A Historic Hotel in New York City
Most people think of lower Midtown as a district of lofts and offices, without much character. But hidden between the bland commercial buildings is a sprinkling of little gems, recalling the days when this section was at the peak of elegance and sophistication. Of these, the most illustrious is surely The Wolcott Hotel. Opened on March 1, 1904, it is the biggest and most exuberant of those structures, both audacious and sophisticated, designed by a prize-winning but idiosyncratic architect for a mysterious developer with a checkered career.
In the 1850s, 5th Avenue in this section was building up with large, chocolate-colored row houses belonging to the prosperous, like the two large townhouses of the Astor family, which were located on the site where the Empire State Building now sits. Most of these were still in place in the 1890s, but by that time, elite commerce had invaded 5th Avenue along with a string of theaters and restaurants along Broadway.
On 5th, the Astors built the huge Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on the site of their houses, and there were several firms nearby, including Durand-Ruel at 315 5th Avenue, the art dealers who introduced Impressionist painters to American millionaires. Also mixed in were clubs like Knickerbockers and the Colony, a woman's social club designed by Stanford White. The Wolcott Hotel was one of a score of hotels and apartments that went up between 1900 and 1910 along with this varied mixture.
The Wolcott Hotel was not built by one of New York's Professional developers, but by a relative outsider, William C. Dewey. Dewey was a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, and would often travel back home even when he was active in New York City businesses. In the 1880s, he lived in a row house at 16 West 31st Street, but moved uptown later in the decade.
Later in the 1890s, he became involved in real estate and hotel management and had a piano dealership on 14th Street. In 1902, Dewey began a short-lived career in real estate, filing plans for a tenement on 36thbetween 2nd and 3rd Avenue, a lofting building on Greenwich Street, a 10-story apartment house at the northeast corner of 80th and Broadway, and The Wolcott Hotel. For the last two ambitious projects, he retained John H. Duncan as his architect.
At this time, Duncan was one of the most famous architects in the United States. He had hurtled to national attention in the early 1890s when he was selected as the architect of what is now known as Grant's Tomb, the most popular American attraction at the turn of the century. This success led to townhouse commissions from some of New York's richest families: Otto H. Kahn, Arthur Lehman (of Lehman Brothers), the Goelets, the Straus’, and others.
Duncan worked in a big, bold style, favoring large-scale, Beaux-Arts-type ornament to produce a startling and even shocking effect of sophistication and luxe that was his signature. The Wolcott Hotel's essential Beaux-Arts style broke no new ground; rather, it was the audacious, blocky precision of its ornament that made it stand out, combining the rigorous discipline of French Neoclassicism with the exuberant display of the contemporary school of the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts.
On the lower floor, the muscular-carved busts and blocky rustication (the horizontal banding of the façade), the sharp leafwork at the tenth floor, the crisp, unyielding strap work, and the giant dormers are all trademark Duncan elements.
In an extensive article about The Wolcott Hotel published in September 1903, Architects' and Builders' Magazine described the exterior as “Modern French” and noted the hotel’s “elaborately sculptured decoration.” The Wolcott Hotel boasted its own laundry, power plant, ice-making machines, and telephone systems.
The interior design of most hotels of this size was perfunctory, often simply a selection of catalogue items casually brought together. But with The Wolcott Hotel, there is every indication that the interior decoration was carefully planned and executed. The Architects' and Builders' Magazine article shows detailed drawings for ceiling decoration and window hanging, and also discusses the “Neo-Greek” vestibule and Louis XVI-style dining room.
An original plan shows the original lobby in its present position, but the office on the right. The lobby originally extended all the way to the rear, under a musicians’ gallery, which still survives, into the dining room at the rear. The ground floor had a ladies’ Reception Room and a café with a leaded glass ceiling at the front, and a Smoking Room, Children's Dining Room, and Palm Room on the sides. An early brochure describes “high French mirrors” lining the Louis XVI-style lobby, with mahogany chairs upholstered in green velvet with the hotel's crest embroidered in gold.
The Palm Room ceiling was apparently stained or leaded glass over a trellis of vines, “giving the effect of being open to the sky.” Compared to other buildings of this type in Midtown, The Wolcott Hotel's interior is amazingly intact; stained glass, ornamental iron, rich molding, mosaic floors, and other elements survive in almost every area. The decorations to the 300 guest rooms “were executed with artistic taste and the appointments are perfect to the last degree, including all the latest improvements for the comfort of hotel patrons.”
A building planned in 1902 should have finished no later than the end of 1903 but the hotel was not finished until March 1904, when Dewey leased The Wolcott Hotel to James H. Breslin, one of the leading hotel men of the period. Later news accounts indicate the labor strikes held up the process past the time when Dewey's short-term construction financing due for repayment and a receiver for the building was appointed in October 1904. The American Mortgage Company took back the building in early 1905, and after Dewey retired to obscurity.
James Breslin's lease was undisturbed, and indeed, he moved into The Wolcott Hotel when it opened on March 1, 1904. A brochure from near to the time of opening calls it “An Ideal Hotel.” The hotel clearly served transient guests, but was also the permanent home for several dozen.
Most of The Wolcott Hotel's residents were of quiet accomplishment, like Finis Marshall, President of the Phoenix National Bank, and Ingalls Kimball, an executive at Metropolitan Life. One of these was Phillip J. Dwyer, racing enthusiast and “one of the notable figures of American turf” according to the New York Times. Dwyer owned a large interest in the Aqueduct racetrack and co-owned with his brother Michael, the legendary horse, Hindoo. Another was Harry L. Wilson, author of the humorous account of an English butler out west, Ruggles of Red Gap, and other stories. Wilson is credited with introducing the term “flapper” to the English language. For a time during his occupancy at The Wolcott Hotel, he lived with his first wife who, as Rose O ' Neil, was the originator of the kewpie-doll craze. Another of The Wolcott Hotel's early residents was Henry J. Pain, who established his family's English fireworks business in the United States. He started out in the 1870s with displays at the inauguration of four Presidents: McKinley, Roosevelt, Wilson and Taft, the last two of which took place during his tenure at The Wolcott Hotel. A different type of resident was J. Searle Barclay, a champion rower from a monied, Social Register family.
The 1915 census gives an idea of the level of service in The Wolcott Hotel. In addition to the guests, the census taker recorded two cooks, 11 maids, two “glass maids,” a pantry girl, head cleaner, and 11 cleaning women. Most of the staff were of Irish descent.
There is not much in the later history of The Wolcott Hotel to distinguish it from other hotels, and it went through changes common to others of its age and location. But it has always been recognized as special by 1940s newspapers like The New York Times routinely reported that it had been designed by Stanford White, the standard indication that the writer knows the building is something special, even if in ignorance of exactly what it is.