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Hotel History: The Knickerbocker Hotel

Did you read that the old Knickerbocker Hotel (1906-1921) is about to open again as a hotel on February 12, 2015?

This historic building opened as the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1906 with 556 rooms. Developers J.E. and A.L. Pennock originally financed the building in 1903 and retained architects Bruce Price and Marvin & Davis. Only one year later, John Jacob Astor IV, who owned the land, took over the troubled project. The interiors were redesigned by architects Trowbridge & Livingston and a three-story restaurant and bar was added with seating for 2,000 diners.

A New York Times story (October 24, 1906) reported on the opening reception:

The Hotel Knickerbocker, the newest Times Square hotel, opened its doors yesterday to invited guests... Between the hours of 1 and 6 o'clock the fifteen-story structure on the southeast corner of Forty-second Street and Broadway was thronged with visitors, most of whom were received by James R. Regan, the manager, who has been connected recently with the Woodmansten Inn... In the main dining room.... the most notable features being the tapestries and the beamed ceiling, which is modeled after that in the Chateau de Fontainebleau... While the Knickerbocker has not exactly furnished itself with a motto, the manager and his assistants will tell you that they are running "a Fifth Avenue Hotel at Broadway prices"... The new hotel can accommodate about 1000 guests. There are 556 sleeping rooms and 400 baths... Rooms for one, with bath, average about $3.25 a day. The lobby, on the Forty-second Street side, was much admired by the host of visitors, and all paused to take a look at the representation of Father Knickerbocker in the entrance hall. Maxfield Parrish's "Old King Cole and His Fiddlers Three", the chief decoration of the barroom, attracted much attention.... Down below are the grillroom, with its own bar; the barber's and manicure parlors, and the kitchen. Alexandre Gastaud who used to be chef at the Hotel Carlton in London, presides over the kitchen. He is proud of the fact that nothing can go wrong from his department, because of the duplicate service which has been installed. (Gastaud was later appointed director of food and beverage at the new Waldorf-Astoria by developer Lucius M. Boomer in 1931).

The world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso and his family lived in the hotel (until his death in 1921) in order to be near the Metropolitan Opera House which was located just three blocks away. Caruso's wife gave birth to their daughter, Gloria, in their suite. Caruso is said to have examined her mouth and declared, "Ah, she has the vocal cords, just like her daddy!" According to a contemporary newspaper story, Caruso ate virtually all his meals in the hotel restaurant, always using the same utensils. It was reported that when he encountered an unemployed man, Emile Shubert, one of 2,300 unemployed waiting in a bread line behind the hotel, Caruso gave him his overcoat and shoes. On Armistice Day, November 9, 1918, Caruso appeared at the window of his suite and led the crowd outside in the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and followed it with the French and Italian national anthems.

After the death of John Jacob Astor IV on the Titanic in 1912, his son Vincent Astor managed the Knickerbocker until 1921 when he closed the hotel. There's no certain story on exactly why he shuttered the Knickerbocker a mere 15 years after opening, though some speculate that Prohibition and its impact on the hotel's bar business could have played a role. Or maybe it was simply that, at a time when World War I had just ended, too few people were in the mood for gourmet food and elaborate accommodations.

One of the legends about the original Knickerbocker Hotel comes from the drink called the martini, which was said to have been invented by the house bartender, Martini di Arma di Tagga. In 1912, he mixed dry vermouth and gin together and the mixture gained the favor of John D. Rockefeller who liked it so much that he recommended it to all his Wall Street buddies, and the drink quickly became a national favorite. Another remnant of the past is a sign for the hotel that can be found in the New York City subway. The "Knickerbocker" sign is posted over a doorway that once connected the hotel to the east end of the platform for Track 1 of the 42nd Street Shuttle.

During the Depression, the architect Charles Platt designed a million-dollar renovation converting the hotel into an office building. It was known as the Newsweek Building from 1940 to 1959, named after its major tenant Newsweek Magazine. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 11, 1980. In that same year, some of the building was converted to residential units called "1466 Broadway" but was mostly occupied by showrooms and studios for the garment district. By this time, the interiors were sacrificed to the vicissitudes of contemporary fashion and, after the lobby's barrel-vaulted ceiling was covered with illuminated plastic, the interior became ordinary and forgettable. In order to protect the exterior from destruction, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Knickerbocker Hotel a landmark in 1988. The designation report stated:

Summary

The Knickerbocker Hotel is one of the very few grand hotels in the Beaux-Arts style surviving in the Times Square area. Designed in 1901 by the firm of Marvin & Davis with the well-known Bruce Price as consulting architect, the building was financed by John Jacob Astor, the fourth namesake of the patriarch of one of America's richest families. It is executed in red brick, richly ornamented with French Renaissance detail, and crowned by a prominent copper mansard roof with corner pavilions and cresting.

The Knickerbocker was one of the several New York hotels built by the Astor family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Near Times Square in the heart of the theater district, it was intended to attract not only guests in residence, but also theater-goers and other visitors, its large restaurants and fountains, and murals by noted artists such as Maxfield Parrish and Frederic Remington. The public rooms were designed in 1905 by the firm of Trowbridge & Livingston....

But the Knickerbocker, like some other midtown hotels was hard hit by Prohibition. It ceased operation as a hotel in 1921 and was converted to commercial and office use.

The Development of Times Square

The construction of large hotels in the Times Square district resulted from the northward expansion of the city, the growth of mass transportation, and the relocation of the theater district. A rural area in the early 1800s, it evolved into an urban area following the opening of Grand Central Depot and the completion of the Third and Sixth Avenue Elevated Railways in 1871. Although the first subway line-the IRT to 145th Street-did not reach Times Square until 1904, the route had already been fixed in 1901. In that year plans were filed for three hotels, including the Knickerbocker, fourteen apartment houses, and one theater all located near Times Square.

The Astor Family's Hotel Interests

The Knickerbocker was only one of several New York hotels constructed by the Astor family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with the Astor House of 1836 on lower Broadway, the family established a reputation for building costly and well-appointed hotels. John Jacob Astor (1864-1912), the fourth namesake of the patriarch of the family, and his cousin William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) built a number of luxury hotels around the turn of the century. William Waldorf's Waldorf Hotel of 1893 and John Jacob's Astoria Hotel of 1897 on adjacent sites (both sites are now occupied by the Empire State Building, a designated New York City Landmark) were eventually joined to form the first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (architect, Henry J. Hardenbergh) which was considered in its day to be the grandest New York hotel, setting the standard for others to equal or surpass.

William Waldorf Astor also financed the Hotel Netherland (1890-93; demolished) and the Hotel Astor at Times Square (1902-04; demolished). Designed by Clinton & Russell, the Hotel Astor was an elaborate Beaux-Arts structure, of red brick with limestone detail and a mansard roof. Comparable in style to the Knickerbocker, it also featured eclectic and elaborate public rooms. John Jacob Astor built the exclusive St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue, begun in 1904, designed by Trowbridge & Livingston, and this highly successful venture very likely led to that firm's commission for the interior of the Knickerbocker Hotel.

History of the Knickerbocker

John Jacob Astor leased the new hotel site to the Philadelphia International Realty & Construction Company. At the time of this agreement the site was occupied by the Hotel St. Cloud and a smaller eight-story building facing on West 41st Street (which became known as the annex). While the St. Cloud was razed (Astor stipulated that a new hotel to cost at least two million dollars replace it), the 41st Street structure was retained. According to the New York City Department of Buildings, it was designed by Philip C. Brown in 1894 as a hotel, and became the service entrance to the Knickerbocker.

The Knickerbocker Holding Company was established with hotelier James B. Regan (1865-1932) as director and lessee. Regan, who had begun his career in the hotel business as a teenager, working his way up the ladder, had served as manager of several hotels, among them Manhattan's Pabst Hotel. Before embarking on this new endeavor, Regan spent several months in Europe visiting hotels to serve as models.

Construction began in 1902, but in early 1904 work was halted with only a steel and masonry shell completed. Dissension within the Knickerbocker Holding Company prompted Regan's resignation and Astor instituted dispossession proceedings. Construction was only resumed in June of 1905, after Regan agreed to rent the hotel for twenty years at $300,000 per annum, and after plans for the interior spaces were redesigned, Trowbridge & Livingston having been commissioned to complete the work. During 1905 a two-story portico was added to the 42nd Street façade, and the finishing touches were added to the exterior.

When the hotel opened its doors on October 24, 1906, it created a sensation. The interiors were lavishly decorated, including a café mural by painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrrish (1870-1966), a tableau entitled "Old King Cole and His Fiddlers Three" and the dramatic "The United States Cavalry Charge" by Frederic Remington (1861-1909), a specialist in depicting America's Far West. Sculptor Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937) had been commissioned to design two electrified fountains and artist Charles Finn to paint the mural, "Masque of Flowers" for the Flower Room. The Knickerbocker, with 556 rooms, could accommodate about one thousand guests in residence; the public rooms could serve two thousand. Clearly the Knickerbocker was intended as a place for entertainment, part of the nighttime excitement of the Times Square area....

The architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston was hired in 1905 to rearrange the interior spaces and to create a new decorative scheme. Samuel Beck Parkman Trowbridge (1862-1925), born in New York City, did his undergraduate studies at Trinity College, Hartford, and attended the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He entered the office of George B. Post upon his return to New York.

Goodhue Livingston, a descendant of a prominent colonial New York family, received his degrees from Columbia during the same period Trowbridge was in school. Their partnership was long and productive. Their residential commissions included the Beaux-Arts style 123 East 63rd and 123 East 70th Streets, the latter of which was Trowbridge's home.

Above the second story, the exterior of the Knickerbocker looks much as it did in1906. The fourteen-story building is faced with red brick and is ornamented with terra cotta and Indiana limestone. It is in the Beaux-Arts style with many French Renaissance details. The first two stories of the building have suffered a series of inharmonious changes when altered for commercial, office and retail use in the 1920s.

Many of the changes in the Knickerbocker occurred in 1920-21 when the building was changed to office and retail use. In recent years, new anodized aluminum one-over-one sash windows have been installed above the second story. The interiors were altered far more radically. The public spaces were removed and their furnishings sold. The upper floors were changed to offices, and while a few radiators and floors are extant, little else remains from the original Knickerbocker Hotel.

It is reported that the renowned chef Charlie Palmer, whose Aureole restaurant is across the street, will operate a full service restaurant and bar, a coffee shop and outdoor rooftop bar overlooking Times Square.

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About Stanley Turkel

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Public Profile

Stanley Turkel, CMHS is a New York-based hotel consultant specializing in hotel-related expert witness and franchising services. He was designated as the 2015 and 2014 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To order his books, Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry; Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York; Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi; and Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf, go to stanleyturkel.com and click on "books."

Turkel can be reached at stanturkel@aol.com or (917) 628-8549.