Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Hotel Willard (aka Churchill) - 252 West 76th Street

By the turn of the last century architect Ralph S. Townsend had designed a wide variety of buildings--small flats, private homes and hotels (including the elegant Savoy Hotel on Fifth Avenue).   In 1902 he began work on an "apartment hotel" for developer Alexander McDowell on West 76th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

Called the Hotel Willard, the 10-story structure was completed in 1903.  Faced in limestone and red brick, Townsend turned, not unexpectedly, to the Beaux Arts style, especially fashionable in apartments and hotels at the time.   A three story base of rusticated stone featured a bracketed balconette above the centered entrance.  Two smaller versions made their appearance at the fourth floor, fronting stone-framed openings with effusive pediments.  A pair of three-story angled bays sat upon ornately carved bowls.  Townsend frosted the facade with swags and festoons, lions' heads, and leafy stone brackets.  The mansard roof wore an ornate copper crown.

An early postcard reveals the stunning views that guests enjoyed above the still mostly low-level structures.  Close inspection reveals that the ninth floor cornice once had railings--originally a balcony.
The Hotel Willard offered accommodations to both permanent and transient guests.  They had their choice of either two rooms and a bath, or four rooms and two baths.  Transient rooms, or course, were furnished.  McDowell leased the Willard to hotelier Arthur T. Hardy, whose opening advertisement in November 1903 called it "The finest apartment hotel of the West End."

The ad boasted "The apartments are luxuriously furnished.  The rooms are large and sunny, and command extensive views of the Hudson from the upper floors."  Both permanent and transient tenants took their meals in the Willard's dining room, "conducted both on the American and European plans."

Annual leases were offered at $600 for the two-room apartments, and $1,600 for the larger suites.  (The rents were not cheap--the more expensive equaling about $3,400 per month today.)   The weekly rates for the unfurnished rooms were between $16 to $22 for the smaller suits, depending on the floor or view; and $40 to $50 for the larger.

An advertisement a month after the opening listed only one apartment still available.  Hardy noted "Cuisine and Service Calculated to Please the Most Fastidious" and promised that the "appointments and conveniences not excelled by any hotel on the West Side."

While the Hotel Willard did not offer the sprawling apartments of some other buildings, it nevertheless drew an upscale clientele.  Among the first to move in was Dr. Frederick S. Howard, a retired dentist and vice-president of the Fourteenth Street Bank.  The 61-year old was a charter member of the Colonial Club, the Upper West Side's exclusive men's social club.  Shockingly, only about two weeks after the Willard opened, he suffered a fatal heart attack in his apartment.

Arthur T. Hardy carefully chose his service staff.  He was especially impressed with the refined demeanor  of 25-year old applicant Agnes Pemberton.  Although he suspected she came from "a better family than her position would imply," he hired her as a chambermaid, hoping she would be a good influence on the other staff members.

Agnes started work on New Year's Day, 1904.  The New-York Tribune noted "She had a large quantity of clothing of fine material, most of it several seasons old.  Her manners were above reproach, and, although she did it faithfully, her work seemed foreign to her nature."  Agnes "held aloof from the other servants," but was friendly nonetheless.

Beginning the first week of April there were clues that Agnes was unhappy.  One day a maid admired her silk shirtwaist.  Agnes told her "I am going to leave all of my clothing to you girls when I go."  Servants later recalled that "she frequently commented on the easiest manner of death when reading stories of suicides in the newspapers."

On April 6 a wedding took place in the house directly across the street.  A few of the maids watched while the carriages came and went.  After it was over, Agnes said flatly, "Well, God bless them; I suppose they are happy now."  The New-York Tribune remarked "There was just the suspicion of a tear in her eye as she turned away, with the remark that she was going to her room."

Servants lived in the 10th floor mansard.  As she had indicated, Agnes went to her room.  It overlooked the back of the building, above the two-story extension where a stained glass dome illuminated the hotel's offices.  Half an hour later a porter named James was at work cleaning the dome when Agnes's body smashed onto it and landed at his side.

On April 7 the New-York Tribune reported "several guests whose rooms faced on the courtyard saw Miss Pemberton's body falling through the air.  It turned only once."  A clerk who heard the crash and ran to the second floor found the dazed porter "sitting on the dome and staring wildly at the form of the young woman."

The New York Times quoted Coroner Jackson. "I am very anxious to learn the actual identify of he young woman, for I firmly believe that she came from an excellent family.  From what I can learn, she was too dainty and refined for her position."  But her true identity was never discovered.  Investigators could find no trace of relatives.  As she had promised, her clothing and the $70 in her purse--around $2,000 today--were distributed among the other servants.

Although theatrical people were not welcomed in many parts of the city, such was not the case on the Upper West Side.  The Hotel Willard became home to several.  Among them was actress Maude Harrison, an early resident.

Maude Harrison was a favorite of American audiences for decades.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Maude was a New York City native, born in 1854.  She had long been popular with audiences and had created the part of Mrs. Brown in Bronson Howard's long-running 1878 play The Banker's Daughter.  For years she was a member of A. M. Palmer's Union Square Theatre Company and had played opposite stars like Richard Mansfield.

After a semi-retirement, Maude returned to the stage as a vaudeville actress in 1905.  In April 1907 the 53-year old actress mentioned to other guests that she had not been feeling well for several days.  A Christian Scientist, she refused to consult a doctor.   Then, on the morning of April 28 a maid found her unconscious on the floor of her apartment.  She died that afternoon without ever regaining consciousness.

Another well-known name in the theater living here at the time was Alice Nielsen along with her husband, Benjamin Nentwig.  An actress and singer, Alice's rise to fame was the stuff of fable.  As a child in Kansas City she sang on the street corner.  Wealthy meat packer Jakob Dold invited her to sing at his daughter's birthday party.  Dold was so pleased he sent her to the White House to represent Missouri at a musicale.  By 1900 at the age of 28 she was America's biggest box office draw.

Alice Nielsen - from the collection of the New York Public Library
In January 1911 two well dressed women checked into Suite 44.  The names they used were aliases.  They were, in fact, the notorious Poillon sisters, Katherine and Charlotte, who first attracted attention when Katherine sued W. Gould Brokaw for $250,000 for breach of promise in 1905.  She received a settlement of $17,500 (almost half a million today); then claimed she received only a fraction and sued her lawyers for $11,500.

Later they had a man arrested claiming he was spying on them for attorney Carl Fischer-Hansen.  And then, according to the New-York Tribune "they had a fight in City Hall Park with three lawyers, one of whom had pushed a suit against Katherine for a department store claim of $800."

The pair continued to appear in newspapers.  In March 1906 the Hotel Barstow tried to evict them for non payment.  The management turned off their electricity, but they burned candles.  An elevator boy claimed Charlotte punched him in the ribs and the jaw.   Their bad reputations grew as they moved from one residence hotel to another, never paying rent.  In February 1908 five hotels--the Bristol, the St. Francis, and Albany, the King Edward, and the Grenoble--filed suit against the women.  They were sent to Blackwell's Island for three months "for trying to beat hotel bills."

Three weeks after the sisters checked into Hotel Willard, Arthur Hardy realized their true identity and asked them to vacate.  But they were slow to do so.  He appeared before Magistrate Herbert on February 6 saying "I have two guests in my house.  I understand they are the Poillon sisters.  They have promised me to get out, but I want to know what to do if they don't carry out their promise."

The judge told him "Well, if you don't want a guest in your house, you should put him out by force."

Charlotte Poillon the New-York Tribune, April 2, 1915 (copyright expired)
Katherine Poillon.  The sisters appeared refined and well-bred but were notorious scam artists.  The Evening World, July 24 1903 (copyright expired)

A reporter from the New-York Tribune immediately telephoned Suite 44 to get the sisters' reaction.  Charlotte reminded him that "the laying on of hands" constituted assault and said "Now, do you think the manager of this very exclusive hotel would try to come up here and put my sister and myself out by force--and say, even if he tried, it do you think he'd get away with it?"

Hardy again asked the women to leave.  They promised both to go and to pay their bill.  Then they again delayed their departure.  And then again.  Finally, a policeman was called to escort the deadbeat guests out.  He was successful, but was sued by the Poillon sisters who charged he "had unlawfully entered their rooms at the Hotel Willard."

The Hotel Willard continued to appear in society columns as its well-to-do residents held benefit teas, wedding breakfasts, and announced engagements.   In 1918, during a brutal cold wave, Mrs. James Selvin, Jr.'s name appeared in print for a far different reason.   On January 5 the New-York Tribune ran the headline "100,000 Thrown Out Of Work by Cold Wave," and reported that record low temperature had forced hundreds of loft buildings to shut down after being "deprived successively of heat, of water and finally of power."

A day earlier Mayor Hyland had announced that Mrs. Selvin, along with three other well-to-do women "had volunteered to raise a fund of $50,000 for the purchase and distribution of coal to the poor of the city."

Among the more celebrated tenants two yeas later were Dorothy and Eddie Parker.  Dorothy Parker had by now achieved national renown as a drama critic; her husband was a broker.  They were no longer getting along.  As a matter of fact, Dorothy lived in apartment 834 and Eddie in 704.   Not long after the couple appeared in the February 1920 census records as living here, they moved to No. 57 West 57th Street.  Their marriage did not survive much longer.

Vacationers in the summer months understandably preferred the seashore or mountains to the heat of the city.  In in June 1921 Hardy advertised "Special Summer Rates" of $2.50 and up for a single room and bath, and $5 and up for a "parlor, bedroom & bath."  (The more expensive rate would equal about $60 a night today.)

James Slevin, Jr. and his wife were still in the building at the time.  And Mrs. Slevin was still involved in charitable causes.   On February 14 that year the European Relief Council held a benefit in the Hotel Bilmore "to save the lives of 3,500,000 children in central and eastern Europe," according to the New-York Tribune.  Stage and opera stars performed and luncheon was served.  The newspaper announced that tickets could be obtained from Mrs. Slevin.

Anna Mildred Traitel, the daughter of Nathan E. Franklin and his wife, the former Ada Keller, returned to live with her parents in the fall of 1921.  Known as Mildred, she had been educated at exclusive Semple School for Girls, but eloped in 1913 with David S. Traitel, the head of Traitel Marble Company.  The couple seemed to have a stories marriage, dividing their time between their New York apartment on East 54th Street and their Belle Harbor summer home.

But the 19-year old bride had quickly realized her mistake.  On their honeymoon Traitel became drunk and physically abusive and the behavior continued.  Over the years he "repeatedly" held a gun to her head, and struck her.  Mildred endured eight years of abuse before filing for separation and temporarily moving into the Franklins' Hotel Willard apartment.

The Franklin family experienced tragedy in the 1940 after Nathan was scheduled to undergo an operation.  He was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital on February 27.  The 69-year old was excessively apprehensive about the procedure.  At 7:00 on the night of March 1 he jumped to his death from the window of his hospital room.

In the meantime, a colorful resident of the Willard was "Uncle Robert" Spero, a manufacturer of willow ware.  He and his wife, the former Ray Maibrun, were married in 1893.  With no children of their own, the couple began hosting large parties for underprivileged children in 1919.  Little by little their charitable outreach extended other overlooked groups, like aged women.  Robert Spero established the unofficial Parents' Day.

The New York Times reported on May 14, 1923 that Spero held a Mothers' Day celebration for "900 woman inmates of the Home for the Aged on Welfare Island."  In addition, all the children in the hospital wards on the island were brought into the assembly hall with the elderly widows "where Spero distributed 2,000 packages of animal crackers, 2000 lollypops [sic] and 1000 flags."

Spero refused to take donations for his parties, paying all expenses personally.  His devotion to the children led him to found the SOS, or "Stay On Sidewalk," program, aimed at reducing traffic accidents involving children.  He additionally started a children's radio program and organized his own group of child entertainers.

The Speros maintained a summer house in Deal, New Jersey.  Finally in November 1939 they left the Willard and moved there permanently.   Ray died there a few months later.  Robert lived on until December 13, 1948.

The Hotel Willard was the scene of a large bridge tournament on the night of October 19, 1932.  Sometime after midnight, while 40 persons played in the dining room, two armed robbers entered the lobby.  One forced the night clerk, Edgar Simmons, into the office while the other stood guard.  When a female guest walked in, he greeted her graciously, handed her her mail and room key and said goodnight.

In the meantime, the other gunman was trying to force Simmons to open the safe.  The clerk insisted he did not know the combination.  The thug finally gave up.  The pair took $80, $42 of which came from Simmons' pockets, and shoved him into the elevator.  They ordered the operator to take it up and warned both not to come back down.  The New York Times said "The bridge players learned of the robbery when the police arrived."

The only manager the Hotel Willard ever had hard, Arthur T. Hardy retired in 1936 after 33 years service.  Before long the property was taken over by the Bank for Savings which made renovations.  In announcing on September 3, 1941 that the 252 West Seventy-sixth Street Management Corporation had leased the building for 10 years, The New York Times remarked "Recently modernized by the bank, the hostelry contains 126 rooms and two stores."   Included in the changes was the building's name.  It was now known as the Hotel Churchill.

The following year the bank sold the property to the Seventy-sixth Street Hotel Corporation (most likely a reorganization of the lessor).   The new owners quickly remodeled the building into seven apartments per floor above the ground level.

Uncharacteristically, the building never experienced a significant downturn as did so many of the turn of the century apartment buildings, especially following the onset of the Depression.  Typical of the tenants in the newly-renovated Hotel Churchill was James Wilson Wenman and his wife, the former Carrie Byrd.  Now retired, Wenman had been a member of the Cotton Exchange and sat on its board of governors for 40 years.

There would be two more renovations.  In 1952 a penthouse level "with three hotel rooms" was added; and a 1960 makeover resulted in six apartments per floor, and now just one in the penthouse.  The restoration of the facade brought the building back to its 1903 appearance when it was touted as "the finest apartment hotel on the West End."

photographs by the author

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