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The Birth of Times Square and the Rivalry of the Astor and Knickerbocker Hotels

The history of the development of the noted New York square seen through the rivalry of the hotels that created its character

Times Square in Manhattan, October 31, 2020. (Photo di Terry W. Sanders)

Part One

In New York circa 1870, Longacre Square a dusty intersection where Seventh Avenue meets Broadway at 42nd Street was then filled with horses, carriage-building industries, and more horses.

The Pabst Hotel

The area was an extension of the Tenderloin neighborhood that was also the “red-light” district of New York, where crime, sex and perversions were running high. It was also referred to as “Satan’s Circus” for all the brothels, saloons and bordellos which were ubiquitous.

 It was Gotham’s Sodom & Gomorrah.

But something was “brewing” in 1899, when Pabst, a Milwaukee brewing company, decided to expand into hospitality and restaurants and built the Pabst Hotel, an elegant nine-story edifice with a portico and a fancy restaurant on the south corner of Longacre Square and 42nd Street. It may not have been a coincidence that the hotel opened only a few blocks away from a building nicknamed “The Yellow Brick Brewery,” more for its industrial look than for being a brewery, since it was, in fact, the original Metropolitan Opera House of New York located on 39th and Broadway.

News vs. booze.

The Pabst Hotel was short lived. The New York Times mounted an insane and somehow trivial campaign against the hote,l calling for its portico to be removed, claiming it “invaded” the sidewalk.  There were probably alternative motives behind this campaign of harassment considering that later in 1902, The New York Times decided to move its offices from downtown “Newspaper Row” to 42nd street and “coincidentally,” it purchased the 3-year-old Pabst Hotel and demolished it to build, in its place, the new headquarters of The New York Times. It is also where in 1907 the tradition of the New Year’s ball drop started.

It was when the “Gray Lady” moved to the “Great White Way” that Longacre Square became Times Square.  

The Astor Hotel

The intuition of William Waldorf Astor suggested a rapidly changing Longacre Square which, in 1905, prompted him to invest in building the palatial Astor Hotel in this questionable area at 44th Street and Broadway. Meanwhile, his rival cousin John Jacob Astor, not satisfied with having just opened the opulent St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue in 1906, built the magnificent Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street and 7th Avenue to be a competitor of the Astor Hotel. And a few years later, in 1910, on 44th Street and Times Square, just opposite from the Astor Hotel, opened the Rector Hotel, later renamed the Claridge, which completed the transformation of the square.

Hotel Astor, the Orangerie

Times Square and” 42nd Street” went from “Les Misérables” to “Crazy…Days are Here Again.”

In a matter of no time with the opening of these elegant hotels, the flow of the rich and famous checking in at the Astor, the Knickerbocker, or the Claridge Hotel became a flood. Sophisticated crowds moved from the Metropolitan Opera House or from the endless series of new theaters along Broadway and 42nd street (like the Lyceum, the New Amsterdam, the Casino, the Winter Garden Theater) to the rooftops of these hotels to party and celebrate what was becoming the new epicenter of Gotham life, filled with glamour, fashion, music, art and politics: Times Square.

The Astor Hotel was built in two stages between 1905 and 1910 and quickly became the place for the elite of New York to meet. It was perceived as the successor of the old Waldorf Astoria on 34th Street and was a massive Beaux-Arts building that would take up the block between 44th and 45th Streets and Times Square. It was a game changer for hotels, with its scenographic interior that complemented the nearby ornate theaters. The Astor catered to large crowds with its vast ornate ballrooms and intricate theme rooms, such as the “Palm Garden” or the “Orangerie” with Chinese, Spanish and East Indian decorated halls.

The New York Times and Astor Claridges hotel

The New York Times, almost predicting the future mishmash of styles of today’s Times Square, described the Astor’s suites as being decorated in “Colonial, Art Nouveau, Empire, Francis, Marie Antoinette, Madame de Maintenon, Spanish, Dutch and German Renaissance, Florentine and Elizabethan styles.”  The most astonishing part of the building was, however, the incredible rooftop garden that took up the entire roof which had a seating capacity of 500 people and sweeping views of the Hudson River.

Sugar Coating the Knickerbocker.

Mirroring the Astor Hotel, the Knickerbocker Hotel had a similarly magnificent Beaux-Art style terracotta and limestone façade, topped with a copper mansard roof. The Knickerbocker had also absorbed the old St. Cloud Hotel with its beautiful Romanesque Revival façade that can still be seen from its 41st Street entrance. The Knickerbocker was advertised as a “Fifth Avenue hotel at Broadway prices.” Mr. Regan, who had previously managed the Pabst Hotel, had innovative ideas. He decided on having contemporary art instead of reproductions of old European paintings, hence the creation of Maxfield Parrish’s famous thirty-foot-long painted canvas: the “Old King Cole,” which was originally displayed at the Knickerbocker and later moved to the bar of the St. Regis Hotel, where it still can be admired today.  The Knickerbocker was built as 15-story hotel, with 556 rooms and an opulent lobby with marble columns and while it was smaller than the Astor Hotel, it had an enormous three-story-high 2,000 seat restaurant.

The Knickerbocker Hotel

The New York Times reported that one night after having dinner at the Knickerbocker hotel, impresario and owner of the Manhattan Opera House Oscar Hammerstein was sucker-punched several times in front of the hotel by two journalists who queried: “Mr. Hammerstein, are you going to apologize for that letter you wrote to the editor of the Press?” He did not apologize, but this was just part of the spiral of craziness and part of the entertainment of those days.

The Knickerbocker’s renowned pastry chef, Alexandre Gastaud, was famous for his bizarre and gigantic desserts, one of which was shaped as a colorful ocean liner and, during a bizarre Easter dinner event, he placed live chicks in sugar shell eggs he had created, so that they would hatch on the table during dinner to the awe of the patrons.

Dancing with the Stars.

Despite prima ballerina Anna Pavlova residing at the hotel, it was not on tiptoe but rather on a “high note” that the Knickerbocker Hotel made its stage debut. In fact, world famous tenor Enrico Caruso chose to live in one of its apartments and he was soon followed by Giacomo Puccini and baritone Antonio Scotti. Caruso made history in 1918 when he sang the Star-Spangled Banner from the roof of the Knickerbocker for a massive crowd but he apparently got the wrong day, so he had to repeat the performance three days later.

Drive Me to Drink.

Young entrepreneur Oliver Parker Fritchle was very eager to be at the Knickerbocker Hotel. In 1908, he built an electric car and drove 1,800 miles, leaving from Nebraska and ending his race a month later at the Knickerbocker Hotel. It was there that he likely celebrated his successful drive at the bar where, according to legend, bartender Martini di Arma di Tagg invented the self-named cocktail while serving John D. Rockefeller.  The bar which was modelled after the Château de Fontainebleau was known as being wild. It is where F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived at the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1919, wrote “Mr. Icky.” He used to get drunk with his wife Zelda and throw $20 and $50 dollar bills around just for fun.

The KnickerbockerHotel today.

Hang…Over the Hatchet.

The patrons of the Knickerbocker Bar were spared the anger of Caroline Amelia Nation also known as Carrie Nation, a radical member of the temperance movement who fought to introduce Prohibition. Her husband once joked that she should use a hatchet to inflict damage. She replied, “that is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you” and started storming bars with a hatchet to show the evil of alcohol. Fortunately, at the bar of the Knickerbocker, they managed to escort her out before she could cause any harm.

Lady Purity Hid Tammany Hall Impunity.

Winds of politics started blowing over the Knickerbocker when billionaire and politician William Randolph Hearst, creator of “yellow journalism,” and owner of the largest newspaper conglomerate in the country, launched his campaign for mayor of New York City. He hosted an enormous banquet at the hotel Knickerbocker although he later lost the election and fled to California. His story was the inspiration for Orson Welles’s movie, ”Citizen Kane.”

Strong winds became a tempest when Tammany hall, the famously corrupt political force that ruled over New York City from 1789 until the 1950s, chose the Knickerbocker Hotel for its political gatherings. In 1909 a mysterious gigantic statue made of white plaster suddenly appeared in Times Square. It was the work of the Italian sculptor Leo Lentelli and was called “Lady Purity.” She was supposed to embody the purity and beauty of New York. As soon as it became clear to puzzled New Yorkers that Tammany Hall was behind this project, however, anger took over and, a few weeks later, when Tammany Hall lost the election, “Lady Purity” lost its immunity and the statue was quickly obliterated. White plaster was scattered all over the square which, later might have given the gruesome idea to violinist Albert the Brahms to kill his wife while staying at the Knickerbocker hotel and to then seal her body in a crate filled with plaster.

Part 2 to continue on August 22, 2021.

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