History: The Martha Washington Hotel

In late August 2014, King & Grove Hotels announced that it restored the original name to the Martha Washington Hotel.

The Martha Washington Hotel opened on March 2, 1903 as the first New York hotel exclusively for women. All the employees were women with a hostess and chaperones in attendance at all times. An opening day advertisement in the Hotel Gazette showed an illustration of Martha Washington and said:

Hotel Martha Washington
29th and 30th Sts.,
Near Fifth Ave., N.Y. City

450 rooms en suite and single, $1.50 per day and up.
European plan. Telephone in every room. Numerous
baths on each floor free to guests. Caters to women espe-
cially traveling or visiting New York alone. Convenient
to surface and subway transportation. Cuisine excep-
tionally good. Absolutely Fireproof. Restaurant for
Ladies and Gentlemen.

For obvious reasons, men were only allowed in the first floor restaurant. Even priests and doctors were barred from the rest of the building.

It housed many notable women in its day. One was the Hollywood legend Louise Brooks who, after a "humiliating eviction" from the Algonquin Hotel, moved to the Martha Washington, "a respectable women's hotel on East Twenty-ninth Street." Brooks wrote, "The atmosphere of the Martha Washington was institutional. The women wore short hair, stylish and sensible shoes and worked, I assumed, in offices. (I) was assigned a cell under the roof... I was asked to leave the Martha Washington because people in a building overlooking the hotel had been shocked. to see me on the roof, exercising in 'flimsy pajamas'." (quoting Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1983.)

The hotel also had a connection with the movie actress Veronica Lake who during the 1940s, was regarded as one of Hollywood's most popular actresses. However, by 1952, she was unable to continue working as an actress because of her difficult reputation- Raymond Chandler referred to her as "Moronica Lake." After divorcing her husband, she drifted between cheap hotels in Brooklyn and New York City and was arrested several times for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. A reporter found her working as barmaid at the all-women's Martha Washington Hotel in Manhattan. At first, Lake claimed that she was a guest at the hotel and covering for a friend. Soon afterward, she admitted that she was employed at the bar. The reporter's widely distributed story led to some television and stage appearances.

The opening of the original Martha Washington Hotel was the capstone of more than fifty years of poor treatment of women travelers in the United States. Prior to the Civil War and thereafter in the 19th century, the lone women guest was looked upon with suspicion.

Jefferson Williamson reported in The American Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1930):

....an increasing number of women accompanied their husbands on journeys and there were, of course, the permanent women guests, wives of local citizens occupying parlor and bedroom suites. These latter were the vanguard of the "new women." British visitors look upon them with astonishment. Along with the little parlor stoves in guest-rooms, the battle-scarred spittoons in the lobbies, the cocktails and juleps in the bathrooms, and the succotash and flapjacks in the dining-halls, the women who lived in hotels, and the pose with which they participated in hotel life, were a perpetual source of interest to observers from overseas. There was always a large "ladies' parlor" with a piano on which the ladies played and sang "with the same self-possession amidst crowds of visitors as they were in their own sanctuaries at home," but the ladies by no means limited themselves to their special parlor. They even had the temerity to enter the lobby.

The New York Tribune in 1885 sent out an Inquiring Reporter to find out how many women guests were registered at the city's four largest hotels. Out of the first one hundred guests at each hotel he found an average of only eleven women. The Tribune added that no woman traveling alone could find accommodations in any hotel unless she had an introduction or credentials and other evidence of her responsibility.

Toward the end of the century this discrimination against the lone women traveler had still not died out. An 1898 guide book said:

A lady, unescorted, may sometimes be refused admission to a hotel by a plea of lack of rooms or some evasion of that kind. It is well, therefore, for the "lone women," especially if young, to write or telegraph in advance; or, better yet, to take a note of introduction. In case a lady finds herself unexpected alone and unacquainted in the city, and compelled to go to a hotel for the night, let her do so without hesitation, however, since the great probability is that she will meet with no more obstacle than if her father or her husband were with her.

In most hotels, women and men ate in separate dining rooms for decades. Every first-class hotel had its "gentlemen's ordinary" and its "ladies' ordinary", (defined as restaurants which provided meals at fixed prices) at least until the latter part of the nineteenth century. But hotelkeepers still kept the bars up against unaccompanied women in certain dining rooms. Militant suffragettes protested and took the matter to court. In July 1907, the Hoffman House in New York refused to serve dinner to Mrs. Harriot Blatch, a noted suffragette who entered the roof-garden unescorted after six o'clock in the evening. Mrs. Blatch, daughter of the well-known Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Henry B. Stanton, filed suit against the hotel, but the jury decided that a hotel had the right to bar unescorted women diners provided it offered to serve them in another room. Nevertheless, as the number of women guests increased at the beginning of the 20th century, astute hotelkeepers spruced up their hotels to attract more of them. The Cincinnati Enquirerreported in 1884:

It is amusing to note the different dodges employed by the managers of the great city caravansaries to please their women guests. At the most exclusive hotels in Boston it takes the shape of beautiful flowers in vases and jars scattered about the rooms, and the latest numbers of the latest magazines ready to the hand. At a New York hotel, facing Madison Square, at lunch, when the dossier is brought on, a plate of choice confections is placed before you, and while making use of a finger bowl, the deft-handed waiter whips out a sheet of fresh white paper, twists it with a turn of his hand into a cornucopia, empties the bon-bons into it, and presents it with Oriental obeisance for upstairs consumption.

There is really cleverness in this, for it has put a stop without vulgar remonstrance to the practice of women carting off to their rooms plates loaded with fruit, cakes and candy to nibble between meals. In another hotel on Madison Square, when a lady is seated in the dining room, the waiter has ready for her feet a dainty tapestry-covered hassock. No one but a short woman, who has spent a portion of her life sitting on the edge of chairs dangling her feet in the air, can fully appreciate this comfort.

By 1920, the Martha Washington Hotel Company, controlled by William and Julius Manger, leased the hotel from the Northern Hotel Company for seven years. The hotel was known throughout the country as a hostelry operated exclusively for women.

At that time, Manger Hotels operated the following hotels in New York:

  • Wolcott Hotel, 4 West 31st Street
  • Hotel Times Square, 255 W. 43rd Street
  • Hermitage Hotel, 42nd Street and 7th Avenue
  • Cumberland Hotel, Broadway and 54th Street
  • Endicott Hotel, 81st Street and Columbus Avenue
  • Navarre Hotel, 38th Street, and 7th Avenue
  • Grand Hotel, Broadway and 31st Street
  • York Hotel, 36th Street and 7th Avenue

It promised: "The policy of the Manger Hotels is to give the guest comfortable accommodations with the utmost in service and hospitality at the minimum rates."

At least three other large women-only hotels were built in New York City:

  • Allerton Hotel for Women: 130 East 57th Street; opened in 1923 with 400 rooms; architect; Arthur Loomis Harris
  • Barbizon Hotel for Women: 140 East 63rd Street; opened in 1927 with 23 floors; architect: Palmer H. Ogden and Everett F. Murgatroyd
  • Webster Apartments: 419 West 34th Street; opened in 1916 with 373 rooms.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Martha Washington became an SRO (single room occupancy) and deteriorated physically. In 1999, Kevin P. Maloney and his partner Ziel Feldman, principals in Manhattan-based Property Markets Group (PMG) paid $18 million to buy it from Bernard Sillens, a long term owner-operator of SRO hotels. Three-quarters of its 423 rooms, most of which had no bathrooms, were vacant at the time. The Property Markets Group, converted part of the hotel to the Hotel Thirty Thirty, while negotiating with the remaining 120 SRO tenants. PMG estimated in 2000 that the total cost of its conversion effort was $49 million.

*Excerpted from my book "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York"

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