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4 West 31st Street between 5th Ave and Broadway

History of the Hotel Wolcott



Most people think of lower midtown as a district of lofts and offices, without much character. But hidden between the bland commercial buildings are a sprinkling of little gems, recalling the days when this section was at the peak of elegance and sophistication and of these the most illustrious is surely the Hotel Wolcott, now approaching its centennial. 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 1850's, Fifth 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, on the site of the present  Empire State Building. Most of these were still in place in the 1890's but by that time elite commerce had invaded Fifth, along with a  string of theaters  and restaurants along  Broadway.

On Fifth, the Astors built their huge Waldorf-Astoria on the site of their houses, and there were several firms like Durand-Ruel, at 315 Fifth Avenue, the art dealers who introduced Impressionist painters to American Millionaires. These were also mixed in with selected clubs like the Knickerbockers, at the northeast corner of 32nd Street, and the Colony, at 122 Madison Avenue, the woman's social club in New York, designed by Stanford White. The Wolcott was one of a score of hotels and apartment, hotels that went up from 1900-1910 to partake of this varied mixture.

The Wolcott 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 often gave that city as his residence, even as he was active in New York City businesses. In the 1880's he lived in a row house at 16 West 31st Street, but moved uptown later in the decade. In 1890, as president of a Massachusetts carpet company, he was arrested for obtaining $900 in goods from a New York vendor without the ability to pay, and he spent at least one night in the Ludlow Street jail.

Later in the 1890's 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 36th between Second and Third 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, really ambitious projects he retained as architect John H. Duncan.

Duncan was by then one of the most famous architects in the United States. He had hurtled to national attention in the early 1890's 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's and others.

Duncan worked in a big, bold style, favoring super-scaled Beaux-Arts-type ornament to produced a startling, even shocking effect of sophistication and luxe that was his signature. The Wolcott's essential Beaux-Arts style broke no new ground: rather it was the audacious, blocky precision of its ornament, combining the rigorous discipline of French neo-Classicism 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.

Architects' and Builders' Magazine, in an extensive article about Wolcott published in September 1903, described the exterior as "Modern French", noted the hotels "elaborately sculptured decoration". The Wolcott boasted its own laundry, power plant, ice making machines and telephone systems.

The interior designs of most hotels of the size was perfunctory, often simply a selection of catalogue items casually brought together. But there is every indication that the interior decoration of the Wolcott was carefully planned and executed. The Architects' and builders' article shows detailed drawing 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 Dinning 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'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 leases the Wolcott to James H. Breslin, one of the leading hotel men of the period. Later news accounts indicate the labor strikes had held up the Wolcott 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 when it opened on March 1, 1904, and 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'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" in the English language. For a time during his occupancy at the Wolcott he lived with his first wife who, as Rose O ' Neil, was the originator of the kewpie-doll craze. Another of the Wolcott's early residents was Henry J. Pain, who established his family's English fireworks business in the United States. He started out in the 1870's with displays at the inauguration of four Presidents, McKinley, Roosevelt, Wilson and Taft, the last two took place during his tenure at the Wolcott. 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. In addition to the guests, the census taker recorded two cooks, eleven maids, two "glass maids", a pantry girl, head cleaner and eleven cleaning women- most of the staff were Irish.

There is not much in the later history of the Wolcott 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 the 1940's 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.

The Wolcott is a striking reminder of turn of the century New York, still attracting interest and surprise from those who do not already know it.

Christopher Gray 
December 1993

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The Hotel Wolcott 4 West 31st Street New York, New York 10001 United States Phone: 212-268-2900 Fax: 212-563-0096