Monday, September 28, 2020

The Lost San Remo Hotel - Central Park West and 75th Street


Real Estate Record & Guide, December 20, 1890 (copyright expired)

The economic potential of the rapidly developing new neighborhood known as the West End prompted developers to purchase, in some cases, full blockfronts and fill them with long rows of substantial homes.  Following the death of millionaire Joshua Jones his estate placed the vacant block between Central Park West and 9th Avenue (later Columbus Avenue) and 74th to 75th Streets at auction.   The sale created a frenzy.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on January 12, 1889 "Never did an auction sale of New York city property create greater interest...Never was such a sight seen in the annals of real estate as the eager, hustling, excited crowd that thronged to overpouring the Liberty street salesroom on November 23d last."  

Michael Brennan purchased what was perhaps the most valuable property--the blockfront facing Central Park.  If his announcement of putting up apartment houses on the site caused trepidation to some, The Record & Guide offered calm: "Michael Brennan, the well-known builder, will improve five lots on the Central Park West front with handsome apartment houses which will be an ornament and not a detriment to the block."

Brennan's initial idea of erecting side-by-side apartment houses quickly changed to a single "family hotel" or "apartment hotel."  He hired architect Edward L. Angell to design the 10-story structure which was intended to vie with the best residential hotels in the city.  A year into construction the Record & Guide commented "It towers above every surrounding structure, and vies with the great 'Dakota' apartment house in importance and magnificence."

Residence hotels differed from apartment houses in that they offered the services like maids and hallboys (on hand to carry packages, run errands, etc.).  Residents of the San Remo ate their meals in a common dining room on the top floor which offered sweeping views of the park.  The arrangement eliminated the need for large domestic staffs and the accompanying stress of managing servants.   Residents would keep a small staff, including a lady's maid and butler and at least one maid.  That maid would have available a "complete steam laundry" within the building.

The San Remo would contain about 90 apartments ranging from two rooms and a bath to nine rooms and two bathrooms.  Each of the more than 100 tiled bathrooms had a window.  The apartments were trimmed in oak, sycamore, ash and cherry executed by master woodworker J. S. Roddy (deemed by the Record & Guide "a recognized leader in the art of polishing and finishing hard woods).  Mantels matched the wood in each room.  The main dining room was 50 by 100 feet and the Record & Guide pointed out that there would be "a smaller dining-room for children and nurses."  

The cutting edge building had an "electric plant" (i.e., dynamos) in the basement to power electric lights.  (The fixtures were combination gas and electricity, since even with its own generators electric service was not yet dependable.)  Other innovations were mail chutes in each apartment, so no one needed to walk out his door to mail a letter, and a system for "filtering of the water used for drinking purposes throughout the hotel."

Enjoying the luxurious appointments and amenities did not come cheaply.  Rents in 1891 ranged from $800 to $2,400 per year--about $5,800 per month for the most expensive.

A typical floor plan.  Real Estate Record & Guide, December 20, 1890 (copyright expired)

The San Remo Hotel opened on October 1st, 1891.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune promised, "There will be no duties, no cares, no eternal worry about servants."  Another ad said "The Hotel is conducted solely for families who wish to avoid the annoyances and inconveniences of 'housekeeping,' and for that reason the suites will not be furnished, but every service, including electric light, steam head and chamber service will be furnished free of charge."

That advertisement boasted "This model family hotel has no parallel in its unique and splendid appointments," and added "From the upper stories of the hotel the waters of the Hudson, and those marvels of nature, the 'Giant Palisades,' can be plainly seen."

The Tribune Monthly, June 1892 (copyright expired)

There were now three great apartment buildings on Central Park West--the San Remo, the Dakota, and the Navarro Flats.  The Sun's Guide to New York in 1892 said "These apartments are typical of the more sumptuous sort" and opined that they were the result of the recent "insufficient supply of domestic servants."

Residents of the southernmost apartments would have to endure the inconvenience of construction before too long.  On October 13, 1894 The Record & Guide reported that Brennan had purchased adjoining lots on 74th Street for $90,000 (about $2.7 million today).  "Mr. Brennan will erect on the lots a ten-story addition to the hotel."

No matter how upscale, every apartment building or hotel suffered unfortunate press from time to time.  Among the initial residents of the San Remo were Enrique Bregaro and his wife, the former Sophie Tegner.  Born in Italy, Bregaro was a partner with his brother in the commission firm of Bregaro & Co., headquartered in Puerto Rico.  The firm imported large amounts of sugar, coconuts and molasses to New York.

While the San Remo was under construction, Bregaro had boarded in the house of the widowed Naomi Tegner.  On September 3, 1892 he married her daughter, described by The New York Times as "a handsome blonde, about forty years old."  The newlyweds moved into the San Remo upon its completion in October.

Shortly afterward Bregaro experienced back problems and sought treatment.  His physician told him it was not serious, but Bregaro, according to friends, "expressed the fear that he would be permanently crippled, and this thought upon which he brooded without good cause, made him at times, morose and melancholy."

On the morning of December 6 Bregaro got out of bed, put on his trousers and slippers and went into the dressing room.  A few moments later Sophie was startled by a gunshot.  "She jumped out of bed, and running into the dressing room, found her husband lying on the floor, with the blood gushing from a hole in his right temple."  A widow after only three months of marriage, Sophie "was prostrated by the tragedy" and could not talk to investigators.

An even more shocking incident occurred on January 5, 1897 when a the San Remo's head chef got into a heated dispute with an employee.  He ended the conflict by stabbing the servant with a kitchen knife.  Thomas Grassingen made it home to Second Avenue but then, realizing that he was dying, sent for a doctor to take his ante-mortem statement.  (An ante-mortem statement was necessary in the 19th century to prosecute such a case.)

Another employee-gone-wrong was bellboy John F. Hart.  Lillah Smith was out of her apartment between 5:00 and 10:00 p.m. on June 31, 1897, and when she returned she found her jewelry was gone.   The following day two men pawned jewelry which matched the description for $58.  The shop owner notified detectives who took the items as evidence and arrested the men.  Lillah Smith was taken to Newark where she identified Hart and her jewelry.  Hart broke down and confessed at which point his accomplice, John Hammond, tried to chew up the pawn tickets.  A detective rescued the soggy evidence from his mouth and the young men were imprisoned.

The family of Edward W. Scott lived here by 1899.  A disturbing one-line article appeared in The World on November 8 that year:  "Edward W. Scott, a wealthy importer whose home is at the San Remo hotel, has disappeared and foul play is suspected."  Scott had received a telegram at his office two days earlier "calling him out of town," according to the New-York Tribune.  Knowing he would be back before night, he did not bother to notify his family.  But he did not return home that night.

Scott suffered from what appears to have been the early stages of dementia.  He was found two days later when he asked the gateman at the Fort Lee Ferry where he was.  "He was weak and could not say how he had come there," said the New-York Tribune.  The article went on, "his ideas of locality became somewhat confused, and he was unable to communicate with his family."

Scott was brought home to the San Remo and his family quickly tried to cover up what was at the time an embarrassing medical condition.  His brother told a reporter "My brother had a serious attack of illness some time ago, and he has at times had spells of apparent unconsciousness since.  He is better now, and is on the road to compete recovery."  

Warren D. Hanford and his wife, Alice, were prominent residents.  Born in Vinton, Iowa, Hanford had arrived in New York in 1898 and shortly afterward joined the Mercantile Exchange.  He quickly became its vice-president.  The Egg Reporter would say "He became one of the most successful merchants in the trade."

The couple was married in November 1901 and moved into the San Remo.   Three months later, as had been the case with Lillah Smith, Alice Hanford discovered that pearls and other jewelry were missing.  She left for breakfast on February 8, 1902 and, according to the New-York Daily Tribune, "returned to her apartment and found that her jewel casket, kept in the top drawer of her dresser, had been taken."  She valued the lost items at the equivalent of $153,000 in today's money.  The jewelry, which included a "diamond fleur de lis pin, one large solitaire diamond engagement ring, an old pearl ring surmounted by small diamonds, a pearl necklace, and pair of diamond cuff buttons and a woman's gold watch," were almost all wedding presents.

It did not take detectives long to arrest the elevator boy, 20-year old James Sweeney.  He claimed he knew nothing of the crime.  But his story fell apart after a messenger arrived at the station house with a note for him.  Detectives read the message from Mabel Hyman before delivering it to the prisoner.  Sweeney wrote a return note which was given to the same messenger boy.   Detectives followed him.

Mabel spilled the truth when questioned, implicating a third person, George Marvin, as well.  Both were arrested.  The New-York Daily Tribune reported "Sweeney was furious when he found the woman had told all she knew."  All three confessed.

Happily for Alice, on February 13 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "The jewels stolen from Mrs. Warren D. Hanford, at the San Remo Hotel...have been recovered and are now held by the police to be used as evidence against James Sweeney, the bellboy, who is charged with the theft."

May Darach lived in the building at the time.  As was the case with most well-to-do women, she was highly involved in charity work.  She was the president of the Settlement House for Crippled Children on West 69th Street and her name routinely appeared in newspapers in connection with the home.

An early postcard shows the San Remo towering above the treetops of Central Park.

Washington M. Haddock was described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as "wealthy and a Civil War veteran."  According to staff at the San Remo, it was the custom of the middle-aged man "to take a walk every evening."  But it seems that no one noticed that he did not return on the night of August 5, 1904.  

The following morning at around 4:00 a delivery driver for Swift & Co. was driving up Central Park West when he saw a body lying near the street car tracks in the half-light.  Haddock had died from apoplexy--known today as either a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "All the jewelry and other belongings were found on the body.  There was no suspicion at all, Dr. O'Hanlon said, of foul play." 

Other well known residents of the San Remo were John R. Foley, partner in the real estate firm John R. & Oscar L. Foley; insurance executive Archibald C. Haynes and his wife, the former actress Minna K. Gale ("who played with Booth and Barrett," according to the New-York Daily Tribune); and husband and wife authors Kathinka Schucking Sutro and Emil Sutro.

Emil Sutro was an expert in speech and language.  His works, like his 1899 Duality of Voice, delved into the minute details of speaking, such as "movements of the tongue," "extirpation," and breathing, as well as addressing speech problems like stuttering.  Following his death in 1906 Kathinka lived on in the San Remo apartment.  She was the author of several novels, including In Two Hemispheres.  She died in her apartment at the age of 75 on March 24, 1910.

In 1904 brick-paved street car tracks run alongside Central Park.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Michael Brennan still owned the San Remo in 1913 when he embarked on significant changes.  The Real Estate Record & Guide reported on October 4 that "The dining-room on the top to be transformed into apartments and a new dining-room installed on the main floor.  That latter will in reality take the place of the present ballroom."  The relocation required a new set of kitchens in the rear of the building.

A bitter feud between the night watchman, Judson E. Rodgers, who had worked there for 12 years, and a porter, John McGoldrick, began in April 1919.  According to Edmund Brennan, Michael Brennan's son and the manager of the hotel, Rodgers felt Brennan showed partiality to McGoldrick, especially in regard to his vacation time.  The tensions grew for three months before snapping at around 5:00 on the morning of July 28.

The two got into a quarrel which ended with Rodgers shooting McGoldrick in the back.  When the body was found by a scrub woman, Bridget Genner, Brennan sent for police.  Detective James Maher arrived and was directed to Brennan's rooms.  Unaware that his boss was still in his apartment, Rodgers had waited in ambush in a hall closet.  As Maher approach Rodgers jumped out, assuming it was Brennan, and fired a shot.  The bullet struck 30-year old detective in the head and he died instantly.  The Evening World reported "Rodgers then shot himself through the head."

The unlucky detective was an unintentional victim. The Evening World, July 28, 1919 (copyright expired) 

At a time when fussy Victorian apartment hotels were falling from favor, the San Remo received an updating, completed in 1921.  The new manager, Robert D. Blackman, boasted of the modernization.  An ad on February 13, 1921 said in part:

For years this hotel had has a splendid reputation--but it needed remodeling, redecorating--and a rearrangement of many of the suites.  All of these things have been done, and in the most up to date and modern manner.  And the meals and the service are as perfect as one can make them.

Another advertisement played up the improvements and put a positive spin on the out-of-date elements, saying "its rooms are old-fashioned in size and new-fashioned in equipment and conveniences," adding, "I often wonder why so many people live in apartment houses when they can have so much more for their money in an up-to-date apartment hotel--the San Remo, in particular."

Among the residents in the remodeled apartments were nationally-known landscape architect Samuel Parsons and his wife the former Martha E. Francis.  Parsons joined the firm of Calvert Vaux in the 1870's, as Superintendent of Planting in Central Park.  In 1905 he was appointed Park Commissioner by Mayor George B. McClellan while doubling as the city's landscape architect.  His work extended beyond New York City to include the design of a 1,400-acre park in San Diego, California.

Muriel Manners was acting in the chorus of Kid Boots on Broadway in 1924.  In November that year she took George Sanchez, described by the Daily News as a "reputed sugar magnate," to court.  According to Muriel, she attended a party with Sanchez where she asked him to watch her bag which held $320.  It was a tidy sum for the showgirl to be carrying around--equal to about $4,780 today.  She got her purse back, but not the cash.  Sanchez's lawyer had promised to return the money, but by November 21 when she told her story to the judge, he had not.

The Daily News, November 22, 1924

A peculiar story appeared in the newspapers in February 1928.  Dr. Thomas Lawton notified police that his wife, Madeline, had left to visit her sister on Sunday, February 12, but never arrived there. Three days later the Times Union said "The doctor visited relatives and friends in a vain effort to trace her."  He told reporters that Madeline had been injured in a train wreck a few years earlier and "has been in a highly nervous condition since."  Newspapers published a description of the 35-year old woman, including the outfit she was wearing when she left the apartment.

The mystery deepened when her sister, Mrs. J. V. Lupo told reporters on February 15 that Madeline had phoned her to say she was well and in New York City.  "She did not give me her New York City address because she did not want her husband to know where she is."  Friends may have thought this suspicious since in leaving her husband she also left their two children, 4-year old Betsy Ann and 7-year old Jane.

Dr. Lawton played on the sympathies of readers with this posed photo of him gazing at his sleeping daughters.  Daily News, February 16, 1928 

But the story seemed to be true when Madeline left a message  at her husband's office.  "Tell the doctor to cut out all this newspaper stuff.  He knows why I have gone away.  I'm not coming back until I'm good and ready."

As the 1920's drew to an end, the Victorian apartment hotel could no longer compete with the sleek Art Deco apartment buildings lining up along Central Park West.  The San Remo was demolished in 1929 to be replaced by its namesake, designed by Emery Roth which survives.

photo by Bilby

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Tom. Wish those floorplan drawings were a bit more legible.