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The Grand Hotel, Gilsey House, and the Evolution of Broadway

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

The stretch of Broadway between Madison and Herald Squares boasts numerous noteworthy buildings. Many are covered in scaffolding and inexpensive signage and are in desperate need of a thorough restoration these days. But if you look past these distractions, the structures are monuments to the neighborhood's former glory. Prior to the Civil War, when most stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters and entertainment venues were located below Houston Street, Madison Square was developed as a pristine and upscale residential enclave. However, as a result of the energized economy after the Civil War, many of these downtown attractions expanded northward towards Madison Square, creating a lively and fashionable destination for the city's elite. In particular, opulent hotels opened along Fifth Avenue and Broadway, competing with one another in elegance. Although many of these architectural treasures have been lost, the Grand Hotel and Gilsey House remain.

The Grand Hotel, located at 1232-1238 Broadway on the corner of West 31st Street, was commissioned by Elias S. Higgins, an important manufacturer and carpet vendor, and built in 1868 by architect Henry Engelbert. It was one in a series of collaborations: Higgins hired Engelbert to design all of his projects from 1867-1869, including a marble-fronted warehouse on White Street and the Grand Central Hotel (later the Broadway Central Hotel) at 673 Broadway, north of Bond Street. The designs for the Grand Hotel were as grandiose as its name suggests.

Built in the French Second Empire style, the hotel featured an impressive mansard roof with a heavy bracketed cornice, ornate pavilions and series of quoins vertically arranged between the bays of the facade, adding verticality to the building. Engelbert used the hotel's prominent corner site as a design element by creating a one-bay chamfer that accentuated the mansard roof. And as the Broadway location offered a steady flow of foot traffic, the Broadway facade of the hotel originally had broad plate-glass windows; the West 31st Street side did not.

Two blocks south at 1200 Broadway stands another stunning French Second Empire structure, Gilsey House, which is one of the city's most substantial cast-iron buildings. The hotel was designed by Stephen Decatur Hatch for Peter Gilsey, a merchant and city alderman who emigrated from Denmark in 1837. Constructed from 1869 to 1871 at the cost of $350,000, the hotel's most stunning feature was its glistening white cast-iron exterior and the slate mansard roof produced by Architectural Iron Works, the firm of architectural iron construction pioneer Daniel Badger. This was Hatch's first cast-iron building, for all of his previous commissions were private brownstones in Murray Hill and in the West 40s along Fifth Avenue. And it would be his design for Gilsey House that would launch his reputation as an architect of important commercial structures.

But the design was actually influenced by Hatch's need to think within limits?the site was protected under an 1848 restrictive covenant, a clause in a deed or lease that limits changes to the property. In this case, the restrictive covenant applied to the lots facing West 29th Street, which mandated an eight foot setback According to the NYC Landmarks Designation Report (Warning: PDF!), Hatch solved this problem by slicing the corner in the center of the West 29th Street frontage and Broadway at an angle, creating two single-bay chamfers which he designed to resemble pavilions. These two chamfers, each of which included an entrance to the hotel lobby, were designed with Palladian-style windows and flanked by free-standing Ionic columns. Although the entire building is adorned with fanciful ornamentation, the three-story slate mansard roof, which includes a clock supported by two mermaids, is one of the building's most prized features.

Gilsey House fast became one of the area's most popular hotels, no surprise given the innovation and beauty of its construction. The hotel, which opened in 1872, boasted 300 rooms made of costly woods such as rosewood and walnut, fireplaces made of the finest marble, and plastered ceilings from which gilt bronze chandeliers were suspended. The hotel was the first in the city to offer telephone service to its guests, some of whom included Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Diamond Jim Brady, one of the Gilded Age's more prominent businessmen and philanthropists. Gilsey House, like its neighbor to the north, was a classic example of the French Second Empire style inspired by Napoleon III's redesign of Paris. Gilsey's mansard roof was clearly inspired by Napoleon's celebrated New Louvre, described as "the symbol, par excellence, of cosmopolitan modernity." As this was an attribute to which New York architects aspired, it makes perfect sense that both the Gilsey and the Grand shared visual similarities with this Parisian icon.

The hotels were not the only defining feature of Madison Square. Along the same stretch of Broadway where these hotels stood, there were six theaters, including Daly's, Weber and Field's, and Wallack's Thirtieth Street Theatre, all featuring the finest musical variety productions of the day. In fact, this became the area of choice for music publishers to establish their offices, leading to the moniker "Tin Pan Alley" to describe the sound of "clashing tin pans" emanating from the pianos on any given day. However, the entire area did not share this benign reputation. The blocks west of Sixth Avenue hosted "posh brothels and swank gambling clubs" that appealed to theater goers and hotel guests. In particular, West 27th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues once contained 27 of these establishments.

As is common with a district of this nature, municipal corruption plagued the area. The area, previously referred to as "Satan's Circus," soon became known as the Tenderloin. The name came from something New York Police Department Inspector Alexander "Clubber" Williams said about bribes after being appointed to the West 30th Street precinct: "I've had nothing but chuck steak for a long time and now I'm going to get a little of the tenderloin." The Tenderloin, the main street of which ran along Broadway, was considered one of the most crime-ridden and notorious areas in the city. Although there were various attempts to clean up the district at the behest of reformist mayors, they were mostly futile because the guilty parties would return once the raids were complete. According to Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, the authors of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, these raids drove up the cost of protection from the police, principally Inspector Williams, who was responsible for putting great sums of money into the pockets of Tammany Hall.

Just as this lively theater and hotel district relocated to Madison Square after the Civil War, the pattern repeated itself at the turn of the twentieth century, when the theater district moved further uptown to its present location, West 42nd Street. The other ancillary uses that the district fostered–the brothels, gambling centers and dance halls–soon followed. The hotels were not immune to these changes and, as a result, were closed and sometimes partially dismantled. The Grand Hotel became a second rate residency hotel. Unfortunately, its inviting plate glass shop windows disappeared as the entire ground floor was segmented into leasable storefronts in 1957 and a negligent owner painted over the marble façade, in clear violation of NYC Landmarks Law. Today these wholesale stores, all of which are covered in scaffolding, sell low-end watches, jewelry and perfume–a far cry from the Grand Hotel's original purpose.

Gilsey House suffered a similar fate. The hotel closed in 1911 after a seven-year legal conflict over the terms of the lease between the operator of the hotel, the Seaboard Hotel Company, and the Gilsey estate. The building underwent senseless physical alterations, including the removal of some cast-iron columns as well as physical deterioration due to rust, water damage, and sagging floors. Although there were plans in 1925 to rebuild the structure as a loft comprised of brick and stone, these plans never came to fruition. Instead, the ground-level storefronts were modernized in 1946 to attract tenants. The building finally experienced a resurgence in 1980, when it was purchased by Richard Berry and F. Anthony Zunino and converted into forty co-operative apartment units. The new owners commissioned a comprehensive cleaning of the cast-iron exterior that later won a commendation from the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture. The façade was almost fully restored in 1992, completing the exterior renovation. The interior will never be the same--but the luxury apartments now filling the space are perhaps the closest modern equivalent.
?Lisa Santoro

Further Reading:
·D.D. Badger & Co. [waltergrutchfield.net]
· The Gilsey House [Dayton in Manhattan]
· LPC Report: Grand Hotel [neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org]
· LPC Report: Gilsey House [neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org]
· NoMad Then [experiencenomad.com]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]