Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Hotel Griffou - 19 - 23 West 9th Street


The arches of the ground floor openings have been filled in.

In 1855, three handsome rowhouses were completed at 55 through 59 Ninth Street (renumbered 19 to 23 West 9th Street in 1868).  Assessed to Samuel T. Hubbard, architectural historians agree they were most likely designed by James Renwick Jr.  Four stories tall, their rusticated ground floors featured fully arched windows and doors of matching proportions.  Heavy Italianate fencing anchored by stone gateposts protected the areaways.  A single, iron-railed balcony fronted full-height French windows at the second floor, and the elliptically-arched windows of the third and fourth floors sat within molded architrave frames.  The three houses shared a common bracketed cornice.

Each of the houses became home to well-heeled merchants.  Interestingly, Benjamin W. Bush and Samuel Smith, who were in business together at 25 William Street, shared 55 Ninth Street in 1856.  Next door lived the family of James M. Jones, who owned two "gents furnishing" shops, one on William Street and the other on Warren Street; and merchant John W. Quincy and his family lived in 59 Ninth Street. 

Intriguingly, given that he is often credited for designing the homes, in 1863 James Renwick Jr. moved into 55 Ninth Street (he had been living directly across the street at 56).  He would remain here through 1868, after which the Parmly family moved in.

An announcement in the 1868-69 issue of Trow's Directory read, "David R. Parmly, dentist, removed from Bond st. to No. 19 W. 9th n[ear] Fifth Av. (old No. 55)."  Jehial Parmly was a partner with David in the dental office of J. & D. R. Parmly, which operated from the house through 1874.

By then, Kitty A Price, the widow of Thompson Price, was operating 21 West 9th Street as an exclusive boarding house.   When she left in April 1870, the furniture was auctioned.  The lengthy offering included a rosewood parlor suite, "in crimson brocatel and reps, rosewood Sienna marble top mirror back etageres, rosewood marble top side tables, rosewood wardrobes, rosewood marble top dressing bureaus and washstands," and on and on.

Marie Griffou's purchase of 19 West 9th Street in 1879 would eventually affect all three houses.  But for now, like Kitty A. Price, she opened an exclusive boarding house.  It was almost immediately the scene of tragedy.  On January 6, 1880, The New York Times reported, "Yesterday morning Jean A. Tabarie, a Frenchman, shot himself in the right temple with a revolver, in his bedroom, on the second floor of Mme. Marie Griffon's [sic] boarding-house, No. 19 West Ninth street, and died after his admission to St. Vincent’s Hospital."  

The 36-year-old had been a "traveler" for F. Boegler & Co., wine merchants (a traveler was a traveling salesman).  The New York Times flatly attributed his demise saying, "He was intemperate."  At 1:00 on the morning of January 5, Colonel Rosa, who occupied a room next to Taberie heard a gunshot and the dying man was discovered.  The article said, " To his landlady he wrote a note requesting her to dispose of his effects as she pleased but to give his watch to a person who would call for it, and present an order signed by him."

By 1884, Marie Griffou had expanded into 21 West 9th Street and the combined buildings were known as the Hotel Griffou.  Despite Madame Griffou's French heritage, the hotel soon became a favorite for Spanish visitors.  Two of them raised the suspicions of journalists in the fall of 1884.

On November 22, The New York Times reported on the arrival of two Spaniards, Jose Masco and N. Castiglio, on the French steamship Chateau Yquem.  "They talked nothing but Spanish, but some of the French passengers of the steamer, who understood that language, gathered from conversation which passed between them that they were escaped prisoners; that they had broken jail somewhere in Spain, made their way to Bordeaux, and started for America to place the ocean between themselves and the Spanish Government," said the article.

After receiving their luggage at Castle Garden, they hurried to the Hotel Griffou, where they found refuge.  The reporter who visited the hotel was told by a manager that, indeed, the men were escaped prisoners, but he was unclear if they "were ordinary convicts of prisoners of State, but thought they were the latter."  The reporter was told, "they were safe in his house, and no person should see them until they were ready to show themselves."

The hotel received a celebrated guest on September 12, 1890.  General Antonio Maceo was known to fellow Cubans as "The Bronze Titan" and to Spaniards as the "El León  Mayor," the "Greater Lion."  On September 15, 1890, The Evening World wrote:

The prim and tidy little Spanish Hotel Griffou in West Ninth street shelters a most distinguished guest in the person of Gen. Antonio Maceo, who, though a colored man and but forty-two years old, has played a most important part in the Spanish West Indies and been a retired politician for a dozen years.

General Antonio Maceo, from Photographic History of the Spanish-American War,1898 (copyright expired)

He explained to a reporter from The Evening World, "I got a letter from the Governor August 28, telling me that I must leave Cuba within twenty-four hours, and that a company of soldiers would escort me on board the steamer Cienfeugos...and was to sail next day for New York."  With him was his wife, described by the journalist as "a dark-skinned but pleasing featured little woman in a chocolate-brown silk gown."

The article said, "the corridors of the little Spanish hotel are literally filled by the twelve trunks and boxes of the distinguished Cubans, and they are receiving many callers of their own race to-day."

Living with their mother were Eugene Griffou, an inspector with the Brooklyn Elevated Railroad, and Louis Griffou, who helped run the hotel.

An advertisement for the Restaurant Griffou in December 1897, read, "Undoubtedly the best table d'hote in the city for the price--50 cts.  All the delicacies of the season; come and try it.  Hours from 5:30 to 8:30 P.M.  A la Carte at all hours." 

Daily room rates at the time were $3 for the American Plan (three meals were included) or $1 for the European Plan (meals were charged independently of the room).  The lesser rate would translate to about $37 a day in 2024.

An outdoor restaurant in the rear, covered by an awning, was provided to diners in the warm months.  New-York Tribune, August 4, 1901 (copyright expired)

Madam Marie Griffou died in April 1906.  The Sun recalled the palmy days of the hotel and restaurant during the nearly three decades of her proprietorship.  It mentioned guests that not only included, "brave names like Antonio Maceo, President Palma, Mlle. Aimee, Andre Castaigne; but all the writers, sculptors and painters who for twenty-eight years have either lived at the hotel or dined, in the summer time in the open air out on the rear portico among the potted plants."

Later that year, on the afternoon of October 25, a man named Sinclair arrived at the Hotel Griffou and inquired about vacant rooms.  The New York Times reported, "Annie Holman, a maid, was at the desk at the time and told him there was one on the second floor, the rate of which was $2 a day."  Registering as "Mr. Sinclair of Burlington, Vermont," he paid in advance and said he might stay there that night, "but that he was expecting his wife on Friday morning, and would certainly occupy it on Friday night."

Sinclair returned on Friday morning with his young wife, whom The New York Times said "was expensively dressed."  They had a light breakfast, then retired to their rooms.

In fact, Mr. Sinclair was the 60-year-old New York businessman Louis G. Hampton.  He was married with a child and lived in the Chelsea Hotel.  Mrs. Sinclair was 28-year-old Victoria L. Taczkow, who was unaware that her lover of two years was married.  He had repeatedly assured her that as soon as his mother died, he would marry her.

At around 10:30 that night, Annie Holman happened to be in the second floor corridor when she heard noises which she later recognized as pistol shots.  Hampton had asked to be awakened at 11:00 and when Annie got no answer at the door at that time, she remembered the noises and became alarmed.  She ran to Louis Griffou who broke into the room.

Louis Hampton lay on the floor with a bullet wound in his head, the revolver still in his hand.  "Half seated, half lying on the bed opposite the dead man was the body of the young woman," said The New York Times.  She had been shot three times.  The article noted, "From marks on her neck the Coroner believes Hampton tried to pin her down in the bed with one hand while he shot."

Sadly, Louis Griffou could not maintain the hotel his mother had established.  On March 9, 1907, The Sun reported, "Louis Griffou, who had tried unsuccessfully to keep the hotel going since Madame Marie, his mother, died last April, was hiding from his creditors some place.  Back in the dimly lighted dining room, with its old fashioned furnishings, the chairs were piled on the tables.  The cigar case contained nothing but a drunken heap of empty boxes."

The article recalled,

It is nearly thirty years since Mme. Marie Griffou got hold of the two houses at 19-21 West Ninth street and opened the little hotel that later achieved the fame of being featured in short stories.  In its heyday William M. Chase, Augustus St. Gaudens, Carroll Beckwith and others spent their days in the big barnlike Studio Building, around the block in West Tenth street, and when the noon hour happened along they gathered before the broiled chicken, the spaghetti and the pink ink of the Griffou, because the chicken was good and because the professional bohemians hadn't found the place as yet.  Indeed, the professionals never found it.

A waiter named Cervio Hernandez, who had been with the Hotel Griffou for twenty years, recalled an impressive list of guests and diners.  He remembered that writer Josiah Flynt, "for eight years he come here on and off and write and write and write;" and Andre Castigne, "When he come to America from France straight to the Griffou he repair and always he stay here." 

Hernandez's list went on and on.  "And there were great poets--Edmund Clarence Stedman, he comes, and Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman.  Long, long ago, Mlle. Aimee, who is a famous French artiste in the Opera Comique then, she stay here when she come to America to sing in the Grand Opera House...The tall Herr Magelewsen, the sculptor, come here almost till the last box of cigarettes is sold from the case last week."

The Hotel Griffou was sold to Oreste Giolito, who renamed it the Hotel Europe and kept Cervio Hernandez on.  The New York Times revealed a shocking detail about Hernandez on January 27, 1909.  "He was a Cuban negro, born a slave, and never doubted that he was the possession of the Griffou family, with whom he came to this country.  He was devoted to the family and took delight in ministering to the wants of the regular patrons of the hotel."

On January 25, 1909, Hernandez "crept down to the room of a young Russian engineer and told him he was very ill," reported The New York Times.  Oreste Giolito took him to St. Vincent's Hospital, where he died within fifteen minutes.  Giolito and two others were arrested under suspicion of murdering the old Cuban, however they were released after seven hours in jail.

Living at the Hotel Europe during the decade between 1909 and 1919 was journalist Ida Tarbell.  Born in 1857, she was known as a muckraker, and is perhaps best remembered for her 1904 The History of the Standard Oil Company.  It contributed to the breaking of the Standard Oil monopoly.

Ida Tarbell, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Another professional woman who lived here in 1913 was Maude E. Miner.  The unmarried physician attended the Fifteenth Congress on Hygiene and Demography in Washington D.C. in September 1912.  

Professional dancer Leon Leitrim lived here in 1921.  The partner of dancer Florence Walton, he spent a night in the Hackensack, New Jersey jail on August 7 that year on a charge of reckless driving and intoxication.  The New York Evening World said the police station "was the scene of voluble explanations," adding, "Miss Walton protested strongly that Leitrim was not intoxicated, although she admitted he might have taken a glass of wine."

A more serious offense--impairing the morals of a minor--was charged against 52-year old scenic artist Livingston Platt on October 7, 1933.  When he failed to appear at the West Side Court on October 17, according to the New York Sun, "it was learned that Platt had written a letter to a friend hinting at suicide."  Agents went to his apartment here "and found it deserted."  Platt had disappeared, leaving a note to his attorney saying there was no need to search for him, because he would be dead.

In 1941 the arches of the ground floor, the Italianate areaway ironwork and the 1855 balcony railings were intact.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

At the time, 23 West 9th Street held apartments, one of them home to actor and artist John Bryan.  He was the grandson of William Jennings Bryan.  At 3:10 on the morning of January 2, 1943, Florence Paine, who lived in the apartment next to him, was awakened by a loud thud.  Bryan was found unconscious on the floor near his desk and died before the doctor could respond to the scene.  The following day, The New York Times reported, "Although the police at first suspected foul play and listed the death as 'suspicious,' an autopsy revealed that Mr. Bryan had died naturally and injuries on his body were old ones."

Fifteen years later, on January 30, 1958, The New York Times reported that Nat Simons, owner of the Penguin Restaurant in 19 and 21 West 9th Street, had purchased all three houses.  The article noted, "The buildings contain twenty-one small apartments."

The Villager, December 24, 1959

After more than two decades in the combined buildings, The Penguin restaurant gave way to Marylou's by 1985.  It was, according to The New York Times on December 26, 1997, a favorite of actor Jack Nicholson.  After becoming home to Calle Nueve, and then Pierres Roulantes in 2002, a full-circle moment occurred in 2009 when the aptly-named restaurant Hotel Griffou opened.

Although the arches over the ground floor openings have been filled in, and a steel railing replaces the original cast iron version on the balcony, the three cojoined houses are remarkably intact after nearly 170 years.

photographs by the author
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