Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Hotel Breslin (Ace Hotel) - Broadway and 29th Street

photo by Beyond My Ken

In the 1890's large, fashionable hotels dotted the blocks along Broadway below 34th Street. As the turn of the century passed and the entertainment district moved north to the area around Times Square, the Broadway hotels became less exclusive.  James H. Breslin, who owned the famous Gilsey House at 29th Street and Broadway, purchased the large Sturtevant House hotel across the street at No. 1186 Broadway in 1903.

Breslin razed the old hotel and commissioned the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell to design a modern, twelve-story residence hotel on the site. Construction on the restrained neo-French Renaissance style structure was completed a year later at a cost of $1 million--nearly 30 times that much in today's dollars.  On the oddly-shaped trapezoidal plot the architects had produced starkly up-to-date structure compared to its fussy Victorian neighbor, the Gilsey House.  The Hotel Breslin was clad in 
red brick and stone above a two-story rusticated limestone base.  Atop the rounded corner a copper-clad cap completed the Breslin Hotel’s design.

from The Official Hotel Red Book & Directory, 1903 (copyright expired)
Breslin send out 1,000 invitations to the opening night celebration on November 12, 1904.  The New York Times was impressed with the forward-thinking innovation of, along with the regular dining room and grill room, a ladies’ grill room.  (Grill rooms were traditionally masculine domains where sizzling slabs of beef were served.)

While admitting that the Hotel Breslin was high-end, The Real Estate Record & Guide was not particularly impressed.  "Special features of design, construction or decoration are absent," it said.  "Perhaps, the only 'novelty' is the ladies' grill room, or informal dining-room, in the southwest corner facing Broadway."  The journal also complimented the use of pastel shades throughout the various cas.  "There is no loud color note."
Potted palms and crystal chandeliers graced the main dining room.
The French-style ladies' cafe featured trellises and art glass lighting fixtures in the form of wisteria clusters.

In the meantime, just two weeks after the opening the hotel was thrown into chaos after news leaked out that a guest, Mrs. Cassie L. Chadwick of Ohio, was to be arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit embezzlement.  On December 4 The New York Times reported “News of the coming arrest had preceded the officers from downtown and the hotel lobby was thronged with men and women, who elbowed one another and talked in excited whispers as they tried to get near the elevator leading up beside the main dining room door.  

"A score of early diners left their tables and rushed into the hall, while guests of the hotel ran downstairs or took the elevators.  From the street dozens of people were pouring into the building, and when the Marshall, followed closely by his companions, had pushed his way to the elevator it was almost impossible for any of the onlookers to move in the crowd that packed the lobby and corridors.”  

To make the scandal worse, Mrs. Chadwick had fallen ill and could not be removed from her suite of three rooms. Therefore, Marshall Henckel was forced to stay the night in her rooms, under the watchful eye of her maids.

On June 24, 1905, the Record & Guide predicted that Breslin had made a mistake by building in the declining neighborhood.  "It may hold its own for a good many years because it is an attractive and a modern building; but whether a success or a failure, its surroundings will be against it."

As if to prove the journal wrong, the next year Clinton & Russell was called back to enlarge the hotel.  In extending it just over fifty-two feet, the firm promised "The architecture and building material will harmonize with the old building."

In this 1909 postcard no automobiles, only horse-drawn vehicles, can be seen.
The Hotel Breslin was sold to a Canadian firm in 1911.  The New York Times said “It is understood that the new company intends to cater to the Canadian business men’s trade in this city, which is very profitable and is increasing yearly.”  

The new management kept up with the changing times and in 1913 instituted a ground-breaking innovation: a ten-percent tip was added to the bill in the dining room on any check over 50 cents.  Manager D. B. Mulligan explained that “Now the accepted proportion which the average tip given the waiter bears to the meal check is about 10 per cent.  Some diners give more, but this percentage is as near the average as we could figure it.  If waiters were to receive 10 per cent tips on all meals they serve they would make a good income.”

On the first floor now now, in addition to the registration desk and general lounge, were a ladies' reception room, a writing room, the main dining room and the gentlemen's café.  The "Dixie Room" featured Southern cuisine, an advertisement touting "Here the famous dishes of the Sunny South area served in true Southern style.  The kitchen of the hotel is supplied with the products of the Hotel Breslin farm."

Every hotel dealt with the problem of suicides.  Depressed or troubled persons often used hotels for the deed in order to shield their families from, for instance, having to discover their bodies.  But one suicide in the Hotel Breslin was particularly strange.

Elizabeth Shumway Healy and her husband, an advertising executive, lived in Bayside, Long Island.  The New-York Tribune said "She was known for her beauty, and was wealthy in her own right."  But for some time she had been suffering mental problems.  She finally chose death over permanent commitment.  On the night of July 8, 1915 she wrote a note on hotel stationery to her husband:

Have been insane for six months.  Was down at the Phipps Clinic, in Baltimore, last spring, but when I realized it was an insane asylum I couldn't stay.  The doctor advised Bloomingdale [Insane Asylum], and in a short time it would have come to that. 

The New-York Tribune entitled its article "Poses For Death In Evening Gown" and explained "Mrs. Healy had dressed in an evening gown and seated herself in a chair before the mirror of her dressing table before she fired the fatal shot."

At the time the hotel boasted that "All rooms have hot and cold running water."  Rates for single rooms ranged from $1.50 to $4.00 per night (about $96 for the most expensive), while a suite of a parlor, bedroom and bath went for between $5.00 to $8.00 a night.

photo by Richardfalk2
In 1925 the Hotel Breslin was sold again, this time to Paul A. McGolrick.  Among its permanent residents was Maria Jose Mora, who was a leading stage and society photographer when he first took up residency in 1911.  But the once prominent artist was now living a reclusive existence. 

No longer working, Mora had padlocked himself inside his rooms and was living mainly on pies and cakes.  Not many months after taking over the hotel the new management was forced to break into his rooms where he was found unconscious.  He was later declared incompetent (the polite term for insane).  Mora, who had been living off the charity of other tenants, was found to have more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars in various bank accounts.

Sidney Claman, owner of the Times Square Hotel, purchased the Breslin in 1937 and by 1955 when it was sold to Max A. Goldbaum the glory days of Broadway and 29th Street were gone: as evidenced when a year later when five thugs held up nine persons including a police officer in the hotel, escaping with $861 in cash.  

A mid-century remodeling of the main dining room did away with Edwardian palms and chandeliers.

Following the end of World War II Major Winthrop Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., addressed the severe shortage of veteran housing by leasing rooms in the Hotel Breslin.  On February 1, 1946 The New York Times explained "By sub-leasing the fifth and sixth floors in the Hotel Breslin, and thus providing temporary housing for 140 persons, who will be charged minimum rates, he said he hoped the [Seventy-seventh Division] association 'was a least furnishing a small drop in the temporarily solution of that problem."

A post war postcard shows the remodeled ground floor. 
As the 20th century progressed, the neighborhood around the Hotel Breslin continued to deteriorate.  On August 21, 1964 a barbiturates ring headquartered in Martin Gilder's hotel room was broken up by under cover detectives.  Gilder, the "connection," would send a 15-year old boy to a Columbus Circle pharmacy with $15.00.  The pharmacist, Benjamin Rothstein, then handed the youth 75 barbiturate tablets to take back to Gilder.

And on June 22, 1972 another room was raided by the Manhattan South Public Morals Squad.  It was one of two locations of a gambling operation that did an annual business of nearly $5 million today.

By 2007 the Breslin had degraded to a single-room-occupancy dive.  According to the New York Observer, tenants complained of “chronic heating problems, mounds of untended garbage piling up, elevators constantly malfunctioning—the doors of the lifts noisily slamming shut, swinging open, shutting, opening, over and over, like some chomping mechanical monster.” In the shared bathrooms there were faucets taped with duct tape.

In 2008 Ace Hotel Group acquired the existing lease on the Hotel Breslin for $40 million.  Despite the conditions, tenants fought their buy-outs in court. In 2010, after court struggles and extensive renovations by architectural firm Roman & Williams, the tony Ace Hotel was completed.  Upscale shops replaced the street level stores and the sleek modern hotel rooms, purportedly available for under $300 per night, now attract a young, hip crowd.

photo by Melissa Horn, New York Magazine
The New York Times’ Christopher Gray commented that “The lobby of the Ace is a mix of old and new: salvaged paneling, hip metal tables, an oddball display of stuffed birds.  You might call this post-preservation style, a later generation of old-building renovation, which treats vintage elements with an ironic insouciance, not veneration."

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