The exuberant gable and handsome portico have recently been removed. postcard from author's collection
The "apartment hotel" trend swept Manhattan toward the turn of the last century. The hybrid residential buildings offered the amenities of hotels--like maid and valet service--with the long-term leases of apartments. In 1902 architect Frederick C. Browne began plans for what the Real Estate Record & Guide would call "a late addition to the list of apartment hotels" at 148-152 West 47th Street for developer Henry L. Felt.
But Browne's plans would never be executed, at least not completely. While excavations for the foundation were under way, Felt sold the property to Street, Wykes & Co., which hired architect Clarence Luce to redo the design. In the opinion of at least one contemporary architectural critic, partners Hunter Wykes and Charles F. Street should have kept the original.
Completed in 1903, the 12-story Beaux Arts style Hotel Somerset was faced in red brick above a two-story rusticated limestone base. A portico of four free-standing columns with Scamozzi capitals upheld a stone-balustraded balcony. Stealing the show was the massive, three-story Flemish Revival style gable that all but hid the mansard behind it. Four full-length engaged columns rose to an overblown, broken pediment.
Meant to draw attention, the gable did just that. Writing in The Architectural Record in 1903, the often acerbic critic Montgomery Schuyler called it a "pompous sham" and said the Hotel Somerset was "the most ridiculous" of recent New York City structures.
Nevertheless, the hotel catered to an upper-crust clientele. Prospective long-term tenants were required to provide references, and the names of those who were accepted appeared regularly in society columns. On January 27, 1904, for instance, The Commercial Advertiser announced, "Mrs. Walter Scott of the Somerset, 150 West Forty-seventh street, gives the last of her January at homes to-day."
The residents of the Hotel Somerset, both long-term and transient, enjoyed amenities like a writing room, an elegant dining room and a rooftop café. In 1910 the white collar residents had professions like physician, "manager," and broker. And its proximity to the theater district drew members of the entertainment industry as well.
The trellis-roofed café. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Jules Von Tilzer and his wife, the former Estella Steinberg, lived here by the summer of 1906. Von Tilzer was one of the six brothers who made up the Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company on West 28th Street. The couple had "a domestic spat," according to The Sun, on May 27 that year.
According to Estella, she had gone to see Peter Pan at the Lyric Theatre with friends who were about to sail for Europe. After the play, they stopped at Sherry's restaurant. It was around midnight when she got home. Jealous, Von Tilzer flew into a rage and stormed out.
Cast iron lampposts stand guard, and a lacy iron-and-glass marquee stretches forth from the portico in this early photograph. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
When he had not returned home four days later, Estella went to his office. And there, The Sun said, "such lively things happened that the woman, who is young and attractive, was taken by a policeman to the Tenderloin station house." Their conversation turned heated--to the point that Von Tilzer's white silk shirt was torn from his back. When a secretary, Daniel Dody, rushed in to intervene, Estella broke her parasol over his head.
Dody called a policeman and asked him to arrest Estella for assault and disorderly conduct. They traveled to the station house in the hansom cab that had been waiting for her at the curb. There Dody told of Estella's violence and Estella pooh-poohed it all, exhibiting her parasol and saying, "Look at this little sun umbrella. You couldn't hurt a fly with it." And as to ripping her husband's shirt from his body, she explained she never meant to do so.
"It was a little, thin silk thing, too expensive for a music publisher to wear. My husband struck me when we had some words and I grabbed at him to save myself."
In the end, Dody dropped the charges on the condition that Estella never enter the office again. She agreed, saying, "I've promised not to go to the office, but that promise does not prevent my going in the street. I'll be outside the office sometimes."
The main dining room. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Actor and playwright Robert Drouet and his wife, the former Mildred Loring. were residents. Born in 1870, he had joined a theatrical company at the age of 16. He was as successful as a playwright as an actor. Among the plays he wrote, the best known which were Fra Diano and Doris.
Actor-playwright Robert Drouet was just 44 years old when he died. The Players Blue Book, 1901 (copyright expired)
Mildred Drouet and her mother traveled to Chicago in the summer of 1914. On the night of August 16 Drouet went to bed at about midnight, leaving word at the desk to call him at 8:00. The next morning, according to The Sun, "A number of telephone calls had been unanswered, and when the manager of the hotel went to Mr. Drouet's room to investigate the actor was found dead in bed." He had died of heart failure.
The tranquility within the Hotel Somerset for its permanent residents may have been upset in October 1914 when the Boston Braves baseball team checked in. But if the young men had ever been a bit rowdy, that all changed following their game against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 6. The team was almost assured of playing in the World Series that year, but during the game their star "hard-hitting third baseman," J. Caryle "Red" Smith, splintered the bone in his right leg while sliding into second base.
The New-York Tribune reported, "It was a glum, sorrowful group of Boston players who sat down to their dinners at the Hotel Somerset last night. Where all had been mirth and enthusiasm all was sombre and suppressed."
Museum of the City of New York
On April 11, 1919 Edward Van Bode checked into the hotel. He had no luggage, a fact that should have raised suspicions in the management. The 60 year old bachelor, who was the son of General Von Bodemer of the British Army, fell to his death from his eighth floor window two days later. Despite what seemed to be obvious, the New-York Tribune noted, "There was nothing in his room to indicate suicide."
Another playwright to call the Hotel Somerset home was Edward Henry Peple, here by 1920. Best known for his farces and comedies, among the popular plays he wrote were The Prince Chap, A Pair of Sixes and The Littlest Rebel.
In 1923 actress Beverly Sitgreaves moved in, having returned from Europe. On December 30 The Morning Telegraph explained, "After an absence of nearly five years, she has returned to her work as actress and teacher. In 1919 a cable from Sarah Bernhardt called her to Paris and finally resulted in a tour which eventually carried her around the world."
Beverly Sitgreaves as she appeared while living at the Hotel Somerset. The Morning Telegraph, December 30, 1923 (copyright expired)
After being the houseguest of Sarah Bernhardt for three months, she played in London in a revival of Arms and the Man, "under the personal direction of Bernard Show," and then appeared in Australia. At the time of The Morning Telegraph's article, she had just finished an engagement with Ethel Barrymore. In addition to her stage work, Sitgreaves coached thespians. The article said she preferred one-on-one instruction, which she "practices at her residence, the Somerset Hotel, 150 West Forty-seventh street."
Also living here in 1923 was lecturer and author Mrs. Sophie Almon Hensley. She published her first collection of poetry in 1889 and went on to write other poetry collections, and books and essays such as Women's Love Letters and Love and the Woman of Tomorrow. She lectured on literary topics, and was President of the Society for the Study of Life, secretary of the New York State Assembly of Mothers, and founder of the New York City Mother's Club. She was also the associate editor of Health: A Home Magazine Devoted to Physical Culture and Hygiene.
Sophie and her husband moved to Jersey, England in 1937. They were forced to relocate to Canada when the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands in 1940.
The Arts & Crafts style Reading Room in 1904, outfitted in oak and leather furniture. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In the meantime, the Hotel Somerset continued to attract residents involved in the entertainment industry. In 1925 vaudevillian actress "Princess" Rajah lived here. She suffered a major loss that year when she her purse was picked.
Early in the morning of March 23 she was standing in a subway car with two female friends. Her handbag was suspended over her arm. The New York Times reported, "She noticed two men standing near her, the car being very crowded, and said that one of them was reading a newspaper which he thrust close to her face."
As the train pulled into 110th Street, she noticed her pocketbook was open and she closed it without much thought. She and her friends debarked at the Times Square station and went to a restaurant near the Hotel Somerset. When she opened her purse there, she realized the chamois bag with her jewelry was gone. The diamonds and other jewelry were valued at $20,000--more than $300,000 in today's money.
Cartoonist Ellison Hoover lived in the Hotel Somerset in the 1930's, as did vaudeville entertainer David Genero (he had won the American cakewalk championship in 1891) and writer Edward Goldbeck and his singer-actress wife Lina Abarbanell.
Goldbeck wrote in both German and English and was a former columnist of the Chicago Tribune. Lina Abarbanell was a soprano who performed in light and grand opera. In 1909 she introduced the title character of Madame Sherry at the New Amsterdam Theatre, which ran for 231 performances.
Another author and playwright, Jane Maudlin Feigl, moved into the Hotel Somerset early in 1934, following the death of her husband Colonel Fred Feigl on December 10, 1933. The New York Times had described her husband as a "former publisher and well known in military circles." Jane had already mourned the death of their son Lieutenant Jefferson Feigle for years. He was the first American artillery officer killed in action in World War I. The loss of her husband added to her enormous grief.
A relative described Jane as being "very miserable and unhappy," following her husband's death. The New York Times wrote, "Because of her moodiness, Captain George G. Feigl...her brother-in-law, had been a frequent caller." Her depression was severe enough to require her being hospitalized in the Fifth Avenue Hospital for several weeks that spring.
On June 5, 1934 Captain Feigl dropped by Jane's 12th-floor apartment. Unable to get an answer to his knocking, he enlisted the help of manager John Smith, who opened the door with a passkey. The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Feigl was lying in bed, and along side her was a bottle believed to have contained an acid."
In 1953 the Hotel Somerset was remodeled to a transient hotel. There were now a restaurant and store on the ground floor, 18 hotel rooms on the second through twelfth floors, and 6 each in the new penthouse, unseen from the street.
That configuration lasted until another renovation, completed in 1980, converted the Hotel Somerset to apartments, nine each on floors two through twelve, and four in the penthouse. In 1997 the details of Clarence Luce's gable were shaved off and the portico was removed, destroying the building's 1903 personality.
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