Monday, July 8, 2024

The Lost Ritz-Carlton Hotel - 370-384 Madison Avenue


photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Library of Congress

In 1903, construction began on the rebuilding of Grand Central Terminal designed by Warren & Wetmore.  Four years later, the firm was hired to design the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on land owned by the Goelet Estate just over a block away from Grand Central, at 46th Street and Madison Avenue.  The Record & Guide noted it "is to be built by English capitalists."  But something went awry and on November 2 the journal reported that the plans were "well underway," but that the project "will be delayed indefinitely."

The problems between the Ritz-Carlton organization and Robert Walton Goelet seemed to have been worked out in July 1908 when the Record & Guide reported that Warren & Wetmore had refiled plans.  The new construction costs had doubled, from $1 million to $2 million--thirteen times that much in 2024 money.

Goelet's problems continued when fire broke out on the 15th floor during construction on May 26, 1909.  Presumed to have been caused by "a red-hot rivet dropped by a workman just before quitting time in the evening," the blaze was deemed by The New York Times, "as remarkable a fire story as ever New York had."

On February 12, 1910, The New York Times reported on the progress, noting, "the formal opening will probably not take place until early next Fall."  The article said, "The finished structure outside presents an imposing appearance...The facade reveals a series of tall pilasters extending around the building, inclosing the windows about the second story.  Ionic pilasters in similar rows decorate the top story."

Warren & Wetmore's tripartite Italian Renaissance design sat upon a three-story stone base.  The 11-story brick mid-section was relatively undecorated.  A balustraded parapet crowned the two-story top section.

The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

As the opening neared, Theodore Korell of the Ritz Hotel in London arrived.  He told reporters in November 1910, "The general plan of the hotel is to reproduce in New York an exact copy of the Carlton in London, and this has been so faithfully carried out that Americans who travel abroad will have no difficulty in imagining themselves in London when they have passed the portals of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel."  The New York Times commented, "The main feature of the hotel will be the restaurant which has been decorated in pure Adams style with a very lofty ceiling and seating accommodation for 300 guests.

Patrons would climb a broad set of marble stairs to enter the oval restaurant.  The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

Kroell told The New York Times, "The 300 rooms will be furnished in the simple artistic manner followed in our other hotels."  The building was, in fact, two--the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for transient guests at the south and the Carlton House apartments to the north.  The residents of Carlton House could receive their meals directly from the restaurant, served by the wait staff.

From the marble-lined lobby (above) guests passed into the double-height Palm Court.  The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

To ensure perfection in the restaurant, the famed French chef August Escoffier (described by The New York Times as the "Prince of Chefs") was hired as a consultant.  Luke Barr, in his Ritz & Escoffier, says, "He traveled to America for the first time in 1908, and again in 1910 for the opening, organizing the kitchen and the staff."  

A second-floor view of the Palm Court. The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

The formal opening of the Ritz-Carlton took place on December 14, 1910.  The New York Times described the oval restaurant saying, "The paneled walls with their delicate green coloring and the two large Georgian windows giving glimpses of Forty-sixth Street and the tree-shaded courtyard of the hotel, all combine to give an air of refined simplicity."

In the Palm Court, just past the lobby, was a statue of Flora by Giovanni di Bolonga carved between 1540 and 1550.

A salon in one of the suites.  The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

There were three bridal suites in the Ritz-Carlton (hotels normally had one) and they became a favorite among well-to-do newlyweds.  And while wealthy New Yorkers honeymooned in Europe, the Europeans were coming here.  On October 29, 1911, The New York Times commented, "The Bridal suites have had more than 100 bridal couples in the short time the hotel has been open, more than half of whom came from Europe."

The Pall Mall Room (top) and the Grill Room (which was in the basement) were two of the cafes throughout the hotel.  The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

Service at the Ritz-Carlton was unexcelled.  In the suites were electronic "buttonpads" with four buttons--each used to summon a different servant.  A journalist from The New York Times was invited to use a stopwatch to determine the response time.  He reported, "In five seconds a waiter was at the door.  The valet took eleven seconds and the maid eight seconds."

Even more than the restaurant, the Ritz-Carlton ballroom was a center of social attention.  It was the scene of themed, benefit balls, like the Shakespeare Ball and the Russian Ball in 1913.  On December 13, The New York Times called the latter, which benefited the Lenox Hill Settlement, "The social spectacle so far this season."  The article reported, "The interior of the ballroom and the grand staircase presented a brilliant scene around midnight, with the guests in characteristic costumes, some in Russian Court attire, others as Russian peasants, the former resplendent in jewels, the latter in tatters with red poppies in their hair."

Equally (or more) lavish and expensive were the debutante balls of Manhattan's heiresses.  Socialites vied for dates during the winter season.  On December 14, 1919 alone, The Sun reported on the upcoming balls for Josephine Flood, Adelaide Routh Ogden, Lela Emery, and Geraldine R. McAlpin.  Gertrude L. Earl, a social secretary, would later recall, "people took over the entire ballroom suite for a week and hired carpenters to remake it after their own fancy."

On December 16, 1919, The American Florist reported on the debut of Millicent Rogers, the daughter of Henry Huddleston and Mary Page Benjamin Rogers.  The article said in part,

The ball throughout was an elaborate affair, 1,200 guests being present.  The floral decorations were on an elaborate scale...The balconies of the foyer, leading to the large ball room, were decorated with Woodwardia ferns, sent here from California for the event.  The walls of the ball room were lined with oak trees, chrysanthemums and other plants.  In the centre of the orchestra stage there was a basket six feet high, filled with Gold Mine chrysanthemums.

The Sun described the Rogers debutante ball on November 30, 1919 as, "quite out of the ordinary," noting, "In many ways the ball resembled those given in London during the height of the season, as so many interesting persons of the artistic world were in the gathering."  Among those "interesting persons" were Ethel Barrymore and Enrico Caruso (who was a cousin by marriage of the debutante's mother).

Hotels and restaurants were severely affected by Prohibition, which caused many to fail.  Even the most exclusive establishments were not immune from raids and on July 12, 1924, The New York Times reported, "Prohibition agents visited the Ritz-Carlton Roof Garden last night at 9:30 o'clock when the restaurant was serving more than 400 patrons, arrested six waiters and a patron, and left summonses for the manager, and captain of waiters of the roof garden."  The wealthy patrons were outraged and according to one agent, "many of the diners tipped over their glasses and spilled the evidence and others drank the evidence they were seeking."

Guests at the Ritz-Carlton often included nobility.  Prince Paul Troubetzkoy was a bit annoyed in July 1914 when the management told him his two Russian shepherd dogs were not allowed.  According to The New York Times, he countered, "But you misunderstand.  I want to get a room upstairs for my dogs.  If necessary, I'll take a whole suite for them."  The article said, "but he argued in vain" and concluded, "the Prince wanted to stop at the Ritz-Carlton more than he wanted his dogs to be with him."  He "sent his pets out to the country to board, and took up the quarters he had engaged for himself."

Baroness Helen zur Muehlen arrived on the Aquitania on June 27, 1925.  Sharing her five-room suite on the seventh floor was her companion, Mrs. Suzanne I. Welden.  On the night of July 7, the baroness had two guests, Lester Comley and James M. Thompson.  About a half hour after midnight, Baroness zur Muehlen "murmured a conventional apology," according to The New York Times, and left the drawing room.  A few moments later the men and Mrs. Welden "heard a subdued outcry."  They rushed into the baroness's bedroom to find she had plunged to her death.  Her death was ruled accidental.

The oval restaurant with its incomparable Adam-style ceiling.  The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

Among the guests the following year were Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden.  While here in June, the down-to-earth prince rode the subway to the Polo Grounds to see the Chicago Cubs beat the Giants.  

Later, in October, Queen Marie of Rumania (who most definitely did not ride the subway) arrived with her children Princess Ileana and Prince Nicholas.  A reception was held in the ballroom on October 20 during which "700 representative men and women of this city were presented to her."  The New York Times reported, "After the Queen had seated herself on the throne the guests moved forward in single file.  Their names were taken by one functionary and repeated to another."  The first to be presented was General John Pershing.

One of the most brilliant of the debutante balls was that of Eleanor Post Hutton on December 26, 1927.  Her parents, Edward F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post (Eleanor was Marjorie's daughter from a previous marriage) hired the famous architect and scenic designer Josef Urban to transform the Ritz-Carlton ballroom.  The New York Times called it, "One of the most elaborate parties of the season...Mrs. Hutton and her daughter received at the entrance of the ballroom.  Dancing was continuous to the music of three orchestras."

The debut of Eleanor's cousin, Barbara Hutton was held here three years later, and once again the ballroom was decorated by Josef Urban.  On December 23, 1930, the Daily News reported, "Two thousand guests made merry at the Ritz-Carlton last night where society's prettiest debutante, Barbara Hutton, was presented to Mayfair at the largest and most beautiful ball of the season."  The New York Times said the eucalyptus trees, brought in from California, cost $10,000 (about $182,000 today).  Barbara was the daughter of Franklin L. Hutton and Edna Woolworth.  There were four orchestras, including the Rudy Vallee and the Howard Lanin orchestras.

New Yorkers were no doubt shocked on January 9, 1950 when the Associated Press reported, "The ultra-fashionable Ritz-Carlton Hotel, whose name helped put the word 'ritz' into the English language, is to be torn down...The task of demolishing the 16-story hotel, a luxury landmark in New York City for 40 years, will begin early next year."  The article said that when R. Baylor Knox was asked the reason for the planned demolition, he answered, "We would just like to see an office building there."

The New York Times reacted in an op-ed, "In no other country of  the world, and indeed in few cities of this country, would it be conceivable that a block-long, eighteen-story building in excellent condition and housing a world-famous hotel would be torn down after a life of only forty years."  A year later the newspaper's tone had not softened.  On February 4, 1951, its journalist Lee E. Graham said that the demolition meant more than the passing of a landmark.  "It is the finish of gentle manners and good taste, they say; it is the close of a delightful, irretrievable era.  And since the hotel betrays no obvious signs of decrepitude, why does it have to die?"

In May 1951, Texas millionaire Amon G. Carter bought the bar from the men's café.  The New York Times reported it "is on its way to Shady Oak Farm, the home of Mr. Carter's son, Amon G. Carter Jr., near Fort Worth."  It was the first of the items to be salvaged.  A three-day auction began on May 21, 1951.  First to go was the furniture.  "Auction goers will have their choice of gilt chairs from the grand ballroom, teakwood taborets, beds, couches, settees, tavern chairs with red leather upholster and Hepplewhite and Sheraton style chairs and some antiques," said The New York Times.

The New York Architect, January 1911 (copyright expired)

Demolition of the important piece of Manhattan social history began in June 1951. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. I always enjoy your hotel posts. I believe a memoir of someone who used to work there was republished some years ago but I am ashamed to say both the title of the book and the author’s name has eluded me.

  2. In 1951 journalist Lee E. Graham was quite correct when he said that the demolition meant more than the passing of a landmark. "It is the finish of gentle manners and good taste; it is the close of a delightful, irretrievable era. And since the hotel betrays no obvious signs of decrepitude, why does it have to die?" Sell it, renovate it or re-use it for a different purpose, but why on earth destroy it? Had they not heard of heritage protection in the 1950s?

    1. Sadly, until the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, historic preservation was limited mostly to the homes of Presidents or military figures, and battlefields. It was with great effort, for example that Frances Tavern was preserved in the early years of the last century--and that was because of its connection to Washington and his farewell to the troops, not because of its architectural importance.

  3. @Keith Leong. Was the book you were trying to remember "Hotel Splendide" by Ludwig Bemelmans? Which was a thinly veiled memoire of working at the Ritz Carlton in the 1940's and earlier. First published in the 1940's and recently reprinted.

  4. Incredible interiors. Appreciate your research to bring these long forgotten or overlooked architectural gems to life again. M Arch