Monday, April 4, 2022

The Lost Hotel Imperial - Broadway and 32nd Street

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1872 the lavish Gilsey House hotel opened on Broadway at 29th Street, significantly (and to some, surprisingly) north of the business and entertainment districts.  Within two decades, that section of Broadway was dotted with large, fashionable hotels, including the Hotel Imperial, owned by the Goelet family.  Completed in 1890, the nine-story hotel was designed by McKim, Mead & White in what loosely could be described as the Venetian palazzo style.  

On October 11, 1890 the Real Estate Record & Guide began its critique of the building saying, "Regarded architecturally, the hotels of New York are not among the boasts of the city.  In fact, there has not been one that could be commended without great reserve."   The critic, in one sentence, praised the new building and took a swipe at another.  
"The new Hotel Imperial, at 32d street and Broadway, is really the only inn in New York in which anybody has taken much thought for the architecture, for the highly ornate extension of the Hoffman House on the side street does not count with the judicious observer."

McKim, Mead & White placed seven stories of yellow brick trimmed with terra cotta upon a two-story marble base.  The main entrance was on 32nd Street below a long bronze-and-glass marquee.  Shops occupied the ground floor of the Broadway side.  Because of the odd angle created by the diagonally-running Broadway, the architects chamfered the corner, allowing for a wide store window.  Prominent features were the three, three-story arches framed in terra cotta and sitting upon fourth-floor balconies.  The Record & Guide's critic remarked, "They effectually relieve the front of monotony," adding that "the comparatively plain walls are appropriately crowned with a very rich attic [i.e., top floor] and cornice."

The main staircase was described as being of "marble and onyx."  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Only days after the hotel opened, its patrons suffered a scare.  On October 26, 1890 The Sun reported, "This hotel is doing a rushing business just, now and women make up a large percentage of the guests."  Two days earlier, at 6:15 p.m., the women's restaurant on the ground floor was filled when "a queer sizzling noise was heard beneath the restaurant.  It was followed a moment later by a dense volume of steam that rolled up the stairs leading from the kitchens and in a few moments completely filled the dining room."   The fog of steam spread into the corridor and up the staircase.  "At the same time the electric lights became very dim.  The band stopped playing very abruptly, and the musicians rushed out into the office, but the guests were more deliberate."

The Ladies' Dining Room.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The well-dressed women seemed initially to take the steam's intrusion merely as an inconvenience--until it became so thick they could no longer see their plates.  At that point, "they concluded that it was time to get out.  That they did.  Even then, however, their retreat was dignified."  A "tall, swell-looking man" watched the ladies' composed retreat with awe.  

"Americans are wonderfully calm and self-contained," he said.  "If this had happened in a French hotel, half the women would have been out in the street before this, yelling murder."

The leak in the basement steam pipe was quickly repaired and the diners were back at their tables, "plying their knives and forks as though nothing had occurred."

On October 26, 1892, former President Grover Cleveland was the guest of honor at a reception hosted by the Buffalonians' Cleveland Club in the hotel's Persian Dining Room.  Among the attendees were the Lieutenant Governor, William F. Sheehan, and millionaire banker John Henry Clews.

With its leather upholstered furnishings and spittoons, the Men's Cafe was decidedly more masculine than the Ladies' Dining Room.   photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the Hotel Imperial's respected guests in 1902 was landscape architect John De Wolf, who checked in on July 13.  De Wolf designed part of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and parks in the Bronx.  In 1899 he had been appointed Superintendent of Parks at Bristol, Rhode Island, where three of his family's estates were located.  The 52-year-old architect's visit to Manhattan was obviously a pleasure trip.

On July 15 The New York Times reported he had been found in the corridor of the hotel.  "A physician said that he thought that Mr. De Wolf was suffering from opium poisoning, and suggested that he be sent immediately to the hospital."  He had been discovered in time and at the hospital it opium poisoning was confirmed.  Doctors predicted that "while his condition was very serious he would probably recover."

Detectives who searched De Wolf's rooms found no evidence of drugs.  But in the hospital, he was surprisingly forthright when questioned.  He gave his name and address and "said that he had been in the 'Tenderloin' for three days."  The Tenderloin District was the most "depraved" of Manhattan's neighborhoods, filled with gambling dens, saloons and brothels.

On the ground floor were the sumptuous two-story high waiting area (above) and the main corridor with its remarkable coffered ceiling.  photos by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1902 an annex was constructed in the middle of the Broadway block.  It deftly mimicked the 1890 design, while looming seven stories above the original.  It quickly the scene of a scare.

The annex followed the McKim, Mead & White design, while towering above the original structure.  

Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Kellogg took a suite on the sixth floor.  They went downstairs to dinner on October 23, 1902, leaving Mrs. Kellogg's maid alone.  The New York Times reported, "Because a French maid wished to make herself as attractive as possible--her hair is not naturally curly, and it was necessary for her to use hot irons to make ringlets in her black tresses--there was a fire scare in the Hotel Imperial last night at the dinner hour."

The maid lit an alcohol lamp to heat the irons, forgetting that the windows were open.  The lace curtains blew over the lamp, setting them on fire.  "She tried to tear them down, but when the heavy portieres caught fire she gave up and ran screaming from the room," said the article.  By the time the elevator boy rushed into the street to the nearest fire box, a policeman who saw the flames erupting from the Kellogg rooms had already arrived.  

As firefighters rushed into the hotel, the orchestras in the main dining room and the Palm Garden were told by the managers "to play the liveliest music they knew how, and to play it as loud as they could."  One orchestra, which had been playing the intermezzo of Cavalleria Rusticana, broke into There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-night, and the other turned to John Philip Sousa's Washington Post March.  

Because the new building had been constructed according to the new "fire-proof law," the flames were confined to the Kellogg suite.  The Kelloggs canceled their theater engagement with friends and inspected the damage.  "Mr. Kellogg found that his overcoat had been burned to a crisp and that the furs and dresses of his wife were burned up.  There had been ten trunks."  The New York Times added, "The curled hair of the French maid grew naturally straight in the excitement of the commotion she had caused."

Mrs. T. D. Palmer and Mrs. Albert Moyer were on their way back to Chicago after attending the Woman's Federal Conference in Boston on July 2, 1908, when they checked into the Hotel Imperial.   The next morning, at around 4:00, Mrs. Moyer woke up to see a man ransacking the drawers of the bureau in the dark.  She silently slipped out of bed and picked up the telephone receiver.  The click of the telephone caught the burglar's attention.

Mrs. Palmer was now awake and when the intruder threatened "to brain Mrs. Moyer if she didn't drop the telephone," as reported by The New York Times, she "sprang out of the bed screaming and ran into the hall."  In the meantime, Mrs. Moyer did not drop the phone, but screamed to the office boy that a burglar was in the room.  Then she, too, ran into the hall.

As she left, she saw the man leaving the window on "a rope of knotted towels."  Police later told the women that he had no doubt intended to use the towels as gags.  When they returned to their room, they found $800 in jewelry and cash missing--more than $23,000 today.  The women were later informed by the manager that the thief had visited and robbed nearly every room along that line of fire escapes.

In August 1911 Robert G. Goelet hired architect Albert S. Gottlieb to do major alterations to the aging hotel, at a cost of about $1.4 million in today's money.  It now held 600 rooms.

Among the long-term residents at the time was John T. Brush, owner of the New York National Baseball Club.  His team, the Giants, was defeated in the World Series on October 26 that year by the Philadelphia Athletics.  Nevertheless, New York fans stood by their team.  On October 29 the New-York Tribune reported, "Many admirers, carrying with them a large amount of noise, gave a dinner for the Giants at the Hotel Imperial last night.  There were about one hundred and fifty of the admirers, while the noise represented the stadium full of rooters."

Sports fans were surprised a year later when, on November 12, 1912, The Evening World reported rumors that "John T. Brush, who is seriously ill in the Hotel Imperial, will shortly name a successor to the former head of the American Association to take the reins of the Giants' club."

Brush was suffering from locomotor ataxia, a progressive disease of the nervous system brought on by syphilis.  Shortly after the article appeared, his physicians decided that the California climate may extend his life.  The Evening World reported, "The decision to remove him was a last resort, for he was known to be in a very critical condition."

He left the hotel on November 24, never to return.  The newspaper said when he was placed in the automobile "he was hardly conscious."  With him in his private train car were two nurses, a valet and "a railroad man."  As the train headed west, his condition deteriorated rapidly, and near Seeburger, Missouri, he died.

In 1917 Robert W. Goelet hired architect Albert M. Gray to renovate the original structure.  The New-York Tribune said on July 1 that it "is to be modernized in keeping with the sixteen story part of the hotel adjoining."  Included in the plans were two new dining halls, and "about a hundred new bathrooms and fifteen showers and [to] otherwise rearrange the plumbing.  When complete the hostelry will be entirely modern."

A hand tinted postcard depicted the two structures around 1910.

On the night of February 8, 1922, the elevator operator took a man carrying two suitcases from the fifth floor to the lobby.  Because he did not recognize him, the operator mentioned it to George Keane, the manager.  By then the presumed guest had left.  Later, the same man appeared, without the suitcases, and went again to the fifth floor.  Keane called Patrolmen Kazklek and Helm who investigated.  They found Joseph E. Brown about to enter room 576, which was occupied by Eva Ballard.

He had about a dozen hotel pass keys in his possession.  The two suitcases, it was discerned, belonged to Mamie Burband of Philadelphia, who was missing $500 worth of jewelry and clothing.  Brown's discovery was just in time for one guest.  Joseph Brown had the passkey to room 505, occupied by a salesman who had $10,000 in furs in his room.

In March 1947 the bar and restaurant were closed for good.  The heirs of Robert Walton Goelet announced that the hotel, which The New York Times deemed "a landmark in the area for fifty years," would be demolished and a one-story taxpayer erected on the site.  (Taxpayers were buildings, usually one or two stories tall, that simply provided enough income to pay the taxes on the property.)  The New York Times explained, "The hotel was built at a cost of $2,300,000, but the luxurious charms of the 1900's are the fire hazards of today.  Its grand marble and onyx staircase is only an open shaft to fire inspectors and must be enclosed.  Its imposing main corridor needs an improved sprinkler system."  To modernize the engine room would cost $118,000.  A spokesperson for the Goelet family said, "So for the safety of everybody it will be demolished."

photograph by Eden, Janine and Jim

On the site today stands the 39-floor Nomad Tower, designed by Shreve Lamb & Harmon.

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