Monday, April 20, 2020

The Lost Sinclair Hotel - Broadway and 8th Street

photo from the collection of the New York University Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library

Around 1840 a roadhouse was opened on the southeast corner of Broadway and 8th Street.  Decades later the New York Herald would recall that it "was celebrated for its toothsome terrapin, its canvas back ducks, its turtle soup, its oyster and tripe stews, no less than for its more plebeian corned beef and cabbage.  Fashionable New York used to drive out there--Eighth street was suburban in those days--for its game dinners, its champagne and its mixed drinks."

The inn sat on part of the 24-acre former summer estate of Captain Robert Richard Randall.  Upon his death in 1801 his will directed that the land was to be used for an "Asylum or Marine Hospital, to be called the Sailor's Snug Harbor."  The organization was formed; however Randall's family established the hospital and grounds on Staten Island.  Nevertheless, the Sailors' Snug Harbor organization would retain ownership of the land for decades to come.

The roadhouse was purchased by Robert Sinclair in 1855, who renamed it Sinclair House.  In 1860 he sold the inn and the leasehold on the property to Amaziah Levi Ashman, who promptly demolished it and erected a handsome new hotel which retained the former name.  

The five-story Italianate style structure was faced in brick and trimmed in stone.  Its entrance portico was crowned by a balustrade, stone quoins ran up the corners of the upper stories, and a triangular pediment sat above the bracketed cornice which announced the hotel's name.

Ashman was just 29-years old.  Born in Lakeville, New York on May 12, 1831, he had come to New York in 1857 and opened a restaurant directly across the street from the Sinclair House on the northwest corner of Broadway and 8th Street.  His family had been in America for generations, his Puritan ancestors having arrived on the Arabella not long after the landing of the Mayflower.

The Sun, June 1, 1913 (copyright expired)
Ashman, his wife Ellen, and their son and daughter lived in the hotel.  Despite his relative youth, Ashman was an adept hosteler.  The Sun later noted "The establishment became celebrated for the excellence of its cuisine and for its old vintage wines."  An advertisement in the New York Herald on May 23, 1863 hints at the bustling environment. "Wanted--A Good Man to wait on a lunch counter; must understand carving.  Also a good boy."

The hotel became a favorite for political groups.  In 1863 it was the headquarters of Charles Godfrey Gunther's mayoral campaign.  On May 18, 1864 the New York Herald announced "The McClellan Union Central Executive Committee will meet at the Sinclair House on Wednesday evening;" and the following month the New York Democratic General Committee held its meeting here.

The New York Herald reported on a large gathering of Tammany members on June 5, 1869.  "An excellent collation was served to the members of the society, and a most recherecé ditto in a separate room to the sachems and their friends and guests.  The whole was got up under the immediate superintendence of Mr. Ashman."

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Around 1878 Ashman hired George M. Bersick to the position of clerk--a highly responsible position that involved the handling of cash and management of the books.  It may have been a favor to Ellen Ashman, since Bersick was her brother-in-law.  Bersick worked side-by-side with a veteran clerk who had worked in the hotel for about twelve years.

That clerk resigned in 1883 after the death of his father, who left him a sizable inheritance.  His vacancy prompted Ashman to become more involved in the hands-on operations of the day-to-day financial end of things.  To his shock he discovered that the two men had been keeping a false set of books and systematically stealing for years.  Each had pocketed the equivalent of about $132,000 today.  While his cohort repaid the money, Bersick never did.  The New York Times said that Ashman did not prosecute "out of sympathy for his wife."

The newspaper was less forgiving, later revealing: "But his sympathy...was altogether misplaced, as the sequel proved.  It was not long after Bersick's discharge from the Sinclair House before he deserted his wife and two children, it is charged, leaving them altogether without support and went to live with a woman in rooms in Tenth street.  Mrs. Bersick was compelled to take boarders to support herself and children."

In January 1888 Ashman noticed that items were disappearing from the public rooms.  He notified police Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes that "three bronze figures, two Japanese vases and two silver cake baskets had been stolen on difference occasion within two or three days from the ladies' parlor," as reported by The New York Times on February 9.  Upon looking closer into the situation, detectives discovered similar burglaries from other hotels.

Based only on descriptions from hotel guests, the investigators arrested a "respectable appearing and well-dressed young man," James Miller.  In his pockets were pawn tickets for items taken from the Sinclair House.  The reason he gave for the thefts was shocking.  "He told Inspector Byrnes that he was always of a religious turn of mind and had been connected with various church societies, but found that this work did not pay," reported The Times.

An annual event at the Sinclair House was the meeting of the Hoboken Turtle Club, of which Ashman was a member.  About 200 members assembled each year and although business was conducted, it was the meal for which they really came.  On June 8, 1888, for instance, The New York Times reported on the previous evening's gathering.  "After the meeting those present enjoyed an evening lunch of turtle soup, chowder, and other Turtle Club delicacies."

Ashman's office and desk held photographs of several of the celebrated guests who routinely stopped at the Sinclair House, some of whom became his friends.  Among the photographs were Grover Cleveland, who began patronizing the hotel before he became Governor; Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, both personal friends of Ashman; and author Francis Marion Crawford.

In 1894 Amaziah Ashman swallowed what was described as "some foreign matter" which caused a perforation of the intestines.  Doctors expected the injury to result in his death.  To everyone's surprise, although he suffered pain and discomfort, he survived and continued to run the Sinclair House for another eight years.  But on October 23, 1902 The Evening World entitled an article "A. L. Ashman Is Dying" and said his condition was "so serious that his death was expected hourly."  The article added that he "is one of the best known hotel men in the country."

Two days later newspapers across the city reported on his death.  By now he owned two other hotels, the College Inn on Jerome Avenue and the Hotel Boniface on Columbus Avenue and 123rd Street.  He was also a trustee of the Astor Place Bank (of which he was a founder), and a vice-president of the Excelsior Savings Bank.

Ellen inherited the hotel and the leasehold.  Two years later she hosted an impressive dinner for Cardinal Francesco Satolli.  The first apostolic delegate to the United States, he had sailed to America in 1904 to attend the St. Louis Exposition.  On August 10 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Ellen A. Ashman gave a farewell dinner in honor of Cardinal Satolli, who sails for Italy on the steamship Sardegna to-day, in her apartment in the Sinclair House last evening."

Among the twenty-five guests were Archbishop John M. Farley, Archbishop P. J. Ryan of Philadelphia, Bishop James A. McFaul of Trenton, and Mgr. Dennis O'Connell, President of the Catholic University in Washington.  Prominent Catholic New Yorkers were also in attendance.  The Times said "Cardinal red was the predominating tone of the decorations, in which the Stars and Stripes and the Papal colors figured largely."

On November 21, 1906 an auction was held of the "very desirable Sailors' Snug Harbor leasehold, having 105 years to run from May 1, 1906...of the 5-story brick Hotel and 3-story buildings known as the Sinclair House."  Ellen Ashman repurchased the leasehold under the name of the newly-organized Sinclair Realty Company.  The firm announced intentions "to improve the site within the next five years," according to the Real Estate Record & Guide which added "Benjamin W. Levitan...has prepared plans for two structures, one for a first-class hotel and another for a high office and loft building."

A sign announcing the auction of the furniture and fixtures is plastered on the facade as demolition nears.  Leslie's Weekly, May 4, 1908 (copyright expired)
The decision would not come for nearly two years.  But then, "The Sinclair House on April 4, 1908, closed its doors at midnight and the key was turned for the first time since the place was opened more than half a century before," wrote The Sun.   The Record & Guide added "The famous old hostelry is going to be demolished on May 1.  A 12-sty commercial and office building is going to be erected on the site."

Designed by William H. Gompert for the Sinclair Realty Company, the building survives.


  1. Looks like the old building next to it, contemporary of Sinclair, still survives too.

    1. That's the 1883 750 Broadway designed by Starkweather & Gibbs. A magnificent structure.