Monday, May 8, 2023

The Lost St. Germain Hotel - 175 Fifth Avenue


This stereoscope slide image depicted the hotel from the Broadway side.  image via the Office for Metropolitan History.

The crisp grid of streets and avenues laid out by the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 was interrupted by Broadway, which ran diagonally across Manhattan island.  The result was a series of "bowties"--pie-shaped parcels of property facing one another at major intersections like 23rd Street.  According to the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, in 1850 Amos R. Eno purchased the triangular block bounded by 22nd and 23rd Streets, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, for $45,000--about $1.6 million by 2023 conversions.

Born in 1810, Eno had started out in the dry goods business on Pearl Street.  The New York Times said decades later "While making a fortune in the dry goods business, Mr. Eno began to invest judiciously in New York real estate.  He picked out desirable corners, and occasionally he would buy an entire block of land.  When he was doing business at 74 Broadway he erected the first brownstone-front business building in New York."

The oddly shaped parcel sat within prime real estate--surrounded by lavish mansions along Fifth Avenue and Broadway and just south of Madison Square.  (Miller's Stranger's Guide to New York would mention in 1866 "The houses surrounding this park include some of the most elegant of this city.")

Eno possibly grappled with what to do with the property initially, but five years later he had decided.  He would built a high-end hotel on the southern portion with a garden to the north.  On January 23, 1856, The New York Times reported, "The unique building in Fifth-avenue, near Twenty-third street, which has excited the attention of the public in the past year, is to be opened as a hotel with the most aristocratic name in the Saints' calendar, viz.: St. Germain."

Eno's architect had imported the recent Second Empire style from France.  The elegant Parisian style St. Germain Hotel featured a two-story base of alternating dark and light colored stone.  A cast iron balcony girded the third floor.  Floor-to-ceiling windows on the upper floors provided guests (whose rooms had exaggeratedly high ceilings) with ample natural light and ventilation.  Above the swagged capitals of the double-height pilasters between the openings were wreath-encircled oval attic windows.  The whole was crowned by an elegant stone balustrade.  The walled garden in the pointed tip of the parcel--called the cowcatcher by locals--was for use of the hotel's guests.

Surrounded by brownstone mansions, the gleaming St. Germain stood out.  To the north is the walled garden, and beyond that is Madison Square.  Fifth Avenue--Old and New, 1924 (copyright expired)

The St. Germain had barely opened when Amos Eno began construction on a more lavish project, the marble Fifth Avenue Hotel diagonally across 23rd Street.  Work began in 1856 and was completed in 1859.  The uncomfortably close proximity of the larger and more opulent hotel would affect the St. Germain in coming years.

In the meantime, the exceptional beauty of the St. Germain was not lost.  In speaking before the Polytechnic Association of the American Institute on September 15, 1859, Benjamin Garvey said, "I am proud of American architects.  There is a boldness in their designs worthy of our admiration and encouragement.  Witness Fifth Avenue as a street, and the marble hotels and St. Germain hotel as individual buildings."  It is significant that Garvey singled out the St. Germain while only hinting at the architecturally less interesting Fifth Avenue Hotel.

As was common in high-end hotels, the ground floor and basement of the St. Germain held shops for the convenience of the guests--such as a barbershop and post office.  At 2:00 on the morning of February 4, 1858 fire was discovered in the post office.  The New York Times reported, "A number of letters were burned, and a large portion of the furniture and fixtures destroyed."  Investigators arrived at a disturbing conclusion.  The article said, "The origin of the fire is not known, but it is supposed to have been the work of an incendiary."

Perhaps because the St. Germain was unable to hold its own against the Fifth Avenue Hotel, a change was made in 1869.  An announcement in The New York Times on March 18 read:

The St. Germain Hotel., Nos. 1 and 3 East 22d st., corner of Broadway and 5th-av., having changed hands, has now been reopened as a first-class French boarding house, for the accommodation of respectable families and single gentlemen.  The house has been thoroughly repaired and elegantly furnished.  Spanish, German and English spoken.

The St. Germain was now what would later be referred to as a "residential hotel," taking in long-term rather than transient guests.  Its ground floor dining room continued to be a favorite meeting place, however.  

On October 21, 1871, for instance, it was the scene of a banquet for the Old Guard, established in 1832.  In reporting on the affair, the New York Herald reminded readers, "The oldest and most distingué military corps of the city celebrated yesterday its annual parade...The procession was mustered at the armory of the Seventy-first regiment, and marched down through Broadway, Broad and Wall streets, and then up to the St. Germain Hotel.  Here was spread a generous banquet for about two hundred persons, which passed off in the happiest manner."

A devastating fire broke out in the Fifth Avenue Hotel on December 11, 1872.  Fifteen employees were killed, trapped on the upper floor.  As a result, the city launched inspections of hotels the following month.  On January 9, 1873 The New York Times published the findings.  The news was not good for the St. Germain.  The inspectors said, "The peculiar shape and style of this building, as well as its situation, render it, in our opinion, very unsafe and dangerous for those who occupy it."  The officials said flatly that were fire to break out in the lower portion, "it would be impossible for the guests in the three upper stories to escape from the inside."  Fire escapes were advised.

The fire escapes were installed on the 22nd Street side of the hotel.  Because there were no windows on the northern side (apparently Eno had considered erecting another building on the garden site), these were the only fire escapes.  By now a mish-mash of low-rise commercial buildings filled the cow catcher.

The advisability of the escapes was tested on February 10, 1877.  Curtains in a third floor room had somehow come in contact with a gas jet, igniting a blaze.  The New York Herald reported, "The guests of the St. Germain Hotel were considerably alarmed last evening by hearing the cry of 'Fire' in the hotel.  Some of them gathered their valuables, preparatory to making a hasty flight, but the excitement was finally abated by the proprietor informing them that there was no cause for alarm."  The fire was confined to the third floor apartment and was soon extinguished.  Nevertheless, the newspaper noted, "The damage done amounts to $1,500 on the furniture, by fire and water, and $500 on the building."  The loss would equal about $53,400 today.

Two years later, Amos Eno laid plans to enlarge and modernize the St. Germain.  On November 25, 1879 he received permission from the Board of Aldermen "to place bay-windows on the hotel building."  The permission was necessary because the bay windows would protrude three feet beyond the property line.  More importantly, his architect designed a two story mansard, crowned with lacy cast iron cresting.  The third and fourth floors, where guests once enjoyed double-height apartments, were divided, creating four floors where there had been two.

Now enlarged, the hotel was renamed the Cumberland House.  The blank northern wall brought extra income through advertising.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The renovation, unfortunately, came with tragedy.  Working on the upper floors on February 14, 1880 was 22-year-old bricklayer, Michael Plunkitt.  The New York Times reported, "The building is in process of reconstruction, and Plunkitt, with a number of other men, was at work on a scaffold."  The men were at the very top of the mansard.  Plunkitt "made a misstep and fell to the sidewalk, striking squarely on his back."  He died shortly afterward.

On May 24, 1880 the New-York Tribune gave its readers an update.  "The St. Germain Hotel at Twenty-second-st., has two additional stories, and will be occupied in about five weeks.  Workmen have been engaged on this building for eight months."  There would now be two entrances, one on Broadway and the other on Fifth Avenue.  The article note that all of the ground floor stores had been rented.

The renovated hotel opened as the Cumberland House.  Eno leased the hotel to Austin Corbin in 1885.  In his determination to keep the Cumberland House a high-end establishment, he initially rebuffed offers from advertisers to use the blank northern wall.  The New York Times said, "Numerous advertisers had cast envious eyes at this stretch of brick wall and had sought to obtain possession of it upon which to spread announcements in multi-colored paints."  But, said the article, Austin Corbin "declined to relinquish his hold."  

He finally relented around 1890.  The New York Times said "The first exhibit on the wall was a large painting outlining the beauties and advantages of Long Island for homes."  Then, two years later Corbin made history.  On the night of June 10, 1892 the first electric advertisement in New York City "shone forth in all its brilliance, the letters varying from three to six feet in length," said The New York Times.  The advertisement read:

Manhattan Beach.
Swept by Ocean Breezes
Manhattan Hotel
Oriental Hotel
Gilmore's Band
Brock's Fireworks

It was Corbin, once so averse to advertising on his wall, who came up with the idea.  The New York Times on October 4, 1896 recalled, "Mr. Corbin, with the aid of electricians, perfected the system of electric lights on block letters...This sign could be seen and distinctly read as far north on Broadway as Thirty-fourth Street.  Lighting up Madison Square and the neighboring streets as it did, this illumination became one of the sights of New-York."

In 1896 The New York Times had rented the wall, installing its own colored-light sign:

New-York Times
All The News
                                That's Fit to Print
Have You Seen It?

The Cumberland House became a favorite meeting place for a Republican group in the 1890s.  On May 25, 1890, for instance, The Sun reported on the "extremes" in the Republican politics.  It said that one group was meeting at the Custom House.  "On the other hand, Judge Jacob M. Patterson, who represents the opposing faction of Republicans, has sent forth to the world the announcement that the rooms of the Executive Committee in the Cumberland House, at Broadway and Twenty-second street, will be opened on Mondays and Wednesdays after 4 P.M."

The end of the line for the handsome structure came in 1901.  On March 3 that year, The New York Times reported, "The famous 'flatiron' block, bounded by Broadway and Fifth Avenue, Twenty-second and Twenty-third Streets, is to be the side of a new twenty-story building.  The Cumberland apartment house...has been acquired by parties interested in the new enterprise, and that property, together with the adjoining triangular piece on the northerly end of the block...will be conveyed to the corporation."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Soon after the article, the Cumberland House and the little buildings crowding into the northern property were demolished, replaced by the Fuller Building, better known to the world as the Flatiron Building.

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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