Historic Hotels of New York City

New York is the paradise of hotels.  In no other city do they flourish in such numbers, and nowhere else do they attain such a degree of excellence.  The hotels of New York naturally take the lead of all others in America, and are regarded by all who have visited them as models of their kind.

It is said that there are from six to seven hundred hotels of all kinds in the City of New York.  These afford accommodations for persons of every class, and are more or less expensive, according to the means of their guests.  Of these, only about fifty are well known, even in the city, and only about twenty-five come under the head of “fashionable.”  The principal hotels are, beginning down town, the Astor, St. Nicholas, Metropolitan, Grand Central, Brevoort, New York, St. Denis, Spingler, Everett, Clarendon, Westminster, Glenham, Fifth Avenue, Hoffman, Albemarle, St. James, Coleman, Sturtevant, Gilsey, Grand, and St. Cloud.  These are the largest, handsomest, and best kept houses in the city.  Each has its characteristics and its special customers, and each in its way is worth studying.

The Astor House is one of the oldest hotels in the city.  It is built of granite, and occupies an entire block on Broadway, from Vesey to Barclay streets.  It is immediately opposite the Herald office, and the new Post-office.  It was built by John Jacob Astor, and presented by him to his son William.  It was opened for business in 1831, by Colonel Charles A. Stetson, the present proprietor, and for twenty years was the leading hotel of the country.  In those days no one had seen New York unless he had “put up at the Astor.”  People talked of it all over the country, and in all our leading cities monster hotels began to appear, modelled upon the same general plan.  Those were the palmy days of the Astor, and if one could write their history in full, it would be a record worth reading.  The old registers of the house would be valuable for the autographs they contain, for there was scarcely a great or distinguished man of those days but had written his name in Colonel Stetson’s book.


The house had from the first a strong flavor of politics about it.  The leading statesmen of the country were always there in greater or less force, and their admirers kept up a continuous throng of comers and goers.  The house had a decided leaning towards the Whig Party, and finally it became their New York headquarters.  For thirty years Thurlow Weed boarded here, and the caucuses, committee meetings, and intrigues of various kinds the old house has witnessed, would fill a volume with their history.  The Astor still keeps its political character, and is one of the Republican strongholds of the city.  It is safe to assert that very few Democrats now inscribe their names on its register, if they are free to seek quarters elsewhere.

The misfortune of the Astor is that it is too far down town to be a fashionable house.  It is admirably located for merchants and others who have business in the lower part of the city, and to whom time is of value.  A few old-time folks, who knew the house in its palmy days, still stop there, and many whose political faith is in sympathy with that of the proprietor, make it a matter of conscience to patronize the house, and Colonel Stetson’s well-earned popularity brings him other guests.  Although its glories have faded, the Astor is still a successful hotel, but in popularity with the general public, it has long since been eclipsed by the up town hotels.

The St. Nicholas is one of the best houses in the city.  It shows a handsome marble front on Broadway, with a brown stone extension on the same thoroughfare to Prince street, and extends back to Mercer street.  It is handsomely furnished, and is kept on a scale of comfort and magnificence worthy of its fame.  Its spacious halls and sitting-rooms, on the street floor, furnish one of the most popular lounging places in the city.  Towards nightfall they are full to overflowing.  The table is said, by the lovers of good living, to be the best served of any house in the city.  The hotel is always full, and is very profitable to its proprietors.  It is said to pay better in proportion to its expenses than any of its rivals.  It is much liked by the Western people, who come here in crowds.  There is also a dashing element about its guests which gives to it its peculiar reputation in the city.  It is popularly believed to be the headquarters of “Shoddy,” and certain it is that one sees among its habitués an immense number of flashily dressed, loud-voiced, self-asserting people.

The Metropolitan is a handsome brown stone edifice, situated at the northeast corner of Broadway and Prince street.  It extends back to Crosby street, and has a frontage of about 300 feet on Broadway.  It is one of the most elegant hotels in the city, in every respect.  It contains about 400 rooms, and is always full.  It is very popular with army officers, with Californians and the people of the mining States and Territories, as well as with the New Englanders.  Capitalists and railroad managers also have a fondness for it.  “Shoddy” is to be seen here also in great force.


The New York Hotel is a plain red brick structure, occupying the entire block bounded by Broadway and Mercer street, and East Washington and Waverley Places.  It has recently been refitted and improved, and is one of the most comfortable houses in the city.  In one respect, it may be regarded as the counterpart of the Astor, since like that hotel, it is noted for its political complexion.  It is the favorite stopping place of the Democratic politicians visiting the city, and is mainly patronized by members of that party.  It is very popular with the Southern people, large numbers of whom come here to spend the summer, p. 308to escape from the heat of their climate, or to pass the winter to enjoy the delights of the city.  The guests of the New York generally stay a long time, and the house is said to do a good business.

The Grand Central, on Broadway, between Bleecker and Amity streets, and extending back to Mercer street, is a new house.  It was opened in August, 1870, and is the largest hotel in America.  It rises to a height of eight stories, or 127 feet, exclusive of the Mansard roof, above the street.  Including the central dome, it is ten stories in height.  The fitting up of the house is very handsome and elaborate, the furniture and decorations having cost over half a million of dollars.  The dining-room will seat 600 persons at once.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel, at the junction of Broadway and Fifth avenue, and between Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth streets, is generally regarded as the best house in the city.  It occupies the most conspicuous location in New York, and is one of the finest buildings of its kind in the world.  It is constructed of white marble, is six stories in height, above ground, and fronts on Fifth avenue, Broadway, Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth streets.  The land and building are valued at over $1,000,000, and are owned by Mr. Amos R. Eno, by whom the house was built.  The proprietors are Messrs. Hitchcock, Darling & Co.

The hotel was begun in 1857, Mr. Eno having more faith in the rapid growth and prosperity of the city than most persons had at that day.  The wise heads laughed him to scorn, and called his house “Eno’s folly.”  They said it might make a popular summer resort, but would never take rank as a first class city hotel.  It was too high up town.  Undismayed by these criticisms, Mr. Eno went on with his work, and in 1860, the marble palace, to which he gave the name of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, was opened to the public.  By this time the city had grown so fast as to make the need of this house imperative, but the first years of the war laid a burden upon it which only the most skilful financial management could overcome.

The hotel is the most perfectly appointed in the city.  The ground floor along Broadway and Fifth avenue is let out in stores.  The main entrance is on Fifth avenue, and is ornamented with a fine marble porch.  From this, the visitor enters into the spacious reception hall, tiled with marble and handsomely frescoed.  A marble counter at the lower end encloses the offices of the hotel, and on this counter is laid the Visitor’s Register, of which several fresh pages are filled daily with the names of new-comers.  Opposite the office are the stairs leading to the basement, in which are the billiard-rooms, storerooms, etc., of the house.  The hall upon which the office opens extends through to the rear of the building.  On the south side of this hall is the reading-room, in which are to be found the daily papers of the leading cities of the Union.  Opposite the reading-room is the bar-room, one of the most elegant apartments of the house, and beyond this is the handsome and well-appointed barber-shop.  There is a private entrance on Twenty-fourth street, used mainly by gentlemen, another on Twenty-third street, and still another on Broadway.  Each is in charge of a door-keeper, whose duty it is to exclude improper personages.  Along the Twenty-third street side are suites of private apartments on the ground floor, occupied by permanent boarders.

The various floors are reached by means of an “elevator,” the first ever used in this country.  Similar arrangements are now in use in all the large hotels.  The main stairway commences immediately opposite the office.  It is of white marble, and massive in its design.  Ascending it the visitor finds himself in a spacious hall, at one end of which is a corridor at right angles to this hall.  At the end nearest the stairs is the dining-room, a magnificent apartment.  When the tables are filled with a handsomely dressed throng of guests at the dinner hour, this room presents one of the most brilliant sights that can be witnessed on the continent.  The bill of fare comprises literally everything that is in season.  Back of the dining-room is the kitchen, an immense establishment.  Everything connected with it goes on like clock-work, however, so perfect is the system upon which it is managed.  Beneath the kitchen are the machines for warming and ventilating the hotel.  By means of these a perfectly comfortable temperature is maintained in all parts of the house, and the smells of the kitchen are kept out of the halls and chambers.


At the end of the hall upon which the dining-room opens, are the parlors of the house.  These are among the most magnificent rooms in the country.  They are furnished with great taste and elegance, and their windows look out immediately upon Madison Square.  There are also several private parlors adjoining the public rooms.  Along the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth street sides of the house are corridors, not quite so wide, but longer than the main corridor, and leading off from it.  The three constitute one of the pleasantest promenades to be found.  The floors are covered with the richest carpets, into which the feet sink noiselessly.  In the day a half twilight prevails, and at night a rich flood of gaslight streams along their entire length.

The upper floors are occupied with private parlors, rooms for guests, etc.  There are in this hotel pleasant quarters for 800 persons, and a greater number can be accommodated in case of necessity.  There are 100 suites of rooms, besides the ordinary chambers.  Each suite comprises a parlor, chamber, dressing-room, bath-room and water-closet.  The number of permanent boarders is about 300.  The transient arrivals average about 300 per day, sometimes amounting to about twice that number.  The house is expensive, but its accommodations are unsurpassed, and if one can “get his money back” anywhere in the city he can at this hotel.

The house is mainly patronized by people from other parts of the State, from New England, and from the West.  It is the most fashionable establishment in the city, and will doubtless hold its present rank as long as its energetic proprietors retain the control of it.

Towards eight o’clock in the evening, the hotel presents its most attractive features.  It is full to overflowing.  The lower halls, the reading and sitting-rooms are filled with well-dressed men, guests and citizens, who have sauntered here from all parts of the city.  Four-fifths are smoking, and the air is hazy with the “vapor of the weed.”  The hum of conversation is incessant, but the general tone is well-bred and courteous.  In the farther end of the great hall a group of stock brokers may be seen comparing notes, and making bargains for the sale and purchase of their fickle wares.  The clink of glasses makes music in the bar-room, and beyond this you may see the barbers at work on their customers in the luxurious shaving saloon.  Doors are opening and shutting continually, people are coming and going.  Porters are pushing their way through the crowd bearing huge trunks on their shoulders.  The office bell is sounding incessantly, from a dozen different chambers at once, and the servants are moving about in every direction to execute the orders of the guests.

On the floor above the scene is as animated, but of a different character.  Every one here is in full dinner dress, and all are on their good behaviour.  The grand dining-room is crowded with guests, who are doing ample justice to the sumptuous viands set before them.  The parlors are thronged with ladies and gentlemen, and the corridors are filled with promenaders.  The toilettes of the ladies are magnificent, and they can be seen here to better advantage than at any ball or evening party.  You may see here some of the loveliest and most refined women, and some of the coarsest and vulgarest, some of the most courtly gentlemen, and some of the most insufferable snobs.  If you will join the quiet-looking man moving through the throng as if seeking some one whom he cannot find, he can give you many an interesting bit of gossip about the various persons whom you will encounter in your walk.  He is the detective of the house, and is on the watch for improper characters.  Well-dressed thieves will make their way into hotels in spite of the precautions of the proprietors.  Here a guest is comparatively safe.  The detective is argus-eyed, and knows everybody.  Let a pick-pocket or thief but show his face in this place, and his arrest is sure.  All night the corridors are patrolled by watchmen to make sure of the safety of the sleeping guests.  The house is absolutely fire-proof.

The cost of conducting such an establishment is immense, but the profits are in proportion.  The average profit of this house is said to be about a quarter of a million of dollars per annum.

The hotels that have been mentioned are all conducted on the American plan of full board, or one charge for every expense.  This enables a guest to calculate his expenses exactly, and has many other advantages.

Many of the most fashionable houses are conducted on what is called “the European plan,” in which a separate charge is made for room, meals, and every service rendered.  It is said that this is more economical than the other plan, and that it is less profitable to the proprietors.  It is adopted by the Hoffman, St. Denis, Glenham, Brevoort, Coleman, St. James, Albemarle, Clarendon, Everett, Grand, Gilsey, and several other prominent houses.

The leading hotels of the city lie very close together, the majority of them being in the vicinity of Union and Madison Squares.  This is found to be an advantage, as strangers find it pleasant to visit friends who are staying at other houses.  The business of hotel keeping in New York is generally very profitable.  A large outlay is required at the opening of the house, for furniture, etc., as much as from $200,000 to $500,000 being expended on the fitting up of a first-class house.  The furniture, plate, etc., of the Fifth Avenue and Grand Central Hotels are valued at the latter sum for each establishment.  If the house meet with success, a moderate sum will suffice to supply its current wants.  The business is all cash, and large amounts of money are received daily.  The annual profits of the Fifth Avenue Hotel are said to be about $250,000; those of the St. Nicholas about $200,000.  Other leading houses, when well managed, are said to clear about twenty per cent. on the sum invested.  Large fortunes have been made by not a few keepers of hotels in New York.

The large hotels depend entirely upon transient guests for their success.  The city has, perhaps, the largest floating population in America.  Thousands come and go daily, even in the summer months, and these are mostly persons who have money to spend.  Bridal parties are constantly arriving, and these are not inclined to be the most economical in their expenditures.  In the spring and fall, the Southern and Western merchants come to New York in great numbers to buy goods, and are among the best customers of the hotels.  Thousands, on business, and for pleasure, come and go daily, and they all pour a constant stream of money into the coffers of the hotels.

The smaller houses, while they compete with their great rivals for transient custom, rely chiefly upon their permanent guests.  These are filled with families who have come to them to avoid the trouble of keeping house, and who remain all through the fall, winter, and spring.  In the summer they go to the watering places, so that they pass their whole lives in hotels.  They are mostly persons of wealth and fashion.  As may be supposed, the atmosphere of a hotel is not very favorable to domestic privacy, and such establishments are vast manufactories of scandal.  People imagine that they are living privately, but their every action is subject to the inspection and comment of the other inmates of the house.  The hotels are not the safest places for the growth of the domestic virtues.  Indeed, it may be said that they furnish the best means of destroying them entirely.  Neither are they the best place for the training of children.  This last, however, may be a minor consideration, for the wives who live at the hotels seem, as a rule, to take care that there shall be no children to need training.  Small families are a necessity at such places, and they remain small in that atmosphere.  If another Asmodeus could look down into the hotels of New York, he would have some startling revelations to make, which would no doubt go far to corroborate the gossip one hears in the city concerning them.

The proprietors of the city hotels are very active in their efforts to exclude improper characters from their houses, but with all their vigilance do not always succeed in doing so.  One is never certain as to the respectability of his neighbor at the table, and it is well to be over-cautious in forming acquaintanceships at such places.  Impure women of the “higher,” that is the more successful class, and gamblers, abound at the hotels.  The proprietor cannot turn them out unless they are notorious, until they commit some overt act, for fear of getting himself into trouble.  As soon, however, as his attention is called to any improper conduct on their part, they are turned into the street, no matter at what hour of the day or night.

Hotel proprietors are also the victims of adventurers of both sexes.  These people live from house to house, often changing their names as fast as they change their quarters, and they are more numerous than is generally believed.  One man who made himself known to the police in this way, used to take his family, consisting of a wife and three children, to the hotels, and engage the best rooms.  When his bill was presented, he affected to be extremely busy, and promised to attend to it the next day.  By the next day, however, he had disappeared with his family.  His trunk, which had been left behind, was found to contain nothing but bricks and rags, or paper.

Another adventurer would put up at the most fashionable hotels, and when requested to pay his bills would feign madness.  He would rave, and sing, and dance, call himself Nebuchadnezzar, or George Washington, or some such personage, and completely baffle the detectives, who were for a long time inclined to believe him a bonâ fide madman.  In this way he ran up a bill of one hundred and seventy-one dollars at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, which he never paid.

Others do not seek to obtain lodgings at the hotels, but confine their efforts to securing meals without paying for them.  They get into the dining-rooms along with the crowd at the meal hour, and once in and seated at the table are generally safe.  Some two years ago as many as thirty-four of this class were detected at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in a single month.  These men as they leave the dining-room generally manage to secure a better hat than that they deposited on the stand in entering.  Under the regime of the Lelands, the Metropolitan Hotel had a colored man stationed at the door of its dining-room, who proved more than a match for the most expert thief.

All first class hotels keep private detectives and watchmen on duty at all hours.  The business of these men is to keep guard over the upper part of the house, to prevent thieves from entering and robbing the rooms of the guests.  Suspicious persons are at once apprehended, and required to give an account of themselves.  Some queer mishaps often befall guests of the house who are not known to the detectives.

Bold robberies are often effected at the hotels of the city.  Some time ago a thief was captured at the St. Nicholas, and upon being searched a gold watch and chain, and five different parcels of money were found upon him, all of which were identified by guests as their property.


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