Up Goes The Waldorf Astoria Hotel
( Originally Published 1931 )
New York was a little amazed and greatly excited by the decision of the adventurous Astors to make their homes up in the Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth Streets block. Already society had been aroused by the erection of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, opposite the old Madison Square Garden.
Builders, architects and social leaders looked toward the Astor homes, the new fashionable Fifth Avenue Hotel, and pondered. The Astor houses, with their Nova Scotia freestone, sandstone, or brownstone, inspired an orgy—one hardly can think of it in less vivid terms—of brownstone fronts. The whole city was filled with them —you see them today. A brownstone house was the sign of wealth. Such houses began to line Thirty-fourth Street and eventually they stared at you all over town.
Other buildings began to move uptown to the new section. The Broadway Tabernacle, located for a long time in Worth Street, moved up to the corner across from the present McAlpin Hotel. Christ Church was erected just a block north of the Astor homes on part of the present B. Altman's department store site. The Fourth Presbyterian Church was built in Thirty-fourth Street across from the present Macy department store. The house of Dr. Townsend ("Sarsaparilla") was torn down by A. T. Stewart, the famous merchant, and in its place he put up his white marble home.
The district reached the height of its social prestige in 1877, when the University Club was established in a residence near by. The New York Club later took it over and later still gave it up when business approached.
Meanwhile a certain disturbing note for the residential area was to be found in the growth of the so-called "tenderloin" district in Broadway and Sixth Avenue, not far away. It was Inspector Alexander (Clubber) Williams of the Police Department who gave the district the name "tenderloin." It seems that when he was placed in charge he remarked he had eaten chuck steak long enough and now would be able to enjoy some tenderloin. Thirty-fourth Street, just beyond the Astor homes, was becoming alive with activity that had no relation to the social life. Actors, pugilists, and turfrnen, theatres, horse-car lines, all moved into the place. No longer did flag-men have to stand under the elevated structure and warn equestrians from near by town houses of the approach of a puffing steam-propelled elevated train. No indeed, the people in that district were becoming used to the new age.
In that street was Parker's, where Gentleman Jim Corbett, who knocked out John L. Sullivan, much to the dismay of the fight fans of the country, was the proprietor. The Standard Theatre stood on part of Gimbel's store site. Just around the corner was Koster & Bial's, pioneer of Herald Square. The Herald Square Theatre at Thirty-fifth Street came along, so did Harrigan's Theatre just east of the square in Thirty-fifth Street.
This new force in New York's social life was no more remarkable than the men who first conceived and planned it. They comprised a triumvirate of inspiration that was to affect all future hotel construction and management. Their names were Abner Bartlett, the right-hand man of William Waldorf Astor; George C. Boldt, the first directing genius of the hotel; and Henry J. Hardenbergh, the New York architect whose ideals of hotel construction were for a long time to dominate this city and, indirectly, all America.
Back of these three, of course, was the figure of Astor himself. He was something of an enigma in American life: a tall, striking, but reticent—one might almost have said bashful—sort of a man. Astor was one of the great aristocrats of his day. The death of his father, John Jacob Astor, had left him an extremely wealthy man. William Waldorf's holdings and extensive dealings in real estate in New York increased that wealth manyfold as the years went by.
It was when Astor decided to leave America for good —a decision that caused considerable discussion and debate among astonished individuals and newspapers—that plans for a new hotel on the site of his home were begun.
It would not be entirely true to say that Astor himself decided upon the hotel plan. For always hovering over his shoulder (or, at least, over his business thoughts and problems) was Abner Bartlett. You looked at Bartlett and saw an individual who had the look and the mood of a gentleman. It wasn't merely his immaculate and correct clothes, his trim beard that stuck out defiantly at the world, or the measured steps of the man that gave you this impression. It was the whole manner of Bartlett.
But there was something else that immediately forced itself upon your mind after talking with him even for a few minutes. That was the intuitive realization that you were face to face with an uncompromising common sense. This common sense was not the sort that is often confused with mere business sagacity or a hard, inflexible judgment. Ask anyone who knew Bartlett and he will tell you the latter was one of those remarkable persons who had as tremendous an imagination as he had hard common sense. These two things, you must admit, are not necessarily synonymous, yet in this man Bartlett they found a happy fraternity of expression.
It was Astor who thought of the hotel; it was Bartlett who dreamed of it. It was Astor who wondered if it would pay; it was Bartlett who was sure that it would. And when the two men were convinced that upper Fifth Avenue should have a hotel that would complement its fine homes, they looked about for the right man to guide the new institution's destinies. They found him. His name was Boldt.
Both Astor and Bartlett remembered Boldt as the genial director of the famous Hotel Bellevue, in Philadelphia, which in its day was probably America's most famous hostelry. They knew, too, Boldt's history-which, for the present, we will dispense with and consider in a later chapter.
Just let us take a hurried glance at Boldt. He was a man not much over 5 feet, 6 or 7 inches. He had a beard. He was quick, energetic—"dynamic" is not too extravagant a word to use in his case. He had a way of rasping out orders in one breath and saying a kindly word of praise in the next that perplexed when it didn't amaze you. But above all he understood the psychology of hotel management, which was his business, and had a valuable experimental attitude toward human nature, which was his hobby. For instance, he had no hesitancy in cashing a check for a guest who might be a complete stranger to him. He would even extend him credit. His idea was that men didn't go to the bad for a small check.
Just now we find three men, Astor, Bartlett, and Boldt, an excellent double-play combination (to invade baseball parlance) in hotel planning, waiting for an important fourth—an architect. The man selected for this job must be an unusual person and for several significant reasons.
There was something grand about the New York architecture of that day, and when you look at a few of the old homes and buildings that still stand you are apt to find in them the realization of Edmund Burke's ideal of "a melancholy kind of greatness" in certain types of architecture. But the Waldorf, as it was planned tentatively by Astor, Bartlett, and Boldt, was to be a big building, an enormous structure in comparison with all other hotels. Therefore it must needs have an architect who had a high sense of artistic, as well as structural, proportions. He must be able to adapt this new giant to old architectural traditions.
Architects today undoubtedly owe not a little to Henry J. Hardenberg, the man who was chosen to plan the Waldorf. It is doubtful that any of them, who have studied the man's achievements, will question the statement that Hardenbergh looked upon his work as an art as well as a profession. He was one who was quite willing to accept the credo of Horatio Greenough, the famous American sculptor of the middle nineteenth century, as the latter expressed it in a letter to Emerson. I quote only a part:
"Here is my theory of structure in architecture: a scientific arrangement of spaces and forms to functions and to site; an emphasis of features proportioned to their gradated importance in function; color and ornament to be decided and arranged and varied by strictly organic laws, having a distinct reason for each decision; the entire and immediate banishment of all makeshift and make-believe."
Happily for the Waldorf, Hardenbergh was not overcome by the fact that his was to be a prodigious task, not merely in art, but in plain structural massiveness. He realized that designs which are vast only by their dimensions are usually evidence of a lack of imagination and of a rather common concept. You look at some—fortunately not many—of our tall buildings today and you understand readily what that means. Then you can un derstand, too, the temptation that faced Hardenbergh. The mere size of this new establishment would have provided him with a sufficient excuse for an uninspiring plan of architecture—the reason being that mere size in those days was in itself an awesome thing.
Hardenbergh, however, went into this work heart and soul, realizing that his job involved all the powers of design and of sculpture and of painting; something that should be mighty and humble, sublime and human. It is not our part here to appraise the artistic or architectural merit of the old Waldorf. But it may be said that when it came upon the scene the very people who were pre-pared to shudder at this invasion of what they thought would be an architectural monstrosity, were charmed by its beauty and its quiet taste.
What now became a quartet—Astor, Bartlett, Boldt, and Hardenbergh—decided in one day, according to legend, almost exactly what they liked and wanted about the new hotel building. On November 7, 1890, plans were filed with the New York City Building Department. A short time later the William Waldorf Astors moved out of their famous old red-brick house and the wreckers began their work.
It was in the summer of 1891 that New Yorkers began to notice the steel framework of the structure rising far above the skyline. Construction was slow, and not until it was well under way did William Waldorf Astor leave the United States.
The story of his departure for England has no place in this book. From the time he went to that country (where he became a British subject, then was made a baron and later a Viscount) Astor never attempted to take active control of the Waldorf. Even on those rare occasions when he visited the United States he usually stayed at another hotel.
The one and only visit Viscount Astor ever made to the Waldorf-Astoria is well remembered by Oscar. His words will best serve to describe it here:
"I remember escorting Viscount Astor through the corridors of the hotel. He walked along, a tall man, a little bent, his hands behind his back, his head down, looking, I thought, neither to the right nor to the left. It seemed to me that not once did he look up—not once did he gaze at the frescoes, the murals, and all that his own wealth first inspired."