By Stanley Turkel, CMHS, ISHC
In 1904, Colonel John Jacob Astor broke ground for the building of the St. Regis Hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, in the most exclusive residential section of New York at the time.
While the hotel was under construction, Astor was unable to come up with a name for his new hotel. During Astor’s visit with his brother-in-law on a beautiful lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Astor’s niece offered a solution: “Uncle Jack, why don’t you call it after this lake- Hotel St. Regis?” After doing some research on the name, he found that the lake was named after a 17th century French monk named Francis Regis who was given sainthood in the 18th century and was known for his hospitality to travelers. So, Astor thought, what better name for his new hotel: the St. Regis.
The architects were Trowbridge and Livingston who were based in New York. The firm’s partners were Samuel Beck Parkman Trowbridge (1862-1925) and Goodhue Livingston (1867-1951). Trowbridge studied at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. On his graduation in 1883, he attended Columbia University and later studied abroad in the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. On his return to New York, he worked for the architect George B. Post. Goodhue Livingston, from a distinguished family in colonial New York, received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia University. The firm designed several notable public and commercial buildings in New York City. Besides the St. Regis Hotel, the most famous were the former B. Altman department store (1905) at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, the Bankers Trust Company Building (1912) at 14 Wall Street and the J.P. Morgan Building (1913) across the street.
In 1905, the St. Regis was the tallest hotel in New York, standing at 19 stories high. The price of a room was $5.00 per day. When the hotel opened, the press described the St. Regis as “the most richly furnished and opulent hotel in the world.”
The construction cost over $5.5 million dollars, an unheard-of sum at the time. Astor spared no expense in the furnishings: marble floors and hallways from the quarries of Caen, Louis XV furniture from France, Waterford crystal chandeliers, antique tapestries and oriental rugs, a library full of 3,000 leather-bound, gold-tooled books. He had installed two beautiful burnished bronze entrance doors, rare wood paneling, great marble fireplaces, ornamental ceilings and a telephone in every room, which was unusual at the time.
When the St. Regis Hotel opened in 1905, General Manager Rudolf M. Haan produced an elaborate 48-page hardcover promotional book (7″x9″) with 44 photographic illustrations and lavish prose:
The St. Regis Hotel
In writing of the St. Regis Hotel it is necessary to remember that we are dealing not with a type of ordinary hotel, but with the solution of a social problem forced on us by the conditions of the present day. Time was when the hotel implied a mere shelter for the traveler; in these days, however, it must also reckon with the people with good homes, who frequently find it convenient to close their houses for a week or a few months; people to whom the thought of dispensing with home comforts, good service and cuisine, and the atmosphere of taste and refinement has ever been a hardship. To cater specifically to this class of Americans at reasonable terms, without neglecting the guest of the single night or week, nor even the most casual diner-out, was the idea of Mr. Haan, the president and the guiding spirit of the company….
The St. Regis Hotel book goes on to say:
To the department of cleanliness and safety belong also two features, which in the St. Regis are exploited for the first time to their full extent,? the arrangement for pure air and the disposition of dust and refuse. There is installed a system of forced ventilation combined with indirect radiation which give throughout the building a supply of pure, fresh air, warmed or cooled as the weather may require. On every four or five stories chambers have been provided wherein the outer air enters, is filtered through cheese-cloth filters, warmed by passing over steam coils, and then circulated by electric motor through ducts to the various rooms. The outlets in the rooms are concealed in unobtrusive gratings in the walls or in the ornamental bronze work that plays a large part in the decorations. The guest may regulate the temperature in his room by means of an automatic thermostat. A continual circulation of air is maintained throughout the building, night and day: there are no drafts, no atmospheric chills to fear; in point of fact the guest need never open his window to be supplied with an abundant quantity of pure air. This system is a great advance over the old-time coils that are noisy and ugly and somewhat uncertain in the amount of heat supplied. The impure air is effectively discharged by exhaust fans.
The device for sweeping is a pneumatic arrangement (Kenney Vacuum Sweeping System). Instead of operating a sweeper or broom, and later dusting with a cloth, which procedure to a large extent merely circulates the dust without removing it, the maid at the St. Regis attaches a small flexible pipe to an outlet found in every room or hall, connecting with a system of pipes leading to vacuum pumps. When she applies the nozzle of the pipe to furniture or wall, the dust and impurities are sucked down to the basement where they are properly disposed of.
Christopher Gray, in his Streetscapes column (New York Times, May 29, 2005) describes the manager’s concern for the reputation of the St. Regis:
Indeed, the hotel’s manager, Rudolph Haan, considers its elite reputation a sore point and complained to the Times in October about foolish stories that chambermaids carried room keys on strings of pearls. Such tales, Haan said, “were frightening away millionaires.”
The all-important back-of-the-house was recognized and described in the St. Regis Hotel book:
All these arrangements for heat, light, filters, etc., necessarily require a most elaborate organization, an insight into which will give the fact that the chief engineer of the St. Regis has a staff of thirty-six men under him. Below the earth’s surface are two stories devoted to the maze of engines, boilers, dynamos, ice machines, etc., that are necessary to the operation of a hotel, and to the storage of the great stocks of food and wine.
Decidedly to the utilitarian features of a hotel belong the kitchen and wine cellar, for, without proper facilities, the best of chefs is helpless, particularly at serving hour, where the demands of hundreds of people must be attended to simultaneously and with particular attention to each guest. Appreciating the importance, for the St. Regis’ motto is “The kitchen is the soul of the hotel; if the kitchen is wrong all is wrong….” There is a special place for every phase of the work; the fish cook, the soup cook, the roast cook, the pastry cook, each has his headquarters, and, generally speaking, the St. Regis kitchen has no duplicate in the world. “Fine workmen,” says Mr. Haan, “must have fine tools.” Each floor of the hotel contains a service pantry, equipped with dumb-waiters, and everything necessary to keep the food hot while serving dinner in a guest’s room, if so be his pleasure, the order having been shot to the kitchen by a pneumatic tube with which every pantry is provided. Since the St. Regis makes a feature of catering also to permanent guests who will wish to entertain their friends at dinner; this is a great advantage.
After divorcing his wife with whom he had two children, Colonel Astor shocked New York society by marrying a 19-year old woman, Madeline. They left New York for a honeymoon in Europe. Unfortunately, their return trip was on the doomed Titanic in which he gave up his seat on a lifeboat for his young wife. He was last seen alive trying to free his dog from the ship’s kennels. At age 48, Colonel John Jacob Astor met his tragic death. His son Vincent later sold the hotel to Benjamin N. Duke, who built a two-floor addition and created the famous St. Regis roof and the Salle Cathay with its Chinese décor. Both spaces hosted some of the most celebrated and prestigious parties.
The “Old King Cole” mural for which Maxfield Parrish was paid $50,000 was commissioned originally in 1902 for the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street and Broadway. It was brought to the Racquet and Tennis club during Prohibition. After repeal, it went to the St. Regis where, in 1934, it looked down upon the birth of Bloody Mary, originally called the “red snapper cocktail”. In 1906, Maxim Gorky, the Russian author during a visit to New York, toured the St. Regis. He later told the New York Times that “neither the Grand Dukes, nor even the Czar, have anything like this”.
Christopher Gray reported in his 2005 Streetscapes column:
The 1910 census records that the resident families included those of the piano maker Frederick Steinway and the mining heir Daniel Guggenheim. Most had moved from town houses in midtown and lived with one or two servants. Their previous residences would have required a household staff of four or more…. In 1925, the St. Regis installed stores along its Fifth Avenue front, and in 1927, Sloan & Robertson designed an addition to 55th Street that closely matches the style of the 1904 building. By the 1950s, the St. Regis had become a transient hotel.
Vincent Astor assumed ownership in 1935 through a mortgage default and – with the help of his brother-in-law, Prince Serge Obolensky and interior designer Mrs. Anne Tiffany – created the Maisonette Russe which became one of the most popular supper-nightclubs in New York.
After World War II, the St. Regis underwent a series of other owners until the ITT Sheraton Corporation of America acquired it in 1966. At this time, there were four restaurants in the hotel: The King Cole Grille, The Oak Room, La Boite Russa, and the St. Regis Room. For a late dinner and dancing, there was the exciting supper-nightclub, the Maisonette, which had a great menu and featured entertainers like Count Basie, Woody Herman and Kay Ballard. It was a favorite for celebrities, statesmen and world figures. Some of the well-known guests were Alfred Hitchcock, Bing Crosby, Darryl Zanuck, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Ethel Merman, Dustin Hoffman, Tony Curtis, Vidal Sassoon, Tony Bennett and the Apollo 14 astronauts.
On February 3, 1975, the St. Regis hosted a black-tie supper dance for Mabel Mercer’s 75th birthday. Some of the performers were Margaret Whiting, Sylvia Syms, Julius Monk, Jimmy Daniels, and Bricktop. The guests included Frank Sinatra, Bobby Short, Peggy Lee, Blossom Dearie, Eileen Farrell, Leontyne Price and many others.
The hotel was declared a designated landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on November 1, 1988.
Perhaps there is no better description of the St. Regis Hotel than the one that appeared in Manager Haan’s 1905 hardcover promotional book:
In truth, however, taste consists in the faculty to seize the fitting relation of things, and it is in this respect that the St. Regis stands pre’minent. In the language addressed to the eye, the surroundings spell an invitation to the guest to make himself at home and be comfortable. The effect might be called eye music.
*excerpted from my book “Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York” AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2011.
“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men”
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 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
If you would like to receive an autographed copy, send a check for $24.00 ($19.95 plus $4.05 for postage and handling) to: Stanley Turkel, 147-03 Jewel Avenue, Flushing, N.Y. 11367
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