Monday, December 7, 2020

The Lost Brevoort House - 15 Fifth Avenue

Tracks for the horse-drawn 8th Street streetcar run alongside the hotel.  photo by Byron Company from the Museum of the City of New York

When Henry Brevoort, Jr. built his free-standing house on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street in 1834, he and his wife, Laura, were separated from society.  The fashionable residential neighborhood stretched east from Broadway, blocks from the plot his father had given him on which to build.  A descendant later recalled that Henry felt "very much in the woods and quite out of it."

But, greatly because of the Brevoorts' lavish entertaining and social prominence, the unpaved Fifth Avenue quickly saw similar mansions rising all around until the street became the fashionable address.  Upscale hotels, like the Astor House sat within exclusive residential neighborhoods.  And so it is not surprising that in 1845 the Brevoort family erected the Brevoort House hotel at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street.

Five stories tall, the Italianate style structure engulfed more than half of the blockfront from 8th to 9th Streets.  Tall gas lamps illuminated the stone stoop which led to the columned portico.  The lintels of each window wore fussy tiara-like Victorian decorations, and a triangular pediment perched atop the cornice.   The strict symmetry of the design was upset only by the grouped windows of the café at the first floor corner which afforded patrons a pleasant view of Fifth Avenue.

Despite being what the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer deemed "one of the most elegantly furnished hotels in the city," when it changed hands in 1855 the new management totally redecorated.  An auction held on April 30 sold:

All the splendid furniture...comprising an elegant and complete assortment of valuable cabinet furniture, of the most costly description, viz.: Velvet carpets, splendid mirrors of every kind, parlor and bedroom suits in rosewood, black walnut, and mahogany; silk and lace curtains; extensions and other tables; beds, mattresses, and bedding; costly China and glass ware; wines &c, &c.

The Brevoort House was frequently the stopping place for European nobility.  On September 13, 1861, five months after the outbreak of the Civil War, François d'Orléans, the Prince d'Joinville, arrived for his second stay here.  The third son of the King of France, he did not travel lightly.  The New York Herald pointed out, "the party has been registered on the books of the hotel, in the Prince's own writing, as follows:--'Prince de Joinville and son, Comte de Paris, Duc du Chartres, M. Fauseil, M. Morhaiden, Dr. Leclere, and five servants, from Clarimont, England.'"

The article said, "A very splendid suit of room has been specially set apart for the use of the Prince and suite.  The reception rooms are large and elegantly furnished, and the sleeping and dressing rooms are all that the most cultivated and fastidious taste could desire."

This was not, however, a sight-seeing or otherwise casual trip.  The Prince's son and nephews would be carrying on the tradition of Franco-American alliance that had been in place since the American Revolution by assisting the Union military.

Although Major Robert Anderson and his wife Eliza had a comfortable house nearby on West 9th Street, she moved into the Brevoort House when he was called away immediately upon the succession of the South.  Anderson was sent South to command Fort Sumter and, even before the firing on the fort in April 1861, he became a national hero and a symbol of Union resistance.  Eliza's moving into the Brevoort was possibly because of the never-ending stream of visitors that followed her husband's celebrity.

On January 1, 1861 the New York Herald reported "Major Anderson is the man of the hour.  The people of the Northern States heartily endorse his conduct, and in almost every principal city guns have been fired in his honor.  Mrs. Major Anderson is...spending the winter at the Brevoort House, and on New Year's day hundreds of the leading citizens of New York, irrespective of party, called upon her to testify their sympathy with her husband and their approbation of his conduct."

The Prince d'Joinville returned in 1862.  His son, the Duc de Penthrieve, was helping the Union as a cadet at Newport, and his nephews, the Comte de Paris, heir apparent to the throne of France, and the Comte's brother the Duc de Chartres were serving on the staff of General George B. McClellans in commanding the Army of the Potomac.

On July 5, three days after the Prince d'Joinville checked in, his nephews arrived.  The New York Herald reported "The princes were exceedingly fatigued on arriving at their hotel, and appeared worn down in the extreme, added to their embrowned countenances and plain attire, conveyed any other idea than that they were scions of a royal house."  

While the Prince and his nephews returned to France, his son remained.  The New York Herald explained "He is now engaged in the duties incident to a naval education on board the practice ship Preble at or near Fortress Monroe."

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott submitted his resignation in October 1861 after receiving harsh criticism for the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run.  He left the country for Paris.  But on December 28, 1861 he was among the passengers of the steamship Arago when it arrived from France.

A crowd of supporters had waited for up to three hours in the cold at the pier.  The Albany Morning Express wrote, "A good deal of speculation was indulged in, by those persons, as to the probably reason for the sudden return of General Scott."  Amid cheers and well wishes, "The General was then conducted to a carriage, when, in company with his son-in-law, he was driven to the Brevoort House without ostentation of any sort."  Once there he sent a telegram to Secretary William H. Seward informing him of his arrival.

The following day a succession of prominent New Yorkers arrived at Scott's suite, "anxious to pay their devoirs to the returned hero," according to the New York Herald.  Among them were Hamilton Fish, J. W. Beekman, Charles S. Baker and Thomas Kemble.  Scott remained at the hotel for about a week before traveling to Washington D.C.

For three days in July 1863 Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles led his men in the Battle of Gettysburg.  During the conflict a cannonball shattered his leg, later necessitating amputation.  On November 1 the New York Herald reported "Last night, at half-past nine o'clock, an immense number of citizens assembled in front of the Brevoort House to honor the gallant General d. E. Sickles with a complimentary serenade."

Four years later, on October 2, 1867, The Troy Daily Times reported "Gen. Daniel E. Sickles returned from Washington yesterday afternoon, and has resumed his old quarters at the Brevoort House."

Following the war things returned to normal.  In 1867 Miller's Strangers' Guide for the City of New York described the Brevoort House as "a first-class family hotel on a large scale" and a "noble and spacious Hotel, fitted up in elegant style, and being on the great avenue of fashion, commands a fine view of the beau monde."

In the decade following the end of the Civil War a stone balustrade still ran along the rooftop.  from the collection of  the Museum of the City of New York

Another royal visitor, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, arrived in August 1871.  The Albany Morning Express reported that he was met by "Admiral Gordon, the municipal authorities and a committee of citizens" who "will take charge of him and conduct him and his suite to the Brevoort House.  During his stay in New York very brilliant honors will be paid him."

By the end of the 19th century almost all the wealthy homeowners around the Brevoort House had moved northward.  No longer amid the center of fashion the Brevoort House was threatened.  But on April 23, 1895 The Times-Union reported "It is now announced that the Brevoort House in New York is to be continued as a hotel, after all."

When the proprietor refused to renew his lease, the owner, Albert Clark, who lived in the mansion next door, purchased the furnishings from him and continued the business himself.  He shortly converted his former home into an annex of the hotel.

The Clark mansion at No. 17 Fifth Avenue became part of the hotel.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Clark's granddaughter, Emma Clark Roche, inherited the property, now known as the Brevoort Hotel.  She had been born in No. 17 Fifth Avenue in 1865.  While it the neighborhood wa still upscale, the changes were reflected in the events and patrons in the hotel.  By the turn of the century Greenwich Village had become the center of the arts in New York City and the hotel's café was the haunt of artists, poets and musicians.  Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugene O'Neill both lived in the Brevoort for a time.

On June 3, 1910 Felicien Buisset, a young bank clerk from Belgium, checked in.  A week later the Belgian Consul (whose residence was directly opposite the hotel) received a telegram from the Chief of Police in Brussels, alerting him that Buisset was wanted for embezzling more than 500,000 francs.  It suggested he might possibly be at the Hotel Brevoort.  Pierre Mali notified the head of the Detective Bureau who put two detectives on the case.

On the evening of July 10 Detectives Millmore and Armstrong checked the register and found Buisset's name "written in flowing hand," as described by the New-York Tribune.  Armstrong asked the clerk to send for Buisset, telling him that he had a visitor in the office.  A few minutes later the young man appeared and after a few moments of conversation was told he was under arrest.  The article said "As the detective spoke the words Buisset paled perceptibly, his knees shook and he was seized with a violent trembling.  In an instant, however, he had recovered his nerve and bowed to Armstrong, while he drew a silk handkerchief and mopped his face."

Buisett explained that there was a dreadful mistake, but would go to headquarters.  He needed only to go to his room and get his overcoat and hat.  Armstrong followed him close by.  As they climbed the staircase "in full view of the dining room," Armstrong turned for a moment to beckon his partner to follow.  Buisset took the opportunity of that quick distraction to pull a revolver from his pocket and shoot himself, "sending a bullet into his brain," as worded by the Tribune.

The newspaper added, "The women guests in the dining room became hysterical and rushed to the corridor.  Several fainted."

Motorcars replaced horses in this post World War I advertising postcard.

The name of another foreign guest appeared in the newspapers for the wrong reasons in 1922.  James S. Ayres was 29 years old and, according to The Evening World on May 17 "describes himself as a British barrister."  He was arrested by Traffic Policeman Schmidt on the complaints of 18-year old Anna Calombo who said he made unwanted advances.

In Night Court he was indignant and told Magistrate Corrigan, "Mayor Hyland gave me the freedom of the city."  His feisty accuser blurted out "He told me the same thing," and Officer Schmidt added, "Me, too."

The Evening World reported "'I'll give you the freedom of the workhouse for three days,' said the Magistrate.  'Next case.'"

In 1924 Emma Clark Roche sold the Brevo0rt Hotel to Raymond Orteig.  Prohibition had greatly impacted its income and the Stock Market Crash in 1929 dealt a second blow.  Orteig was forced to sell the venerable hotel in 1932.

The Clark mansion annex has been slightly remodeled in this 1935 photo by Berenice Abbott.  The house at the left was home to Samuel Clemens in the first years of the 20th century.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Brevoort Hotel stumbled along.  It was twice the scene of an armed robbery.  On December 1, 1937 a well-dressed man walked in at around 4:00 in the morning and pointed a pistol at the night manager.  After pocketing all the money from the cash drawer, he forced Arthur E. Burlew into an elevator and sent it to an upper floor then escaped.   Similarly, in the early hours of July 6, 1947 three "young thugs," as described by The New York Times walked into the lobby.  Although the bar (formerly the fashionable café) was filled with "merry makers," they held up the night clerk, assaulted an elevator operator, and made away with $500 (more in the neighborhood of $5,700 today).

At the time of the latest robbery the days of the Brevoort Hotel were numbered.  On July 17, 1948 The New York Times wrote "The historic Brevoort Hotel, established 94 years ago at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street where it has been host to royalty and other notables is to be closed to residents on July 31."  The hotel's 52 permanent residents were given notices to vacate, citing that the management could not meet modern building codes.  To do so would mean "rebuilding the hotel," said a spokesman.

While the building could not legally house residents, its ground floor restaurant, the ballroom, and the sidewalk café were allowed to continue.  In announcing the changes, The New York Times recalled "Among the celebrities who have stayed at the Brevoort were President James A. Garfield, Mark Twain, Richard Harding Davis, the Duke of Marlborough, Edith Wharton, George Luks, Johanna Gadski, Lincoln Steffens, Feodor Chaliapin, Eugene O'Neill and Theodore Dreiser."

Of course, historic or not, the Hotel Brevoort could not be sustained only on its restaurant.  On January 11, 1952 The Times Record of Troy, New York reported "The internationally famous Brevoort Hotel and the historic Mark Twain House, in lower Fifth Avenue, are to be torn down to make way for a tall, ultra modern apartment building."

The 20-story replacement building, designed by the architectural firm of Boak & Raad, was completed in 1955 and, with a polite nod to its predecessor, was christened The Brevoort.

photo via


  1. But you still have to wonder if a less practical society with more of a yen for history would have kept some of the hotel intact, somehow. We're still not quite that enlightened.

    1. Agree. It's sad we don't appreciate the history of such an iconic building – torn down without a thought it seems. What makes me angry is that then you have people getting homicidal over the very appropriate removal of an ugly confederate statue in the middle of nowhere; let's keep the historically significant buildings & nix the racism instead, right?!

    2. How incredibly ignorant to say on one hand that it’s “sad” New Yorkers don’t appreciate history, while on the other hand supporting the tearing down of a historical statue. If you’re gonna tear down the “racist” statue, why not just tear down the building that was erected by racists as well? If you truly support the preservation of historical landmarks, you cannot pick and choose which stay or which go based on current-year sensibilities. Modern thinking in the year 2122 may include the removal of any landmark referencing France. “Buh-bye Statue of Liberty, we’re in the 22nd Century and this is a very appropriate removal of an ugly French statue in the middle of a tiny nothing island.” Grow the bloody hell up and support the preservation all history for future generations to behold. That includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.

  2. Queen Emma of Hawaiʻi also stayed there in August of 1866

  3. So sad that it was torn down--a place with so much history!

  4. Read pp 43-44 in W.M. Spackman's "An Armful of Warm Girl" where Nicholas Romney mourns the loss of the Brevoort Hotel.