Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The 1903 Alabama Hotel - 13-15 East 11th Street


When Leopold Wertheim purchased the "old buildings" at 13 and 15 East 11th Street in April 1902, he was already erecting an apartment building, The Van Rensselaer, on the site of two other vintage structures next door at 17 and 19 East 11th Street.  In reporting on the recent sale, the Record & Guide commented, "A 9-story apartment building will be erected on the plot."

As it rose, the Van Rensselaer had been leased to the Municipal Realty Company.  Now, according to the New-York Tribune, "arrangements are being perfected for the leasing to the corporation of Nos. 13 and 15 East Eleventh-st., and making the two hotels one."

Despite those negotiations, architect Louis Korn made no attempt to meld the designs of the two structures.  The 45-foot-wide Alabama Hotel would be clad in red brick above a two-story, rusticated limestone base.  Its Italian Renaissance Revival design featured a Palladio-inspired portico with free-standing Ionic columns, wreath framed openings and swirling carved ribbons and bellflowers.  The entrance sat within an intricately carved frame.

Korn visually divided the six-story midsection in two parts by lavishing the openings of the third through fifth floors with quoins, elaborate keystones and carvings.  Each of the more sedate sixth through eighth floors grew less ornamented, with molded lintels and scrolled keystones at the sixth, bracketed sills at the seventh, and prim stone frames at the eighth.  A full-wide stone balcony fronted the top floor.  The structure cost Wertheim the equivalent of $5.36 million to construct by 2023 terms.

The Hotel Alabama opened as an "apartment hotel" in 1903. "Elegantly furnished apartments with private bath" rented for $25 per week, if the guest took two meals per day, or $15 if they needed only one.  The rent would translate to about $800 per week for the more expensive today.

Henry Gregory Granger lived here in 1905.  Described by the New-York Tribune as "a United States consular agent in Colombia," on November 9 the newspaper said, "Granger is a Princeton graduate and was an athlete when in college...He has just returned from Colombia, where he has extensive mining and agricultural interests."

The previous year, Charles O. Brewster had been a poll watcher at 27 Chrystie Street.  Poll watchers were hired by candidates to ensure there was no tampering with the election process.  Brewster "was sandbagged while on duty there," said the New-York Tribune, noting "One of the worst districts in the city for watchers, who are not in sympathy with Tammany Hall is the 6th Assembly, of which 'Little Tim' Sullivan is the leader."  Brewster said he would return this year "if he could have two husky men to back him up."  

One of them was Henry Gregory Granger.  At six-foot, two-inches tall and 215 pounds, he and his brother N. N. Granger, who was also an athlete, accompanied Brewster to the Chrystie Street polling site.  It did not go well.

On November 9, 1905, the New-York Tribune wrote that Henry G. Granger, "is lying in his apartments at the Hotel Alabama, No. 15 East 11th-st., a sadly battered wreck."  The article said that while standing in front of the polling station, "he was knocked down with a blackjack and kicked in the face until he became insensible."  Granger told police "that the brutal attack was instigated by State Senator John G. Fitzgerald, who succeeded 'Big Tim' Sullivan."  

In March 1906, May Kay took a suite in the Hotel Alabama.  The Sun described her as "a very good looking young woman, who had plenty of fine clothes and jewelry and appeared to be well supplied with money."  May's husband had died three years earlier.  A broker in New Orleans, he left her substantial property in New York and Cincinnati.  She additionally received $150,000 in liquid assets (more than $4.5 million today).

The young widow entrusted a former schoolmate with the administration of her affairs, giving him complete power of attorney.  Another friend confidentially said he "had reason to suspect that there had been a love affair between Mrs. Kay and the young man."  She received a letter early in 1906 that read:

My Darling Dear.  Am leaving but against my wishes.  If you love me, please wait until my return.  I simply cannot give you up.  Yours sincerely, Bill.

May did not wait, but followed him to New York.  It is unclear if she ever found him.  Whether she did or not, she was "the source of a good deal of uneasiness to the hotel management," said The Sun on March 30.  "She was in a highly nervous state and had announced on several occasions that she was going to commit suicide."  Two nights before that article Dr. P. E. Bush, who had been treating her, remained in her apartment until 3:00 in the morning, "arguing with her about the foolishness of taking her life."  She promised him, finally, that she would not.

But early on the evening of March 29, May telephoned the desk, telling the Gregor Krischbaum, "Come quickly to my room.  I've shot myself."  The clerk made rapid-fire calls to Dr. Travell who lived down the block, then the police, and then an ambulance.  (Krischbaum later told investigators that May had had "a long telephone conversation over the telephone with a man," shortly before shooting herself.)

When Dr. Travell arrived, May told him, "I want to die, and I am sorry to bother you.  I don't wish you to go to any trouble.  Just leave me alone.  I will be glad when it is all over."  As Travell looked around for the weapon, she directed, "You'll find it over there in the corner.  I threw it behind a portiere."  The Sun reported, "A fancy little revolver was where she said it was."  May Kay had attempted to shoot herself in the heart, but missed.

Blanche Turner Dennis's story was strikingly similar to May Kay's.  Born in the South, she had been married to Confederate Major Hugh C. Dennis, who later became president of the Rialto Grain and Securities Company of St. Louis.  He died about six months after May's husband.  The Sun described Blanche almost exactly as it did May Kay.  "She had plenty of clothes and some jewelry and was apparently always in funds."  She had taken a suite at the Hotel Alabama a few months before May Kay arrived.

The Sun said, "Mrs. Dennis occupied a suite of three rooms, which were tastefully furnished and contained many pieces of bric-a-brac and paintings which she bought from time to time to decorate the rooms."  She had only one caller, a man of about 50 years of age.  Blanche Dennis's story was as tragic as May Kay's.  She had been hiding a pregnancy and died on March 29, the same day May shot herself, of "blood poisoning following a criminal operation presumably performed by herself," as reported by The Sun.

The negotiations to combine the Van Rensselaer and The Alabama had fallen through in 1902.  Now in 1906, J. C. Lawrence, the proprietor of the Van Rensselaer, acquired The Alabama.  While they continued to be operated as separate entities, they were now under the same management.  An advertisement on September 19, 1909 was titled, "In the Midst of Aristocracy are the Alabama - Van Rensselaer Hotels."  The "permanent rentals" ranged from $30 to $200 monthly, an extravagant $6,150 today for the most expensive.

On January 16, 1908, Detroit newspaper man James L. Long, checked into the Hotel Alabama.  The New-York Tribune said, "He seemed to have plenty 0f money and spent it freely."  The following morning a young woman, Carrie O'Neill, applied for a job as a maid and was hired.  A week later, on January 23, the she was seen coming from Long's room by a porter who notified the management.  The New-York Tribune reported, "When asked about the incident Long became indignant, and, handing his key to the clerk, moved out, bag and baggage.  Carrie O'Neil was summarily dismissed and also left the hotel."

At the time of the unpleasant confrontations, two residents Mrs. Harold B. Miller and Mrs. M. R. Gibbs were both at dinner.  When they returned to their rooms, they found them ransacked.  The burglars had overlooked $5,000 in jewels in Mrs. Miller's apartment.  Acting on a hunch, police went to the Hotel Breslin where Long had had his trunk forwarded.  They broke in his door and found him and Carrie O'Neil together.  The detectives also found the "valuable gowns" of Miller and Gibbs there.  Police believed they had solved the string of mysterious hotel robberies that had began weeks earlier.

A resident was the victim of a more bizarre robbery on January 17, 1909.  The Sun began its article saying, "A queer story was turned out at Headquarters last night of a robbery whose victim was a woman known to the police only as Miss Simmons of the Hotel Alabama."  That afternoon, she told investigators, she was out walking when she met an acquaintance she had not seen in some time.  The article said, "The two walked together until it began to storm...The man suggested that they go into a café and wait until he could summon a cab."

While seated at a table, he asked to see the diamond pin, valued at $400, she was wearing.  "The man suddenly excused himself and went out.  Miss Simmons says she asked for her pin, but he did not stop."  The story became stranger when Miss Simmons received a telephone call the following morning from the friend, who said he would be at the Alabama in a few moments.  She waited, but a different man showed up, said he was a secret service detective, and could help her recover her jewelry.  The astute Miss Simmons asked him to please come back later that afternoon.  Then, when a man approached the desk and asked for Miss Simmons, detectives were waiting to arrest him.

The Sun reported that Don P. Collins had a shield in his coat pocket presumably from the Secret Service Society of the United States.  He told the detectives he had called on Miss Simmons "to see if he could get the job of getting back her pine, as he had heard of the robbery."  Miss Simmons identified him as a man she had seen at the café when her "friend" had stolen her pin.  He was held as a suspicious person.

After James E. Knott, head of the Knott Corporation, purchased the two hotels around 1912, he listed them together as the Hotel Van Rensselaer.  An advertisement that year called it "The finest hotel below Fourteenth Street," and offered, "To rent by the week, month, season or year, at very attractive rentals."  The rents started at $15 including meals.  The advertisement noted "Cuisine of the highest standing at moderate rates.  Table d'hote breakfast."

Despite the changing neighborhood in the post World War I years, the hotel continued to house respectable residents.  Among them was Theodore L. Waugh, who was appointed Assistant District Attorney in September 1918.

Four decades after his father had purchased the buildings, in October 1950, David H. Knott sold the property to Nathan Wilson.  The New York Times reported, "A condition of the sale was that Mr. Knott and his family will continue to have their city home on the property."  The article noted, "Mr. Wilson plans to alter the apartment building into smaller suites."  Still, the renovations did not combine the two buildings internally.

Living in one of those smaller suites in 1970 was 18-year-old Cheryl Sharpton.  She was one of five arrested on October 9 that year for armed bank robbery.  Two days earlier two teenaged girls had attempted to hold up the main office of the Dry Dock Savings Bank at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, but failed.  They implicated the other three including Sharpton, the oldest of them being 21 years old.  Police said they had netted about $32,500 in bank robberies since July 6.

A more respectable resident at the time was Ida Rauh Eastman.  Born in 1877, she was a founder of the historic Provincetown Players and an ardent feminist.  A sculptor, poet, painter and actress, she had been known as the "Duse of Macdougal Street" (where the Provincetown Theater was located), and directed the first production of Eugene O'Neill's Where the Cross is Made.  

Rauh (she preferred to be known by her maiden name), had been active within Margaret Sanger's birth-control campaigns and was arrested in 1916 for distributing birth-control pamphlets.  Her bust of close friend D. H. Lawrence is now housed in the Lawrence Memorial Library in New Mexico.  The 92-year-old died in her apartment here on February 28, 1970.

The Alabama and the Van Rensselaer were joined by a common lobby in 1984.

In 1984 the two structures were internally connected at the lobby level, the apartments renovated, and shortly thereafter converted to a cooperative.  Then, on February 6, 1998, The New York Times reported, "In a novel transaction, a majority of the 94 apartment owners in a two-building, 114-unit cooperative in Greenwich Village have individually sold their apartments to Yeshiva University, which will turn them into housing for students at its nearby Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law."  The university had spent $11.6 million for 93 of the studio and one-bedroom units.  It now put another $2 million in to renovations and repairs.

The buildings were renovated again in 2016-17.  They now provided furnished, off-campus housing for New York University, the New School, and the Cardozo School of Law.   Just three years later the newly-organized Alabama Flats purchased the combined properties, while still offering the apartments to students.  

photo by Anthony Bellov

Now called The Alabama, the name was chiseled into the entablature of the portico and a tongue-in-cheek portrait keystone--certain to have caused shudders to Louis Korn--was placed in its arch.

photographs by the author
many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for prompting this post.
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

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