By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Although it opened on March 1, 1904, the Wolcott remains one of New York City's best-kept hotel bargain secrets. Centrally located on 31st Street, just 3 blocks down Fifth Avenue from the Empire State Building, the Wolcott was designed by one of the most famous architects in the United States, architect John H. Duncan (1855-1929). He came to prominence in the early 1890s when he designed the Ulysses S. Grant's Tomb and townhouses for some of New York's richest families: Otto H. Kahn, Arthur Lehman, the Goelets and Strausses.
Duncan also designed one of the greatest public monuments in any American city at the turn of the last century: the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, a memorial to the Union forces in the Civil War. The arch is topped with a traditional bronze quadriga, a horse-drawn chariot with a triumphal female figure, flanked by two winged victories. On two lower pedestals stand the sculptures "Army" and "Navy". The monument is often referred to as Brooklyn's version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was designated a landmark on October 16, 1973.
The Wolcott Hotel was built by a relative outsider, William C. Dewey who was a native of Springfield, Massachusetts. It was reported that, as president of a carpet company, he
was arrested in 1890 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. Nevertheless, he was able to enter the real estate and hotel development business, which ultimately resulted in the construction of the Wolcott Hotel. After a delayed opening, Dewey leased the hotel to Colonel James H. Breslin (Gilsey House, Manhattan; Brighton Beach Hotel, Brooklyn; Auditorium Hotel, Chicago). By 1905, the American Mortgage Company took back the building and Dewey retired in obscurity. James Breslin's lease was undisturbed and he moved into the hotel when it opened.
Architect John Duncan's bold Beaux-Arts style was evident in his designs for the Wolcott. The Architects' and Builders' Magazine (September 1903) took note of the hotel's "elaborately sculptured (exterior) decoration" and reproduced detailed drawings for ceiling design, window treatment, the neo-Greek vestibule and Louis XVI-style restaurant. Unlike many 100 year-old hotels, the Wolcott's interiors are remarkably intact: mosaic floors, crown moldings, stained glass and ornamental iron.
The Wolcott Hotel brochure at its opening wrote in the sometimes quaint and archaic language of hotel promotion in 1904:
The Wolcott is in no one particular an hotel of extremes.
New-it isn't quite the biggest. Centrally located, but not quite in the center. High prices-enough-far from the highest prices. Well Served, but not over served. Well filled with guests, who come again and again-not overcrowded.
The brochure went on to describe the location, the "house" and restaurant:
The Wolcott is on the South side of West 31st Street, just a step from Fifth Avenue, -near enough to Broadway, but not too near. Midway between the Twenty-third Street shopping district and the Fortieth Street. Within ten minutes easy walk to all the best theaters and the opera house (three or four minutes in a taxi). Directly between the Subway on Fourth Avenue and the Elevated Railway on Sixth. Seven minutes from the Grand Central Station, scarcely more to the 23rd Street Ferries, the Tubes of Lackawanna and Erie. Nearer still to the new Pennsylvania Station. West 31st Street is a quiet street. No crosstown traffic passes through it. Instantly accessible to the day time and night time activity, the Wolcott is far from the roar and turmoil of the city....
There is a bathroom with every suite and with almost every room. Bathrooms, like the bedroom, are open to the free air and sunlight. There are two courts, each bigger than two city lots, broad, brilliant, airy. The rooms are big enough, but not too big. Comfortable, not barny. Most of the windows run from the ceiling to the floor. Plenty of closet room, doors with mirrors that run the full length. Lights comfortably placed by the dressing case, and bed-side tables, as well as in the ceiling.
The pristine sources of food, its preparation and presentation:
The restaurant of the Wolcott is supplied daily with every possible delicacy. Oysters from Cape Cod, full of the salt flavor of the sea. Little chickens that come unplucked from the Jersey farms. Everything at its very best to begin with cooked most simply- beautifully served, piping straight from the ranges with no "by your leave" to the steam box. Coffee that is a delight in colour and savour as well as to the taste.
Rolls that are crisp with delicate country butter, milk and eggs from the very nearby country. Music that accompanies, but does not annoy. While there is no table d' hote, the chef at the Wolcott will be glad to arrange special dinner, for one or more covers, ranging in price from $1.50 per plate, upward. These dinners must be ordered in advance so that a satisfactory menu may be submitted. The Colonial Private Dining Room is just the place for charming luncheons, dinner, or bridge parties.
And the levels of service, cleanliness and pricing:
A valet always at hand to brush your clothes and press them. A ladies' maid deft in the hooking up of delicate gowns. If you like, your trunk will be unpacked when you come, and packed again when you go, with all the care that your servants might give it, and with the skill of more than your own servants' experience. And clean- oh! but the Wolcott is clean. Never a carpet, or rug or piece of upholstery touched by a broom. Every particle of dust drawn by a powerful suction cleaner every day.
You may rub a fresh pocket handkerchief on any piece of woodwork, even on the tops of the simply framed inviting pictures, that do not over-decorate the wall, and never a smudge will show....
A room and a bath at the Wolcott ranges from $3.00 upwards per day. A drawing-room, bedroom and bath from $8.00 up. Maids' room $2.00, Maids' board $1.50 and excellent board it is. Special terms will be given to those who make long stays. The Wolcott is glad for permanent guests. In the restaurant the prices are about the same as in any other good restaurant. As low as they can be to provide the very best of everything, but there are no "extras". Your "check" is always a little less than you expect.
The brochure ends with this charming statement of the Wolcott's philosophy of guest service:
The management treats every guest as a guest. Your comfort is the first consideration. You may telegraph from rooms at our expense. Mention of your train bring a uniformed porter to meet you. He will take charge of your trunks and see that they reach the hotel promptly.
If you have not reserved rooms, bring your luggage checks to the hotel with you. Our porter will then take them in hand, and your trunks will be brought to you more quickly than if they were turned over to the Transportation Company for delivery. There is never any possibility of dispute, because whatever you say is right.
Many conveniences have been provided that will not be found in most hotels. The valet and maid have supplies of the little toilet articles, some one of which is apt to be forgotten: hairpin- a tooth-brush- or a welcome knot of fresh chiffon; a bath-robe or a night dress- spick and span in a sealed envelope. An umbrella for a rainy day. Fresh brushes and combs- indeed everything, that the difficulties of one guest suggest, has been provided, against the possibility of a like difficulty again. A telephone in every room that carries your instruction to the office and connects with every other telephone everywhere.
The 1915 census listed the employees who lived-in at the Wolcott: two cooks, eleven maids, two glass maids, a pantry girl, head cleaner and eleven cleaning women. The Corning Glassware Company used the Wolcott Hotel's kitchen in 1908 to test its new ovenware. It turns out that Corning salesman William Thompson's father-in-law was the Wolcott's general manager at that time.
Surprisingly, not much has changed on the street floor in the past 110 years. An original plan shows the lobby in its present location with the office on the right side and the lobby extending to the rear under a musician's gallery (which still survives) into the restaurant 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. The Louis XVI-style lobby had tall French mirrors, mahogany chairs upholstered in green velvet with the hotel's crest embroidered in gold. The Palm Room's ceiling has stained glass over a trellis of vines "giving the effect of being open to the sky." The Wall Street Journal reported (January 16, 2014) that the Wolcott Hotel ballroom is to be restored to its former glory.
Architectural historian Christopher Gray in his Streetscapes column in the New York Times (December 1993) wrote about the Wolcott:
Architects' and Builders' Magazine, in an extensive article about the Wolcott published in September 1903, described in the exterior as "Modern French", noted the hotel's "elaborately sculptured decoration". The Wolcott boasted its own laundry, power plant, ice making machines and telephone systems.
The interior designs of most hotels of this 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....
Duncan worked in a big, bold style, favoring super-scaled Beaux-Arts type ornament to produce 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 March 15, 2004, Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York, issued the following Proclamation which recognized the Wolcott on its 100th birthday:
Whereas: On March 1, 1904 when lower Midtown was at the pinnacle of elegance and culture, the Hotel Wolcott opened on 31st Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. It was and has remained a reflection of the grandeur of old New York with its marble staircase, leaded chandeliers and ornate molding providing a haven from today's fast-paced world. Today we celebrate the anniversary of this historic building which for 100 years has offered comfortable accommodations in an atmosphere reminiscent of a time when messages were sent by telegram and travelers packed trunks instead of suitcases.
Whereas: Rooms may have increased in price from the 1904 rate of $3 a day, but the Hotel Wolcott still prides itself on providing luxury at an affordable cost making it possible for everyone from college students to business people to get a taste of turn-of-the-century life. Designed by John H. Duncan, its architecture is bold and elaborate making it clear that it is not merely a place to sleep after a day in the city, but an attraction in its own right. Its interior brings together elements of various cultures: French mirrors coexist with Portuguese tiles and a neo-Greek vestibule, in a spirit befitting a quintessential New York hotel.
Whereas: Sitting in the Hotel Wolcott, we feel that we have not only put aside our everyday lives, but also that we have slipped out of our time amid such vestiges as the original ballroom and the musician's gallery. It is not hard to imagine guests from the hotel's past, such as Edith Wharton or Buddy Holly stepping into the lobby. And once we walk outside, making our way to the Empire State building on Rockefeller Center or Grand Central Station, we realize that the grandeur of the Hotel Wolcott still befits the New York of today.
Now therefore, I, Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York, in recognition of the contributions of the Hotel Wolcott to preserving the essence of old New York, do hereby proclaim March 1st, 2004 in the city of New York as: "Hotel Wolcott Day"
On December 20, 2011 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Hotel Wolcott as a Landmark because of its "special character and special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City."
*excerpted from my book "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York", AuthorHouse, 2011.
"In the mind of some venerable ladies and gentlemen, the sale of the Plaza Hotel in New York several years ago could only be associated with the fall of the Bastille, the decapitation of Charles the First, and the fourth inaugural of Roosevelt. It was regarded as a disaster comparable with the San Francisco earthquake or the Johnstown flood."
"The Man Who Bought The Waldorf: The Life of Conrad N. Hilton"
My new book, "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi" is available now. It is a paperback which tells the stories of 86 historic hotels (50 rooms or more) and each is illustrated with an antique postcard. It has a foreword, preface, introduction, bibliography and index. It has been accepted by the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute for promotion, distribution and sale.
"Stanley Turkel is one of the best writers I know at capturing our history the "old" and infusing it with new life and relevance. In his two previous books on classic American hotels and the legends of the hotel business, Stanley brought to vivid life many characters and places that contributed to the greatness of the lodging industry. Now, in this latest book, he adds a wonderful chapter to the rich history we share."
Joseph A. McInerney, CHA
American Hotel & Lodging Association
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