Friday, December 2, 2022

The 1930 George Washington (Freehand) Hotel - 23 Lexington Avenue


Born in 1878, Harry Barth joined his father's restaurant and hotel supply firm, I. Barth & Son, around the turn of the last century.  It grew to be the largest hotel and restaurant supply business in the East.  Barth sold his interest in the company in 1925, accepting the caveat that he could not involve himself in the business for a decade.  And so, instead, he focused on acquiring and erecting hotels, forming the Barth Hotels Corporation and the affiliated Club Hotel Corporation.

On March 18, 1929, The New York Times reported that Barth's two corporations planned the erection of a $3 million hotel on the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street.  "The George Washington Hotel, of which Frank M. Andrews is the architect, will be a sixteen-story structure, containing 630 rooms, each with private bath, and stores on the ground floor."  In fact, Frank M. Andrews would work with John B. Peterkin on the design, and both would be listed as "associated architect."  

By now Barth operated a chain of hotels, filled with carefree tourists and businessmen who spent freely.  But had he been able to see seven months into the future, he assuredly would have halted the plans for another.  During construction, on October 29, the Stock Market crashed, plunging the nation into the Great Depression.  Years later, The New York Times would recall, "Construction on the last unit of the group, the George Washington Hotel at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street, was begun just before the depression, which put an end to this venture."  The costs of the hotel, completed in 1930, forced Barth and his corporations into bankruptcy.

Despite the pall of the Depression, Andrews and Peterkin had designed the brick-faced structure in a 1920's take on Renaissance period architecture.  The three-story stone base was distinguished by elaborate, polychrome terra cotta framed windows set into shallow arched recesses.  The impressive, double-height stone entranceway drew inspiration from a triumphal arch, its free-standing Doric columns and layered pilasters upheld an arched opening and entablature.

Architecture and Building magazine noted in its February 1930 issue that the hotel "is designed to cater exclusively to single young men and women in New York City who seek attractive accommodations at very moderate rates."  To garner extra income, the ground floor contained shops while the entire second floor was devoted to "an interesting series of public rooms," some of which could be rented for meetings and other assemblies.  The article said "As this hotel is for permanent residents rather than transients, the atmosphere of these rooms in intimate."

For the residents, there was a "gallery" in the Italian Renaissance style.  A library was finished with Georgian wooden paneling and held a copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.  "It is comfortably furnished with numerous arm chairs and reading lamps," said Architecture and Building, adding, "The lounge follows the Colonial period in a finish of knotty pine."

photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The upper floor rooms were relatively small, with just a single bed, night table, small desk, and an easy chair.  But each had a bathroom, closet and a telephone.  On the roof was a "sun parlor," enclosed in French windows, and a roof garden.

A major tenant was the City College Club, which had a hand in the designs for its space.  Its private entrance was on East 24th Street, although the clubrooms had access to other parts of the hotel.  On December 29, 1929, The New York Times explained, "The main club consists of an entrance foyer off which are grouped the club rooms and the vestiaire [i.e. coat room], telephones, men's rooms and service pantries."  

The main room was 50 feet long and 30 feet wide, "and so planned as to serve as a general lounge and club room at all times.  It can be easily transformed into a meeting hall or dining hall wherein may be given dances, general receptions, &c."  The room had been designed in a Dutch Colonial motif, using models and documents in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for guidance.  The tiled fireplace, with the insignia of the College of the City of New York, was fabricated in Holland.  There were also a 25-by-30-foot billiard and bridge room, a library and a card room.  

The opening of the George Washington Hotel not only coincided with the Great Depression, but with the rise of Nazism in Germany.  In the July 1932 German elections, the Nazi Party became the most powerful political group in Germany.  Its influence spread quickly to America.

On August 28, 1933, The Daily Worker, a Socialist newspaper, reported on the Kulturbund, or Culture Union, "an aristocratic Nazi organization in which the 'gentlemen' Nazis segregate themselves from the riff-raff and small fry, who have their Storm Troop, and carry out the rowdy work."  The article said, "They have elegant headquarters in the George Washington Hotel, on Lexington Ave. at 23rd St., and all the leading Nazis live there in style, supported in part by the 75-cent weekly dues of the rank and file."

"The president of the 'Kulturbund' is George Schellenberg, adventurer and ex-movie actor," said the article, "who lives at the George Washington Hotel and has a big job in a department store, where he is notorious for his vicious manner of treating the workers under him."  The Daily Worker claimed that Schellenberg, after spending his inheritance in Germany, "came to America to make his fortune, but made a miserable failure of it until with Hitler's accession to power he got his chance to try for a bloody Nazi career."

The House Immigration and Naturalization Sub-Committee put Clarence A. Hathaway, an editor of The Daily Worker, on the stand on November 15, 1933 as part of their investigation "to probe Nazi propaganda activity in the United States."  The committee members and Americans at large were shocked, "when Hathaway not only revealed the presence of super-patriotic Mr. [Hamilton] Fish at a recent Nazi meeting at the George Washington Hotel of New York City, but also when he offered 'to produce documents showing that Hamilton Fish is engaged in Nazi activities in the United States.'"  The testimony, expectedly, drew strong denial from Fish.

Ironically, the hotel that had been a hive of Nazi activity became a refuge for German Jewish children eight years later.  In 1941 the German-Jewish Children's Aid Organization brought 1,000 refugee youths to America.  According to Lori Gemeiner Bihler in her 2018 book Cities of Refuge, "Some of these thousand children stayed at the George Washington Hotel on Lexington Avenue.  In a period of a few days, they received medical attention and an opportunity to find their 'land legs' with the other children.  They were then placed either with relatives, Jewish foster families, or in temporary housing."

On January 26, 1939, English-born novelist Christopher Isherwood and British poet W. H. Auden took rooms here.  Although they occasionally had sex, according to the 2013 book W. H. Auden in Context, edited by Tony Sharpe, they were not romantically entangled.  On January 29 Auden wrote his mother, saying, "We have found a nice hotel--the George Washington--23rd St. and Lexington Ave."

Isherwood soon moved on (to southern Calif0rnia), but Auden, who very much liked the hotel, remained.  Upon hearing that British composer Benjamin Britten was planning a visit to American in June 1939, Auden wrote and recommended the George Washington Hotel.   "It's much the nicest hotel in town and the manager Mr. Donald Neville-Willing (and don't forget the hyphen) is expecting you.  There is a good piano."

Indeed, W. H. Auden formed a friendly relationship with Donald Neville-Willing, and upon his leaving, presented the manager with a thank-you in the form of a poem hand-written on five sheets of hotel stationery.  It began:

O, is there a technique to praise the Hotel George Washington then,
That doesn't resemble the ways the 
Really professional men
Convince a two hundred pound matron
She's the feather she was in her youth?
Well, considering who is the patron,
I think I shall stick to the truth.
It stands on the Isle of Manhattan
Not far from the Lexington line,
And although it's demode to fatten,
There's a ballroom where parties may dine.

As mid-century approached, Dr. Philip Newton and his second wife, lived here.  His extraordinary life started in Fort McIntosh in Laredo, Texas, where his father, Major John Newton, was serving.  In 1914 he went to Europe to serve with the Red Cross during World War I, and was made surgeon in the American Ambulance Unit of the Grand Duchess Tatiana, daughter of Czar Nicholas.  He was made a general in the Russian Imperial Army, and in 1915 married Russian Princess Helene Schahofskaya.

During World War II Newton operated a pharmacological laboratory that made vitamin-infused candies for British children.  He died in his room in the George Washington Hotel on June 17, 1950.

By the 1970's the hotel had grown seedy.  Lenny Sullivan, a 27-year-old who lived on East 27th Street, rented a room long enough to have an afternoon fling with a "woman friend" on July 29, 1973.  As he stepped out of the shower, he touched the air conditioner which, according to The New York Times, "was wired improperly and not grounded."  He was fatally electrocuted and his companion received an electric shock when she attempted to pull his body away.

A self-described artist, Tony Shafrazi paid $15 each week for his room here in 1974.  On February 28 that year he entered the Museum of Modern Art and, in front of a crowd of patrons, took a can of red spray paint from his coat and sprayed "Kill Lies All" on Picasso's painting Guernica.  As a guard grabbed him, Shafrazi demanded, "Call the curator, I'm an artist."  At the 54th Street station house, he explained his vandalism saying, "I'm an artist and I wanted to tell the truth."  Thankfully, the masterpiece was fully conserved.

A tragic resident was former actor Al Hodge. He started his career as a radio actor, once playing the Green Hornet.  But he rose to fame with the advent of television.  In 1948 he was hired as the title character of the series Captain Video.  He became a hero to children across the country until the show was dropped in 1956.  Unfortunately for Hodge, he had become so identified with Captain Video, that he could no longer find work.  He turned to alcohol, went through a series of marriages, and finally ended up at the George Washington Hotel, living off Social Security checks.

On March 22, 1979, Judith Cummings of The New York Times wrote, "But, with the Green Hornet and Captain Video long behind, him, Mr. Hodge was found dead and alone Monday in a midtown hotel, his realm reduced to the dimensions of a single room."  He was 66 years old.

An unlikely tenant at the time was Brigid Berlin, the daughter of Hearst publishing mogul Richard E. Berlin and his socialite wife Muriel, known as Honey.  Brigid had rebelled against her upbringing.  The New York Times's John Leland said, "She took mountains of speed and made thousands of recordings and Polaroid photographs of New York's bohemian demimonde, when such a thing existed."  Berlin was a mainstay of the Andy Warhol set and appeared in his movies Bad and Chelsea Girls.  

In 1991 musicians Dee Dee Ramone, founder of the bank the Ramones, and Richard Barone had rooms here.  Ramone mentions the hotel in his book, Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones; and in his book, Frontman, Surviving the Rock Star Myth, Barone writes:

...we moved downtown to the rather shabby George Washington Hotel on Lexington and 23rd.  An SRO--single room occupancy or standing room only--either phrase applied.  Our rooms had barely enough floor space for one to stand and answer the nonexistent phone.  I saw my first junkie collapse and remain in front of the elevator in the lobby as people walked past.  Rumor had it that movie queen Veronica Lake, one of the stars in my mother's scrapbook, had sadly spent her last days working as a counter waitress in the drab coffee shop downstairs.  This was not exactly the Plaza.

On July 2, 1995, The New York Times reported that The Educational Housing corporation, a provider of student housing, had signed a 15-year lease on the hotel.  "The corporation will check each room twice a year, and repaint it if existing lead paint has peeled or chipped."  Three years later the newspaper announced that 600 beds here had been leased to the School of Visual Arts for student housing.  

Change came in 2018 when the investment firm AllianceBernstein remodeled the George Washington Hotel to the Freehand New York hotel.  Design studio Roman and Williams transformed the interiors to attract a hip "artist community," according to the owners' marketing.  Amazingly, the Gilbert Stuart George Washington painting was still in place, albeit a bit dingy.  Roman and Williams had it professionally conserved and rehung it in what is now the George Washington bar.

photographs by the author
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  1. Not sure if it's still there but the second floor paneling was beautiful.

  2. Fascinating; shared the link with a bunch of people.

  3. "On July 2, 1995, The New York Times reported that The Educational Housing corporation, a provider of student housing, had signed a 15-year lease on the hotel. "The corporation will check each room twice a year, and repaint it if existing lead paint has peeled or chipped." Three years later the newspaper announced that 600 beds here had been leased to the School of Visual Arts for student housing. Among them was future artist Keith Haring."

    I think there is an error here, as Keith Harig passed in 1990. He did attend SVA though

    1. That's an excellent point. He appears in a couple sources as living here, but that's impossible given the dates of the SVA lease. I removed him from the article. Thank you.

  4. I remember when celebs lived there. Veronica Lake was one

  5. I had heard that Nathanael West (Miss Lonelyhearts, Day of the Locust) worked at the front desk and wrote here.