in its appointments."
The Astor House opened with great fanfare. A much quieter inauguration occurred exactly one month later, on July 1, when the Pacific Hotel opened its doors. Equally, elegant, it was much more intimate than the massive Astor House. Today it might be termed a boutique hotel.
The Pacific Hotel sat on the west side Greenwich Street, between Cortlandt and Dey Streets, on land previously owned by Eli Hart. Hart was a prosperous flour merchant whose main building sat on Dey Street. He sold the Greenwich Street property to a wealthy retired seafarer, Captain William J. Bunker. Like Astor, Bunker was convinced there was a market for a "public house" in that section of the city.
He erected a Greek Revival style structure five stories tall that looked as much like a private mansion as a hotel. Veteran hoteliers Benjamin Jessups and R. C. Nichols were brought on as the proprietors. The location was well chosen, being a short walk to what was then New York's business center. According to The New York Herald later, "The busy docks, a few steps from the hotel, marked the arrival and departure of the Hudson river fleet of steam and sailing craft."
The announcement of the hotel's opening promised:
The Parlors, Drawing Rooms, and Bed chambers are large, airy and well lighted and each one is furnished with a fire place. Separate Parlors & a Dressing salon are fitting up for the convenience of Ladies...The Furniture is new and in the most modern style, the Beds and Bedding are also new and of the best description.
Hotels were traditionally favorite targets for thieves and con artists. A theft that took place in the Pacific Hotel in February 1838 prompted a reporter from the Morning Herald to comment "It was as cool a robbery as we have heard of for some time."
William MacAlroy checked in, but, according to the newspaper "had hardly a dollar to bless himself with." The next day he arose and went to the bar-room to have his boots shined.
When the bootblack was done, MacAlroy asked asked him to hand him his cloak so he could pay the 50 cents for his boot shine.
"Which is it?" asked the boy.
"That new blue cloth one with velvet collar."
When the boy handed MacAlroy the cloak he ran from the hotel, later selling it for $5. The actual owner told police he had just purchased it for $50, more than $1,300 in today's dollars. The thief was arrested, "made no defense," and was found guilty.
Hiram Cranston had worked as a clerk in the hotel since its opening. In 1839 Captain Bunker promoted the 25-year old to proprietor. Cranson placed ads in the New York papers for months promising potential clients he would "at all times endeavor to merit a liberal share of public patronage."
In 1842 the Pacific Hotel was visited by Dr. Griffin, described by the New-York Herald as an "agent of the Lyceum of Natural History in London, recently from Pernambuco." In fact, his name was Lyman and he was an employee of the master promoter Phineas Taylor Barnum.
New York reporters had gotten wind of Dr. Griffin's arrival following articles published a few days earlier in the Philadelphia papers. Griffin had stopped for a few days in a hotel there, and after paying his bill said to the landlord "If you will step to my room, I will permit you to see something that will surprise you."
The proprietor was shown the Feejee Mermaid, called by Barnum later "the most extraordinary curiosity in the world." Barnum wrote in his autobiography, "He was so highly gratified and interested that he earnestly begged permission to introduce certain friends of his, including several editors, to view the wonderful specimen."
The scheme was well thought out. Barnum wrote "Suffice it to say, that the plan worked admirably, and the Philadelphia press aided the press of New-York in awakening a wide-reaching and increasing curiosity to see the mermaid."
|The Feejee Mermaid, reproduced from the Sunday Herald in the 1855 The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself (copyright expired)|
No sooner had Lyman, still assuming the name of Dr. Griffin, checked into the Pacific Hotel than it was besieged with reporters. The creature was a meticulous melding of monkey and fish and Barnum was not surprised that the journalists were all completely fooled. "It was a work of art, the monkey and fish were so nicely conjoined that no human eye could detect the point where the junction was formed."
The articles written after the viewing at the Pacific Hotel fostered rabid public curiosity. On August 11, 1842 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "The Mermaid caught near the Feejee Islands, and now exhibiting, for three days only, at Concert Hall, 406 Broadway, is creating a wonderful excitement, thousands daily visiting it. A committee of scientific gentlemen yesterday examined it, and not only pronounced it genuine, but decidedly the greatest wonder of the world."
By 1846 the Abolitionist Movement was causing heated discussions throughout the North. It may have been the social and political climate that caused Hiram Cranston to leave his post at the Pacific Hotel and move to Baltimore that year. The New York Times later remembered "Mr. Cranston was well-known as an outspoken sympathizer with the extreme Southern people, and his known position made him an object of great offense to many of the Union men in this City."
In the summer of 1843 the Pacific Hotel became the monthly meeting place of a new organization, hard to conceptualize by Manhattan residents today--The Farmers' Club. The New-York Daily Tribune was thrilled. On May 30 it announced "We have long wanted such an associated in our City, the resort of such vast numbers of Farmers and others who appreciate improvements in Agriculture."
In reporting that the first meeting would be held on June 22, the newspaper opined "Many of our farmers, gardeners, &c. would gladly avail themselves of the opportunity of showing some of their choice productions," and suggested "a table adorned with a few forest flowers would have a fine effect."
The members apparently took the Tribune's suggestion, but forgot to bring any produce. It did not escape the notice of the reporter from the American Agriculturist. Following the first meeting the journal complained "Large bouquets of flowers were brought in by different members to adorn the room, but we saw neither fruits nor vegetables. We hope each member will feel himself bound to supply this omission at the next monthly meeting."
Businesses in mid 19th century often paid to have endorsements, disguised as editorials or news articles, published in local papers. On February 15, 1845 one such blurb appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune. It marked the intimate size of the hotel as a distinct asset with a tongue-in-cheek comment:
The great houses have their advantages, and it is but fair to consider those also of hotels in which the distance from the parlor to your private room is not over three blocks.
By the time Captain Bunker sold the hotel to another retired captain, Aaron Flowers, in 1859, he had enlarged the building with an extension to the north. Flowers immediately leased the business to John Patten, who updated the interiors and furnishings. An auction was held on December 12 that year to sell the entire contents of the hotel--not only the Brussels carpeting, lace curtains and furnishings; but the glassware, china, silverware, decanters and kitchen ware. Patten was determined to make the hotel completely modern, even selling "one locomotive Steam Boiler, about eight horse power, with hot water tank for laundry purposes."
|William J. Bunker's annex is included in Patten's advertisement, around 1865. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Under Patten's management the hotel continued to thrive. In 1864 he bought the property from Flowers and announced "The Proprietor...feels truly thankful for the liberal patronage received, and will continue his rates at $1.75 per day." Considering the upscale accommodations, the rates were extremely affordable, about $27.60 a night today.
During the Civil War the Pacific Hotel was, according to Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, "patronized largely by officers of the army and navy, and famous for the dinners which the officers gave to their fellow officers and friends." One such dinner got dangerously out of hand.
The magazine reported that the guests had been drinking and "an altercation arose between a popular actor...and one of the officers, in the course of which a blow was received and returned by the actor." Other guests tried to intercede, but the actor's dignity had been bruised. He insisted "on further satisfaction, and an adjournment in the lower end of the garden was proposed."
Pistols were obtained and a duel was held in the side garden of the hotel. In retrospect, the hot-tempered actor might have rethought the wisdom of challenging a military man to a gunfight. "The actor was wounded in the arm. This ended the duel. The wound was not a dangerous one; surgical skill was brought into requisition, and the actor went through his part that night with his arm in a sling."
Patten's son, John Patten, Jr. helped manage the hotel. But when gold was discovered in the Black Hills in the Dakota Territory in 1874, the young man ached to find his fortune. Apparently his father was against the idea; and John Jr. made an audacious proposal to a hotel guest. He told Mrs. Joseph Kampe that if she would loan him $50--about $1,000 today--he would repay her $1,000 for every dollar when he returned. Surprisingly, she agreed and young John Patten left New York on his questionable adventure.
John Patten, Sr. forged ahead without his son. Intent on not letting his hotel become outdated, Patten again redecorated ten years after he purchased it. In the fall of 1875 he advertised "Repainted and recarpeted complete; a most convenient family hotel for gentlemen whose business pursuits confine them to the lower part of the city."
A few months later a scourge of yellow fever swept through the streets of Savannah, Georgia. On September 10, 1876 The New York Herald reported "The inhabitants of Savannah have been fleeing from it as fast as possible, the majority leaving it by railroad." One of those fugitives was a long-time friend of Patten and a repeated guest of the hotel. C. M. Symons arrived on September 4.
His description of conditions in Savannah touched on a tragic truth about epidemics: only those with money could escape. The poor were left to suffer and, often, die. He told Patten "There are not 1,000 white men left in the place. Every one is running away that can afford to do so."
The next morning when Symons complained of "terrible chills," Patten told him to take a hot bath with mustard. When he did not improve later that day, Patten sent for Dr. Farrington of the Astor House. He brought in a second physician and they concurred it was nothing serious.
It was, however, quite serious. When Symons's symptoms only worsened, the doctors returned. Now they diagnosed yellow fever. He was taken away to the Quarantine Hospital on Swinburne Island, just off Staten Island. One of the men carrying the stretcher remarked to Patten, "I don't think he'll do more than live till we reach the hospital." Symons died four days after he had checked in to the Pacific Hotel.
Yellow fever was not taken lightly by anyone. The quarantine official removed everything from Symons's room--not only his baggage, but all the bedding and linens. Patten had all the furniture re-varnished and the room was locked until considered safe.
John Patten was already embroiled in a long, heated battle with the Elevated Railroad Company. The firm was erecting an elevated train up Greenwich Street. Patten was not opposed to the project if it ran along the opposite side of the street; but the Elevated Railroad wanted to install a double track. The western track would not only obstruct light and air to the Pacific Hotel, but the piers for the railroad would necessarily break into the hotel's vaults which extended halfway under Greenwich Street.
While he battled the firm in court, construction of the railroad continued. Things became physical on March 30, 1876. The hand-to-hand combat between Patten and the construction workers made news as far away as California. San Francisco's Daily Alta California reported "Workmen engaged in sinking the pillars for the elevated railroad to-day were forcibly restrained by John Patten, proprietor of the Pacific Hotel, Greenwich-street, and several of his employes. The workmen were removing flag stones from in front of the hotel when the attack was made. A square of officers was called out and Patten and his employes were arrested."
Patten seemed to have achieved victory in May when Chief Justice Daily decided that "the ownership of real estate in this city extends to the middle of the adjoining street" and that the railroad company could not "take private property for a public use." But the battle was not over.
Appeals and hearings continued, taxing Patten's physical and mental limitations. The
Elevated Railroad Company had the last word, winning its case and proceeding with the second track.
On Sunday evening, May 26, 1878 John Patten died in the Pacific Hotel. The New York Times noted "The section of [elevated railroad] just in front of his house was completed on Sunday, the last rail being bolted just about the time of his death."
The irony was not lost on The New York Herald, either. It reported "Mr. Patten said he would not live to see a train run over the new track, and he did not. He died a few hours before it was opened for business."
Patten's executors placed the hotel and its contents on the market in November. Advertising it as "fully and completely furnished; now is and has been for many years in successful operation," they touted "for sale at bargain."
There were no takers for the old hotel. The Greenwich Street neighborhood had greatly changed since 1836 when Jessups and Nichols promoted the location as "undisturbed." On February 18, 1879 The New York Herald announced the property would be sold at auction the following day. "For more than forty years this house has been a favorite resort of the west side merchants, steamboat and steamship men and residents of New Jersey visiting the metropolis," noted the article.
The day after the auction the newspaper noted that few hotel men bothered to attend. The Pacific Hotel was sold for $39,600, nearly $985,000 today, to James H. Harger, of Pontiac, Michigan. But like the hoteliers who had stayed away, Harger was not interested in continuing the hotel.
In April the following year he sold the property to the newly-formed Steam Heating & Power Co. for $42,500. The firm demolished the old hotel to built its Station B Steam Works.
But there was still one loose end in the story of the Pacific Hotel to be tied up, and that would not come until June 4, 1914. That was when the now-widowed Mrs. Joseph Kampe who was living in Newburgh, New York, received word from John Patten, Jr. that he had returned to New York with his gold mining fortune. He had the $50,000 he had promised her 40 years earlier.
The Los Angeles Herald remarked "She had forgotten the matter until she received the message today that told of the fortune that awaited her."
The site of the Pacific Hotel became part of the plaza surrounding the World Trade Towers in 1973. Today it is part of the memorial park of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.